How Angela Val Plans to Bring Tourists Back to Philadelphia

She took over at perhaps the worst time to be in charge of Visit Philly. Fortunately for us — and for the city’s all-important tourism economy — this is the moment she’s spent her whole career preparing for.

Angela Val Visit Philly

Angela Val, CEO of Visit Philly / Photography by Aaron Richter

Visit Philadelphia. These are two words that until recently made a lot of sense together — a sonorous duet, if you will. A simple truism. As a tourist destination, the Philly region had the reliability of an index fund — steadily growing, record-breaking numbers of visitors each year, topping out at 46 million in 2019. Popularity seemed preordained: The pope visited here in 2015. The next year, the Democratic National Convention came to town. The year after that, the NFL draft. So many different national ­publications — the New York Times, National Geographic, GQ — were declaring us the place to visit that it almost became annoying: Couldn’t you be a little more original? But really, who could blame them? It was a good time to visit Philadelphia, which meant it was a good time to be Visit Philadelphia, the nonprofit charged with marketing the city to tourists. The city was practically selling itself.

These days, the city is in need of a bit more salesmanship, and not just for tourists. Philadelphia’s population has fallen two years in a row, interrupting decades of growth; last year’s 22,000-person decline was the biggest drop since the 1970s. Despite what we might have imagined in 2020, there has been no triumphant moment of reopening from the pandemic. The city entered a tunnel and came out different on the other side. There are worse conditions on public transit. There are fewer businesses and, still, less foot traffic downtown. People are fretting about crime. Even some of the positive changes born from COVID — restaurants ending the reign of parking spots and giving us outdoor dining, say — have been shut down by buzzkill bureaucrats in City Hall. Tourists have started to return, but at lower levels than before. Last year, Center City hotels were a little over half full, at 57 percent occupancy, compared to 76 percent before the pandemic.

All of which is to say that when Angela Val, Visit Philly’s CEO, ascended to the top job in June of last year, the external circumstances were far from ideal. The internal ones weren’t much better. Visit Philly gets most of its funding from a hotel tax, and because the hotels were barren, its revenue stream had been shut off. The staff was down to just 26 people­ — half the total from three years before. And the reason the job was open in the first place was because the prior CEO, Jeff Guaracino, had just died of cancer at 48, only three years after he replaced Meryl Levitz, Visit Philly’s founding CEO, who had run the organization for its first two decades. “It was a recipe for disaster,” Val says.

When you think about important institutions in the city, Visit Philadelphia probably isn’t top of mind. How meaningful is tourism marketing, really? Well, consider that Val is one of the faces of a city hospitality industry that employs some 74,000 people and whose visitors spend north of $6 billion a year. “The overall impact she has on the city’s budget is enormous,” says Julie Coker, the former CEO of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Her influence around how Philadelphia looks and behaves is enormous.”

Val is an extremely rare breed: a marketing executive who hardly talks about marketing. Like many advertising people, she’s extremely bubbly; unlike many advertising people, she doesn’t speak in foggy, meaningless buzzwords. Her response to the pandemic has been to completely reconsider what it means to do her job. She’s increasingly preoccupied with concrete matters: trash cans, public safety, public transit, and, more literally, the condition of city sidewalks. “I spend most of my time now dealing more with what I would say are city-related and community-related issues,” she says. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think Val was a policy wonk in the Mayor’s Office. “Our job now is the city,” she says. “We don’t own any restaurants, we own no shops, we own no hotels, no festivals, nothing. We market what other people own and run. So we have to be involved at a foundational level with the city.” Levitz, who hired Val as her assistant 25 years ago, describes her current task as nothing less than “developing a post-pandemic Philadelphia.”

To sell the city, one needs to understand it, and for Val, one of her reliable methods of study is walking. One of the advantages of walking is that it’s the best way to experience the city’s unvarnished indignities — the crap we’ve grown to accept only because we encounter it every day, like sidewalks so uneven they’re practically topographical features, or the city’s peculiar allergy to scaffolding, which forces pedestrians to cross streets to avoid construction, advancing through the city as if on a checkerboard. Val lives in Point Breeze and hasn’t driven a car in over a decade. As she strolls to various appointments, she’s constantly looking around and asking herself questions: The trash cans — are they overflowing? The ­businesses — do they have clean facades? Her fellow pedestrians — are there any?

