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Visitors Welcome

by Denise Clay

The late comedian, and native Philadelphian, W.C. Fields once said about a contest: “First prize was a week in Philadelphia. Second prize was two weeks. Evidently, [the contest holders] had a low opinion of Philadelphia.”

That’s changed. A lot. Philadelphia has gained renown for a whole lot of things that weren’t necessarily the case years ago.

There’s a thriving restaurant scene where you might get the offerings of Iron Chefs (Jose Garces and Masaharu Morimoto), such things as the Barnes Foundation museum, which is playing host to the exhibit “Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change,” which is on display until May 9, and the Wawa Welcome America! Festival, beginning in late June, and the Budweiser Made in America Festival, which closes out the summer with a starstudded concert on Labor Day weekend.

“Twenty-five years ago, it was hard to find ‘Philadelphia’ and ‘fun’ in the same sentence,” says Meryl Levitz, president and CEO of Visit Philadelphia, the tourism and marketing arm for the five-county Philadelphia area. “Now, Philadelphia is known as a fun place to go.”

The Pacific Area Travel Writers just named Philadelphia the best destination for heritage and culture, citing such things as the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, the city’s historic district, which includes Independence Mall and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The website Lonely Planet agrees, as does Forbes magazine, Conde Nast Traveler and The New York Times.

It’s also the only city designated as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, specifically because it’s the home of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Plus, Pope Francis stopped by recently. There’s that.

Right now, tourism is one of the region’s top economic generators, Levitz says. The industry generates $28.6 million a day for the five-county Philadelphia area, which also includes Bucks, Chester, Montgomery and Delaware counties. Tourism generates $10.4 billion annually for the region, employs 92,000 people and generates $655 million in taxes that are spent on things like social services, schools and other local needs, she says.

According to the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, the organization that oversees the Philadelphia Convention Center, it has booked 856,663 room nights for future years, breaking 2014’s bookings by 1.2 percent. Conventions are expected to generate $1.1 billion in profits for the region.

In 2016, the list of conventions range from the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which is returning to its Philadelphia-area roots (the Church’s birthplace was the Mother Bethel AME Church, at 6th and Lombard Streets) to celebrate it’s 200th anniversary, the American Institute of Architects, and the Democratic National Convention, which is expected to generate close to $300 million in revenues all by itself.

In addition to conventions, tourism dollars are also generated by great shows like the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, which takes place from April 8 to April 23.

The 16-day, bi-yearly showcase of local, national and international art will feature several world premiere pieces and others that will be making their North American debuts at the festival, says Jay Wahl, artistic director for the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. When the festival was last held two years ago, about 350,000 people attended.

“The festival is in its infancy,” says Crystal Brewe, vice president of sales and marketing for the Kimmel Center. “We’re in one of the world’s top cities to travel to, so we’d like for PIFA to be one of the reasons you come here. What we’re programming makes it a tourist destination.”

This economic boom is the result of a partnership between the region’s tourism entities, local governments and nonprofit agencies that recognized that the region’s heyday as an industrial hub had come to an end.

“[Former Gov. and Philadelphia Mayor] Ed Rendell saw what cities were doing to reinvent themselves by revitalizing the hospitality and tourism industry to replace manufacturing jobs,” Levitz says. “It marked a change in the city’s attitude and transformed an under visited and underappreciated treasure.”

Targeted marketing has also helped, says Zachary Wilcha, executive director of the Independence Business Alliance, a business advocacy group that advocates for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered business community in the Philadelphia region.

For example, because the Philadelphia region has rolled out the red carpet for the LGBT community, the community has responded in kind, Wilcha explains.

“Philadelphia is seen as a gay-friendly city,” he says. “The Convention and Visitors Bureau does a good job of bringing in conventions like Out and Equal, the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and the Trans Health Conference. People come to places where they feel welcome.”

But while Philadelphia might be the centerpiece of regional tourism because of its historic district and other sites, it’s not solely responsible for the financial engine tourism has become in the region.

Near the Court and the Plaza at King of Prussia, one of the region’s shopping hubs, is the Valley Forge Casino Resort. In addition to providing space for gaming, conventions, fine dining and a concert spot in the newly reopened Valley Forge Music Fair, the casino/hotel shows people that the five-county region is more than just Philadelphia when it comes to tourism.

“The experience we offer appeals to a lot of people,” says Jennifer Galle, chief marketing officer at the Valley Forge Casino Resort. “It’s not the best kept secret anymore. So many people are exploring Montgomery County and finding out what the region has to offer.”

Regardless of whether visitors are coming here for leisure, conventions or plain entertainment, Philadelphia tourism promises to continue to make a positive impact on the local economy.

Published (and copyrighted) in Philly Biz, Volume 1, Issue 4 (March, 2016).
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