Meryl Levitz | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Meryl Levitz

Background:  

Meryl Levitz has served at the helm of Visit Philadelphia since its inception in 1996 as the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation. She’s helped change perceptions about Philadelphia as a fun place to visit, built lasting and impactful partnerships and put the city on people’s must-visit lists. Visit Philadelphia recently launched its latest African-American marketing initiative, which features a video series hosted by Philly native Tarik “Black Thought” Trotter of The Roots. 

The Mistake:

Even though we’re in the business of branding and naming, I made a mistake by not paying enough attention to our own branding.

We started in 1996 as a three-year experiment as the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, which, let’s face it, is a very clunky name. At that time we weren’t expected to be a permanent organization, we were just an experiment. I didn’t feel the need to change the name, as that’s what I was given.

In our second year of existence, people said, “This can’t just be an experiment, it has to become part of the hospitality structure of the city and the region. It’s making such a huge impact and we want it to continue.”

The hotels themselves said, “Let’s increase the tax on us so we can fund you forever.” I thought that was wonderful, but that was the first point at which I should have changed the name.

People don’t understand what marketing is. To many people it seems a little smushy. And I spent a ton of time answering questions like, “What is Greater Philadelphia? What is tourism marketing?” I spent a lot of time explaining tourism marketing and what it does for a region. It doesn’t happen all by itself, it has to be sold.

I kept changing the logo of the organization every couple of years thinking that was the problem. I thought if the logo was stronger the message would be stronger, but that wasn’t really the problem — the name was the problem.

Every time we talked about changing it I said we’d get to it, but it was always in the organization’s best interest to spend time building the region’s brand rather than our own.

But that clunky name put us in a defensive position. At the time, only New Orleans and Hawaii and a couple other cities had a tourism marketing organization—we were seen as an outlier. People didn’t understand our position and whether we were part of the city or a for profit corporation. We had to fight harder than we should have had to just to establish our own identity, while we were successfully establishing the region’s identity.

People who we were trying to attract to come to the city didn’t know what a tourism marketing company was, and our messaging would have been stronger had we landed earlier on the name we now have.

As technology developed, and with the advent of social media, we found that Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation doesn’t lend itself to Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, etc. It became clear that we needed a direct name that told people what we do, while at the same time telling people what we wanted them to do.

Eventually my staff came to me and said, "We’ve taken it upon ourselves in our spare time to work up some different names and style sheets for a name change, because we think it’s time.”

Ultimately I listened to my executive staff, and it took us two years to come up our current name — Visit Philadelphia — run it by the board, have a logo designed, and get it out there. It took from 1999, the end of our experimental phase, all the way until 2013 to rename the organization.

Sometimes your staff is closer to where the rubber meets the road than you are.

The Lesson:

That old saying, “The shoemaker’s wife goes barefoot,” is one lesson. We were so concentrated on our visitor messaging through words, photographs, video, media placements, and sponsorships, that we ignored the power of an organization’s name to firm up the message.

Another big lesson learned is that sometimes your staff is closer to where the rubber meets the road than you are. They encountered some of the challenges day by day, like trying to fit the name into the messaging through different digital and social media than the CEO.

I also should have listened when everybody was teasing me about the name “GPTMC.” It was a funny thing for everybody, and people would be proud if they remembered all five words of the name, they thought it was funny. It wasn’t that funny and should have been given more attention.

When an issue comes up again and again and again, you should listen past the words that are said and add them all up.

Follow Meryl Levitz on Twitter at @MerylLevitz and Visit Philadelphia at @visitphilly.

Photo courtesy of Visit Philadelphia