When Meryl Levitz first came to Philadelphia, the year was 1971 and the city had a lot of growing to do.
“It was nothing like the Philadelphia of today,” Levitz says. “No skyline, no place to eat, no image, very little self confidence — it looked like a city that hadn’t quite caught up with itself yet.”
Her husband had been recruited by the University of Pennsylvania to do research, and the opportunity brought both him and Levitz to Philadelphia from Chicago.
“I was a teacher at the time,” she says. “I taught for two years in Marple Newtown School District. I taught English to foreign students at the University of Pennsylvania and I taught teachers at what now is the University of the Arts which I enjoyed very much.”
Levitz’s passion for teaching led her to start a business with a colleague, instructing Center City businesses on how to set up shop.
“It led to the formation of Center City Proprietors,” she says. “I co-founded it with five other people in 1978 and we promoted Center City under the banner: ‘There’s no shopping center like shopping Center City.”’
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Whether she knew it or not at the time, Levitz was well on her way to making a huge impact on Philadelphia’s growth. Her involvement with Center City Proprietors opened a door at the Pennsylvania Convention & Visitor’s Bureau (PHLCVB), where she eventually became a staff member.
“In 1985 they asked me to join the staff for a newly created position, because they were a partner in a 1987 celebration called ‘We the People.’ They needed someone to dream up and run events,” she says. “I accepted the position, starting there in 1986.”
At that time, Ronald Reagan was president and called on cities to come up with ways to celebrate America. Levitz created an event called the Jambalaya Jam, which was a collaboration between New Orleans and Philadelphia.
“Believe it or not, the two cities have a lot in common,” she says. “It was one of my favorite things that I’ve done — a wonderful celebration with great music, food and crafts. It led to the opening of the Great Plaza at Penn’s Landing.”
When Ed Rendell became mayor, it was thought that the hospitality industry could be a replacement industry for lost jobs in the region.
“He hired a consultant to figure out how to do that,” Levitz says. “The consultant recommended to build a visitor’s center in the Historic District and create a marketing organization that strictly marketed the city — building up its image, giving it an identity and an advertising budget.”
Levitz headed up this new initiative, which was a three-year experiment at the time, but has evolved into what we now know as Visit Philadelphia.
“One of my favorite quotes is by Wayne Gretzky and he says, ‘You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, and I didn’t feel like missing that shot. I took the job and here we are 22 years later.”
Flash forward to today, and Philadelphia is hotter than ever as a destination for travelers. According to the Visit Philadelphia website, over 42 million domestic visitors came to Philadelphia in 2016 alone, generating $11 billion in economic impact for the city.
So what has Levitz learned over the years as President and CEO of Visit Philadelphia? She says the most important thing is having a great team.
“We take great care in hiring and sometimes people complain that it’s a drawn out process, but each one of our people here is a specialist,” she says. “I’m the generalist but everyone else here is a specialist.”
She also emphasizes the importance of never getting out of touch with your visitors.
“It’s easy to get all wrapped up in paperwork, but it’s extremely important to stay in touch with the visitor. Everybody has feedback and ideas so try to get as much of it as you can,” she says.
Finally, acknowledging that you can make a difference is vital.
“People always thought that New York and D.C. are our two rivals and that our location was unfortunate, being between two big powerhouses. We turned that upside down,” Levitz says. “We said, ‘Wait a minute, these can be big feeder markets for us. New York is our biggest feeder market, the Philadelphia tri-state area is second and D.C. is third. Look to your neighbors not as your enemies, but as your neighbors.”
By the end of 2018, Levitz will step down as President and CEO of Visit Philadelphia. When asked about what’s next for the city, she says the most important thing is keeping the collaborative spirit going.
“The Amazon bid, which was worked on by a wonderful collaborative of city, hospitality, businesses and agencies, pointed and continues to point at what’s next for Philly. It’s a wonderful thing to break down these silos and to say, ‘Wait a second. We’re all in the attraction business here. We all consider Philadelphia as a place to go to school, come and work, pursue a dream, visit, buy something or settle here. One of the next big things is seeing how we can keep up this collaborative approach. How can we all contribute to keep Philadelphia in its moment?”
Tonight, Levitz will be honored by the Arts + Business Council with the Anne d'Harnoncourt Award for Artistic Excellence, along with fellow nominees Joan Myers Brown of Philadanco! and Jane Golden of Mural Arts.
“First of all, I have no artistic talent whatsoever. But I guess I enable other people’s talent,” Levitz says of the award. “When I heard they were honoring women, I’m always supportive because part of our job was to help people catch up with having women around the table. How could I pass that up?”
Once she steps down from Visit Philadelphia at the end of the year, Levitz is looking forward to some much needed downtime.
“After 40 years of promoting Philadelphia and the countryside, I am looking forward to having a ‘to-don’t’ list rather than a ‘to-do’ list,” she says. “After I have mastered that, I will be in a better position to know what’s next.”
For more information on Meryl Levitz and Visit Philadelphia, visit: visitphilly.com.
If you go:
Arts + Business Council Awards Celebration
Wednesday, May 23
5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
300 S. Broad St.