Philly to invite 'Friends and Family' to visit

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PHILADELPHIA -- This city is preparing to kick off a $4 million marketing effort called "Philly Friends and Family" that essentially encourages the city's 1.5 million residents to become its tourism representatives.

The effort, which encompasses hotel packages and special events and is backed by a $2 million ad campaign, kicks off Nov. 1 and will lead into the city's upcoming "Philly Overnight" holiday promotion, which runs from Thanksgiving through mid-March (see sidebar below).

Although Philadelphia has launched tourism promotions before aimed at drawing visitors from New York, Boston and Washington, "Philly Friends and Family" is the latest step in building its visitor market.

The promotion targets a largely untapped travel market that nevertheless traditionally produces more room nights than the city's tourism marketing offices can.

And that market, according to Meryl Levitz, president and CEO for the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp., are Philadelphians themselves.

"Of the 11.2 million room nights [booked by visitors] in Philadelphia, about half of those are by friends and family" of Philadelphians, Levitz said.

If Philadelphians can generate that many room nights on their own, tourism officials wonder what they can do with a bit of encouragement.

The city will be distributing "Philadelphia Speaks," an interactive CD-ROM that provides a virtual tour of the city and links to www.gophila.com, plus a 60-page trip planner.

The idea of encouraging local tourism is not new. Indeed, cities such as New York and Washington promote local attractions to their residents.

But Levitz said Philadelphia, surprisingly enough, has never attempted anything like this before, and here's why:

Believe it or not, Philadelphia -- the City of Brotherly Love, the birthplace of the Constitution, one-time capital of the U.S. and backdrop to several "Rocky" movies -- is actually a relative new kid on the block when it comes to promoting itself as a tourism destination.

In fact, Levitz's agency has only been around since 1996.

Despite hosting the Republican National Convention in 2000 and other tourism events such as the ASTA World Travel Congress in 1995, Levitz said it "has only been in the last dozen or so years that Philadelphia has decided to market itself as a destination."

Over the past several years, Philadelphia slowly but steadily has developed a tourism infrastructure that now includes a wide variety of attractions, restaurants and hotels.

Levitz said about the time the city hosted the ASTA congress, it only had a smattering of events, one major nationally known hotel [the Philadelphia Marriott] and a newly opened convention center to promote.

The ASTA congress "was very good for our city," Levitz said. "Without having done ASTA we couldn't have hosted the [Republican] convention. It was good training for the city. But we feel we have been missing [the travel agent] part of the market.

"On the other hand, we haven't had what they were looking for," such as commissionable packages agents could market to their clients. Most tour operators, for instance, that would offer such packages have traditionally used Philadelphia as a stopover to other destinations.

That is slowly changing, Levitz said, adding the city wouldn't mind hosting another ASTA convention.

Meanwhile, she said, agents soon will be able to see for themselves how the city has changed.

On Oct. 22, Levitz said, the Carnival Legend will sail into Philadelphia with some 5,000 agents on board, and her office intends to take advantage of it by showing the retailers how much the city has to offer, such as land packages that dovetail with cruise stays, for their clients.

The concept of using Philadelphia as a cruise port is somewhat new.

"People are surprised to hear Philadelphia is a city on the water," Levitz said.

"What really put it on the map was the relocation of ships from New York harbor [in the wake of the terrorist attacks last year]. We now have 26 sailings. We didn't have those before."

The city's port authority is working with Levitz's agency to develop shore excursions. And some receptive operators also have expressed interest in developing programs.

"We are going to do everything to show [the agents] that Philadelphia" wants [their business], Levitz said.

Places to stay, places to go in Philly

• Packages: Philly Overnight Hotel, two-night (Friday-Saturday) packages include one free night, free hotel parking, gift upon check-in and two-for-one city tour; New Year's Eve hotel packages include shuttle service to a fireworks show and an event at the Philadelphia Convention Center (www.gophila.com).

• Tours: Guided tours of North Philadelphia, South Philadelphia, Chinatown, Germantown and more. Call (215) 599-2295 or visit www.gophila.com.

• Performances: "Varekai," a new production by Cirque du Soleil, is performed at the Kimmel Center through Oct. 6. (800) 678-5440. "Carmen" kicks off the Opera Company of Philadelphia's season at the Academy of Music from Nov. 8 to 24 Call (215) 732-8400 or visit www.operaphilly.com.

• Events: Winter Mummerland, Nov. 29 to Dec. 28, Mardi Gras-like nightly event featuring lighted floats, music and dance. At various sites in center city. Go to www.gophila.com for more details.

"Degas and the Dance" exhibit, Feb. 12 to May 11 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Visit www.gophila.com. -- M.M.

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