With international travel being off the table for many Americans this year, domestic travel is sure to see a boom, and American cities are going to be competing for those travelers’ business. We connected with Rachel Ferguson, chief innovation and global diversity officer at Visit Philadelphia, the Philadelphia region’s official tourism marketing agency, to learn how Visit Philly mastered the art of “meaningful pivoting” during the COVID-19 pandemic; how the city is trying to win over travelers who have cancelled international vacations in favor of staying domestic; why diversity makes the city a top destination to visit; and much more.
Women Leading Travel & Hospitality: Can you share with us a little bit about your background in the travel and hospitality industry, and your role at Visit Philly?
Rachel Ferguson: This is my second tour at Visit Philadelphia. I first worked at the organization as a member of the communications team. At that time, it was my job to generate media placements designed to build visitation and the image of the city of Philadelphia. I also planned press conferences, media luncheons, receptions, and organized national press trips.
Fast-forward seven years — after working as a communications and public affairs director at CBS New York, I returned to Visit Philadelphia as chief innovation and global diversity officer. In this role, my job is to help grow the leisure tourism segment by leading marketing programs focused on multicultural and multigenerational travelers. I also oversee the company’s diversity, equity and inclusion program, revenue-generating partnerships, and communications.
WLT&H: Philadelphia was recently named one of the top destinations in the world in 2021 by Conde Nast Traveler. What do you think it is about Philadelphia that makes it a must-see city?
RF: The people of Philadelphia have made it a top destination. Yes, we have robust history, iconic museums, top restaurants, beautiful hotels and so many other things that make our city stand out, but I believe our destination’s strength lies in our diversity.
WLT&H: How has Visit Philly pivoted its business strategy during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you offering any virtual experiences?
RF: Within a span of months, the Greater Philadelphia region’s hospitality industry went from a record-breaking tourism year to facing the devastating impact of COVID-19 in terms of visitation, hotel occupancy, spending, revenue, taxes and job losses. Like so many businesses, we had to master the art of a meaningful pivot. We did this by creating timely website content, introducing new programs in a virtual environment and launching a new campaign.
Two programs I’m most proud of are Philly Live Weekends and the Love + Grit podcast. Philly Live Weekends was launched in partnership with NBC10 as a live web series. The program showcases regional talent, attractions and experiences to help bring Philadelphia directly to people’s homes, and it has generated close to 2 million views to date. We also introduced the Love + Grit podcast — which I co-host — that reflects the culture and diversity in Philly and tells our story, both the lovely and the gritty, through the people who live here. It’s also among the few travel podcasts nationally that are specifically for Black and Brown travelers.
WLT&H: A new boutique hotel is coming to Philadelphia this spring that will honor a 19th-century working women’s advocacy and support group known as the New Century Guild. Can you tell us more about this property and how the idea to open it came about?
RF: The property is a National Historic Landmark, having been home to the New Century Guild for over 100 years. The Guild, founded in 1882, was developed by women as a means to support other women as they were entering the workforce. A remarkable portion of the building’s architectural details remain intact. That, combined with the extraordinary history, inspired the owners to embark on their first venture into hospitality. It became incredibly important to not only preserve the landmark, but to highlight the exceptional stories of pioneering women who helped shape the future for Philadelphia and America as a whole.
WLT&H: The pandemic is causing more Americans to travel domestically. Is Visit Philly leaning into that as well as “staycations”?
RF: Philly is within a day’s drive of a quarter of the U.S. population, so we’ve always been popular for close-in visits. With COVID-19, we’re seeing people willing to drive even longer, up to 10 hours. This puts just under one-third of the population in range to visit Philadelphia. And there are millions of new trips up for grabs because of the estimated 60 million international trips cancelled by U.S. residents in 2021 — 10 percent of them by people in the Northeast. We absolutely want to win their business and are actively reaching out to these markets. We’re not just promoting Center City, Philadelphia but also the stunning Brandywine Valley, historic Bucks County, Valley Forge and the whole drivable region.
WLT&H: What are some travel industry predictions you have for 2021?
RF: The traveler herself is the biggest unknown. We’re getting used to new safety protocols; we’re seeing road trips and longer stays, better refund policies. But so much is still in travelers’ hands. This will be the most competitive marketing environment we’ve ever seen. Ever. And the first group returning to travel in full force will be leisure travelers. That’s the group Visit Philadelphia speaks most directly to. “Traveling with a purpose,” as a New York Times headline called it. People are putting a priority on exploring heritage and traveling for growth or development, rather than just for luxury or fun.
WLT&H: If you had one piece of advice to someone just starting out in the tourism industry, what would it be?
RF: I think having a diverse network is key to understanding any audience and any industry. When we surround ourselves with people who look different and think different, we open our eyes to new thoughts and a new way of understanding.
WLT&H: Has mentorship played a role at all in your career, and if so, how?
RF: Mentorship has played a huge role throughout my career. I come from the belief that it truly takes a village to grow, so I have many, many people to thank for investing in my growth by supporting me, encouraging me and advising me along the way. Early in my career, the power of mentorship was first shown to me when I was offered an internship through a diversity career fair. From that moment, I was supported by people who helped me find the building blocks for my career. I can only hope to do the same for young professionals throughout my life.