Image via Shutterstock Philly's iconic John F. Kennedy Plaza Love Park
Image via Shutterstock

In Philadelphia, leaders in the tourism sector are keeping the human toll at the forefront, investing in programs to support the thousands of hospitality industry workers who are now out of work.

Up until recently, tourism in Philadelphia was booming. Then came coronavirus.

Earlier this year, tourism group Visit Philadelphia was estimating there would be 330,000 hotel room nights sold in March, including 96,000 for leisure, totaling nearly $64 million. From April to June, they were looking at projections of 13.4 million day and overnight visitors to the five-county region, and Visit Philadelphia was gearing up for its $2.5 million summer tourism campaign.

Now, one-third of the city’s more than 80 hotels are closed, as are tourist sites like the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, along with all dine-in restaurants and non-essential businesses. Tourists couldn’t visit these sites anyway: Travel restrictions across the country are keeping millions of Americans at home.

More than 50 consumer events scheduled throughout the spring and summer have also been cancelled, including big-time tourist opportunities like the Penn Relays and the Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival. Other popular events like the Broad Street Run and Rittenhouse Row Spring Festival have been postponed.

Concerts and sporting events, as well as Philadelphia favorites like the Wawa Welcome America festival, all still have a looming question mark over them. 

Like nearly every other industry, tourism has been significantly disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. In Philadelphia, leaders in the tourism sector are embedding flexibility and agility into their business plans to continue raising the city’s profile amid today’s new realities. They’re also keeping the human toll at the forefront, investing in programs to support the thousands of hospitality industry workers who are now out of work.

Visit Philadelphia CEO Jeff Guaracino said there are 103,800 jobs supported by visitor spending—not to mention the numerous small businesses that depend on tourist dollars and have had to furlough or lay off workers.

“We’re optimistic about Philadelphia’s bounce-back, but having so many people out of work now is devastating,” Guaracino said.

The Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association COVID-19 Hospitality Workers Relief Fund was born to help alleviate some of that burden. The GPHA joined forces with Visit Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau Foundation, the Pennsylvania Convention Center, and the Philadelphia Hospitality Investment Levy to generate an initial fund of $425,000 to support out-of-work hotel employees. They will be eligible for gift cards to local grocery stores and pharmacies; the new organization continues to fundraise for the cause.

Visit Philadelphia has also been raising awareness about the PHL COVID-19 Fund, which is distributing grants and other resources to the local nonprofit community, and it will also soon launch a hospitality jobs section on VisitPhilly.com.

The tourism group wasn’t immune to the cancellations: It had to abandon its summer travel campaign.

The team at Visit Philadelphia, however, has learned to be agile: After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Guaracino, who then was PR director at Visit Philadelphia, said tourism officials under the direction of then-Mayor John Street were “encouraged to think big and act fast.” 

The “Philly’s More Fun When You Sleep Over” campaign was launched with a simple focus on value over brand-building. One example includes $89 hotel rooms. A few years later, amid the Great Recession, the city’s tourism agency launched the With Love campaign, centered on catchy love letters penned from the city to prospective visitors.

In the current crisis, Guaracino said, Visit Philadelphia’s first step was to shift messaging and follow Mayor Jim Kenney’s lead in sharing vital health and safety information. Then on March 2, the organization convened a conference call of more than a dozen hospitality leaders in the region, which has now become a weekly event—and supports what Guaracino calls “momentum through collaboration.”

“This group built a case for supporting tourism as a primary economic engine for this region,” he said. “And we’re unified in what we’re each communicating to stakeholders and government officials. We’re also sharing research and coordinating our individual recovery plans.”

The first phase of that plan for Visit Philadelphia is producing positive consumer-facing content. The organization’s Love + Grit podcast started sharing local stories of resilience—with all episodes recorded from the hosts’ homes. Local voices are also amplified on Philly Live Weekends, a new Facebook Live stream that broadcasts twice a day Fridays through Sundays that highlights local contributors to the arts and culture scene—featuring live cooking demos, concerts, and more. The segments have racked up to 30,000 views per episode and are another opportunity to plug local fundraising initiatives.

Relief efforts also became a focus on the tourism group’s website and blog, which pivoted their content to focus on virtual tours of local sites.

#thankyouphilly
Images via Visit Philly

Most recently, Visit Philadelphia launched a #ThankYouPhilly series, which was one of the mayor’s ideas. Through social media, ads, and posters around the city, including on boarded-up shops, the organization is calling out essential workers—cashiers, doctors, transportation workers—to thank them for their service.  

Next up, Visit Philadelphia plans to roll out new strategic communications to mark National Travel and Tourism Week in May and will be building the realities of the post-coronavirus world into future campaigns—for instance, taking into account potential limits on crowd sizes and emphasizing outdoor offerings. Future plans will also be heavily tied to research—the week before stay-at-home orders started being issued, Visit Philadelphia commissioned a research agency to study travelers’ perceptions of visiting the region, which is now conducted weekly.

While tourism campaigns will shift in the coming months, Guaracino said, they will all be tied to three key pillars Visit Philadelphia selected for 2020: Food that feeds you, Celebrations and The City of Sisterly Love.

“Each are truths about why Philadelphia is unique,” he said, “and the stories we share are more special and relevant as we pivot to express them through the lens of our new reality.”