The executive responsible for orchestrating the annual Wawa Welcome America! celebration, a collection of Philadelphia's grandest and most popular July 4 events, has been chosen to lead the region's official travel marketing agency.
Jeff Guaracino, 45, will become president and CEO of Visit Philadelphia on Oct. 29.
"This is one of the top jobs in the tourism industry," said Guaracino, an Old City resident who grew up in South Philadelphia and South Jersey. "It's the job I've wanted for the past 20 years."
A search committee picked Guaracino from a field of 360 candidates following a national search, said Manny Stamatakis, chair of Visit Philadelphia's board of directors. The nonprofit agency, which has an annual budget of about $15 million, is funded by hotel taxes, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and foundations.
"We're going to miss [Visit Philadelphia founding president] Meryl Levitz, because she's a tourism genius, and filling her shoes will be difficult," Stamatakis said. "But Jeff is the right person. He understands the city and region, he demonstrated a great passion for this position, and he was the unanimous choice by the search committee."
Levitz will be retiring at the end of the year.
Guaracino is a tourism marketing veteran who spent 10 years with Visit Philadelphia earlier in his career.
He was part of the city's best known marketing campaigns, which included "Philly's More Fun When You Sleep Over" and "With Love, Philadelphia XOXO."
Guaracino, who has written a pair of travel books, also is credited with the groundbreaking campaign "Philadelphia — Get Your History Straight and Your Nightlife Gay."
"Visit Philadelphia is not afraid to take calculated risks, to really embrace what distinguishes the city," Guaracino said. That campaign "really moved the needle not only in the LGBTQ market, but in other demographics because it let people know that everyone is welcome in Philadelphia, no matter who they are."
Tourism last year generated $11.5 billion in economic impact for Greater Philadelphia, which attracted an estimated 43.3 million visitors, nearly 90 percent of them traveling here for leisure, according to Visit Philadelphia statistics.
Though the city controller's office in 2014 recommended combining Visit Philadelphia and the Greater Philadelphia Convention & Visitor's Bureau, the two marketing agencies "have had no discussions about merging at all," Stamatakis said. "They have two separate missions. There has to be some benefit to any merger that would make it worthwhile, and we came off our best year last year."
Guaracino left Visit Philadelphia in 2012 for Atlantic City's "DoAC" marketing effort. After a four-year struggle to rebuild tourism following Hurricane Sandy, Guaracino was recruited by Mayor Kenney to return to Philadelphia to "reposition" Welcome America Inc., where he forged new corporate relationships with NBCUniversal and Live Nation.
Stamatakis said Guaracino's Visit Philadelphia salary is still under negotiation. "We haven't finalized it, it's competitive, but not starting with as much money as Meryl is making," Stamatakis said. Levitz, who held the job for 22 years, was paid $427,257 in 2015, according the organization's 990 tax return.
What sites does the region's new top tourism official recommend to visitors?
"We are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so anyone who does visit should see the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. Those define us globally," Guaracino said. "I also love Longwood Gardens, strolling through New Hope, and shopping in King of Prussia. I love Old City, the Gayborhood and the sports stadiums. I'm not a big outdoors person, but I recommend a bike ride to Valley Forge through Fairmount Park. It's beautiful."