Meryl Levitz profile

Meryl just may love you back

“I love Meryl Levitz,” says Ed Rendell – on the record. “No one has done more consistently for the city over the last 20 years than Meryl. She’s a tireless worker. When I was mayor and governor, I was happy to be able to give her some of the resources she needed to be incredibly effective. And she has been.”

Levitz is president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation (GPTMC), an agency celebrating its 15th anniversary.

GPTMC, the group that labeled Philadelphia “the place that loves you back,” is a private, non-profit organization that promotes leisure travel in the five-county area. Last year 37 million people came to visit.

“When visitors go anywhere,” says Levitz, “if they don’t sense that people like the place, they wonder why they’re there. Most of the people who come to our area are visiting friends or relatives. That means that locals essentially become travel agents and tour operators. They say, ‘Come for Johnny’s graduation, stay for Frisbee.’

“So it makes practical and economic sense to teach local people about what they’re promoting: the buildings, the Ballet and Bartram’s Gardens. When people know their treasures, they become better ambassadors,” says Levitz, who signs her billboards and her e-mails XOXO.

“It’s a boon for the region.”

She says that “Visitors don’t know or care what suburb they’re in. They don’t see county or township lines.” So it matters not whether the Barnes is in Montgomery or Philadelphia county – although she calls the museum’s future new Parkway site “drop-dead gorgeous.”

Ask the Chicago native for her three favorite images of Philadelphia, and she names the Swann Fountain, the East and West River Drives, the rock-bound tunnel on the East River Drive, the rebirth of Franklin Square, the Joan of Arc statue, the cloisters in the Art Museum, the garden at the Rodin Museum, Bartram’s Gardens. “Can you tell I’m a gardener?

“The Wharton Esherick [Museum in Tredyffrin Township, Chester County] is one of my all-time favorite places. I love to see things at off hours, like Independence Park in the evening or the zoo at 6 a.m. The Reading Terminal, where so much stuff is always going on.” Please stop, Meryl.

Levitz believes that food drives tourism – and love and loyalty – to a city. “People talked about music in New Orleans and then about the first piece of blackened fish,” she says. “Philadelphia has a miraculous food scene, a huge part of which was Neil Stein’s huge move to allow tables outside. When you see people eating outside – and window boxes and bike racks and students – everything seems European.” Which is a good thing.

“It’s easy to be Jewish in Philadelphia,” says Levitz, who is. “Because there are so many Jews here –because Philadelphia is one of the Jewish centers of the country – it’s easy to forget how few of us there are in the country and the world.”

She says that Jewish philanthropy has enhanced Philadelphia by building and sustaining museums, hospitals and universities. She points in particular to the Kimmel Center, National Constitution Center, Roberts Proton Center at Penn and National Museum of American Jewish History.

Last spring Levitz answered an e-mailed questionnaire for Philadelphia magazine. Asked to name the thing she would change about herself, she replied, “I would be more patient. Maybe.” Maybe? “I’m not sure that patience is a virtue,” says the usually sunny CEO. “We live in a city of tolerance. Can there be too much tolerance? I am not sure that people need to be universally patient. If I had been more patient, GPTMC wouldn’t have gotten very far.”

It certainly would never have landed a cameo on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. That coup resulted from Levitz’s gutsy promotion –with the blessings of the Philadelphia Gay Tourism Caucus, assorted businesses, Mayor Street and Governor Rendell – of downtown’s Gayborhood.

“We were the first destination on the planet to advertise on TV as gay friendly.” (If you’re over 21 and have a warped sense of humor, visit thedailyshow.com.)

Meryl Levitz wants Philadelphians to know that her agency is “a hype machine” and that Philadelphia is no longer a well-kept secret. She envisions a better city, including a lower poverty rate and a resolved public-school dilemma – a forward-thinking place that merits more coverage in National Geographic Traveler and that makes families want to stay.

Ten million more visitors came to the metro area in 2010 than when GPTMC started. “If you look at the hotel rates and see how well Philadelphia did compared to most cities after September 11, you know how well Meryl has done,” says Rendell. “She continues to do a great job selling our city as we become a high-end destination. She does it by her intelligence, her perception and her charm. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Meryl.”

Published in Jewish Exponent September 7, 2011