What do you do if you’re in charge of marketing a city destination and you lose most of your state funding?
If you’re Meryl Levitz, president and CEO of Visit Philadelphia — the official destination marketing organization for the city and five regional counties — you get creative.
Levitz, who has headed up Visit Philadelphia (known as the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation until November 2013) since the mid-1990s, told the travel site Skift.com that her biggest challenge was funding, with Pennsylvania state cutbacks resulting in a one-third cutback in her budgets for the past three years. State funding for Visit Philadelphia has dropped from $4 or $5 million a year to zero, though this year they’re getting a special $850,000 grant from the state to promote countryside towns in the area.
She notes that competing cities like New York, Washington, D.C., Boston, and Chicago as well as states like Virginia and Michigan “have seen the power of travel in boosting their own economies,” but Pennsylvania “doesn’t see it that way.” Among other things, the funding cuts have meant Philadelphia has had to drop virtually all of its TV advertising, which Levitz considers crucial for its mainstream visual appeal. (Contrast that to Michigan’s extensive and highly successful “Pure Michigan” TV ad campaign.)
Besides changing its name to the shorter, spiffier Visit Philadelphia, the organization has responded by adding alluring, irresistible new images and video to its website, visitphilly.com — which received 10 million visits in 2013, the most ever — “giving people new ways of thinking about Philadelphia and changing their minds and giving them different trip triggers,” Levitz explained. Some of the best “triggers,” she noted, include promoting special events and festivals — answering the potential visitor’s question “Why should I come now?”
The website is helping to answer that question: three quarters of visitors surveyed said the site has heightened their impression of Philadelphia.
Besides continually updating and improving the website, the organization is active on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media, and also launched an Instagram account in the past year, which is already the second largest of the nation’s 10 biggest cities, according to Skift.
Levitz said that tourism marketers can learn from other industries, mentioning the wide variety of commercials that companies like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s use to attract customers. “You constantly have to be tweaking what you have, giving people another way to approach it or come into it,” she contended. For instance, the website now places a lot of emphasis on promoting the city’s diverse neighborhoods: places to go after visitors (especially repeat visitors) have seen Franklin Square, the Liberty Bell and Constitution Hall.
“You can’t rely just on the history,” Levitz said. “You have to give visitors the ability to make a whole trip and alert them that there are places to stay, places to eat, activities for children, things for sports fans, and things for art fans.”
Optimizing a website for mobile devices is also crucial now. Visitphilly.com now gets nearly half its visitors from mobile.
I agree entirely with Levitz’ ultimate pitch for visiting Philadelphia, which is one of my favorite cities: “We’re manageable, doable, walkable, beautiful.” It’s a great place for baby boomers to visit, because of its history as the cradle of American independence, its compact historic area (including street after street of beautiful old brick townhouses), its burgeoning dining scene, and its world class art museums, among other attractions.
The challenge is to get that message out with far less funding than many other cities have to work with. But Visit Philadelphia seems to be handling it well, “using new media to rebrand an old city,” as Skift puts it. You can read the whole Skift interview here.
Meanwhile, be sure to download my free report, “How to Ride the Coming Wave of Boomers,” available here. It’s all about the best ways to market travel to baby boomers — the biggest-spending group of travelers the world has ever seen. It’s also the easiest way to subscribe to my blog, so you won’t miss a posting. Thanks!