"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, an agency celebrating its 15th anniversary.
GPTMC, the group that labeled Philadelphia "the place that loves you back," is a private, nonprofit 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," says Levitz. "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 emails 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 Foundation 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 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 and Bartram's Gardens.
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." And then there's the "Reading Terminal, where so much stuff is always going on."
Please stop, Meryl.
Food, Glorious Food
Levitz says she believes that food drives tourism — and love and loyalty — to a city. "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," she adds.
"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 and the National Museum of American Jewish History.
Last spring Levitz answered and emailed a 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 her a cameo on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. That coup resulted from Levitz's gutsy promotion — with the blessings of the Philadelphia Gay Tourism Caucus, assorted businesses, Mayor John Street and Gov. Rendell — of downtown's Gayborhood.
"We were the first destination on the planet to advertise on TV as gay-friendly," she reveals.
Levitz wants Philadelphians to know that her agency is "a hype machine," and that Philadelphia is no longer a well-kept secret.
Ten million more visitors came to the metro area last year than when GPTMC started. "If you look at the hotel rates and see how well Philadelphia did compared to most cities after Sept. 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."