Val, who’s 51, goes through the same process when she’s on a trip for pleasure. She and her husband, Joe, a construction project manager, have a pet Mi-Ki named George Costanza but no human children, which frees them up to travel regularly. “We try to go away every 90 to 100 days,” she says. They keep a bucket list: Sri Lanka, the Seychelles, Germany, Morocco. It can be difficult for Val to turn off her tourism brain. In Madrid, she noticed the way trash trucks were small enough to fit down historic city streets. In Tokyo, she paid attention to how employees in stores wore name tags stating what languages they spoke. Everywhere she goes, she thinks about transit. “I’m always very interested in how traffic patterns work in other cities that have a large population,” she says, laughing self-consciously at having alighted on the irony: Can a person whose job is thinking about vacation ever truly be on vacation?

On a Tuesday in early April, Val meets me at Dilworth Park at 5 p.m. It’s one of those life-affirming days: warm weather, sunshine into the evening, the first signs of spring. Kids are playing in the fountains against the backdrop of City Hall. People sit under umbrellas at cafe tables. Security guards and cleaning staff from the Center City District roam in their teal jackets. The ground is immaculately clean. A group of teens with mountain bikes mills about in a corner of the park. One of them, wearing a balaclava, is arguing with a security guard about something, yelling, “You’re not my dad! Don’t tell me what to do!” The guard replies, “You’re going to go far in life with that attitude.” It’s a perfect Philly tableau.

The idea for our meeting is that Val will walk me through the city, offering her usual sort of analysis. She arrives wearing a black blouse, jeans and New Balance sneakers, sunglasses perched on her head, her curly brown hair down to her shoulders. She’s chosen to have us venture down Market Street from City Hall to Old City, a stretch any tourist might traverse between the two destinations and also among the most heavily scrutinized areas in the city right now, thanks to the 76ers, who want to build their new arena there. (Val says she’s on the fence about the concept.)

It doesn’t take long for the various challenges facing Center City to reveal themselves. Over the sound of growling engines from a pair of dirt bikes mid-wheelie, Val points out the Market Street National Bank building to the east of City Hall, with its elegant pilasters and baby blue detailing. On the ground floor is a Marriott hotel, tourists scurrying in and out. On either side is a row of retail. A 7-Eleven — closed. A Subway — closed. Any sense of charm: nonexistent. “One, you could probably get away with,” Val says of the closures. “Four of them, next to each other, to tourists entering that hotel? That to me looks like a problem.” (Nearly 20 percent of Center City storefronts were still empty as of last September, compared to the 2019 figure of 11 percent.)

Val has set the ambitious if slightly nebulous goal of making Philadelphia the most welcoming city in the country. Having vacancies here, in the heart of Center City, in what should be some of the most valuable retail property in the downtown, doesn’t scream welcoming. Nor does the derelict SEPTA station entrance a few blocks east with shattered glass all along the sides and trash scattered on its roof, which, Val recently realized with horror, is visible to tourists from their vantage point on double-decker bus tours. The abandoned stretch of retail in what was once the historic Robinson department store at 10th and Market and is now covered up by a 15-foot-tall black box running nearly half a city block? That’s not so welcoming, either. A teenager walking by us spits on the sidewalk right in front of another woman, eliciting an incredulous “What the fuck!”

“It looks depressing, right?” Val says of the stretch. “And if it was a little bit darker, and a little bit colder and dreary … it looks like something bad could happen.” According to the Center City District, foot traffic is at 77 percent of pre-pandemic levels for visitors, though when you count only office workers along the stretch of Market Street west of Broad that’s been decimated by remote work, the figure becomes a much more dire 47 percent.

“Our job now is the city. We don’t own any restaurants; we own no shops. We market what other people own and run, so we have to be involved at a foundational level with the city.”
— Angela Val

On the plus side, the number of residents in Center City is actually growing, and much of the foot traffic and storefront vacancy data is trending in the right direction. And for all the conversation about crime, Center City is as safe as it’s ever been. (There are some sensational episodes, like the group of kids who in February beat up a woman and knocked her unconscious at 7 p.m. outside of her hotel at 15th and Chestnut, but they remain the exception.)

Still, it can be difficult to keep those positive trends in mind, because despite what some of the data shows, the truth is that it doesn’t feel good in parts of Center City right now. There are signs of struggle everywhere: in the people panhandling and sleeping on the sidewalk, in the ghostly storefronts and quiet streets. It can seem like there’s a kind of urban doom loop playing out in miniature on this stretch of blocks: businesses closing, residents avoiding, leading to more closures, providing ever less reason to walk around. “Maybe the cops have decided to move to another block, because who’s going to come past here?” Val says. But she feels it’s exactly during these moments when “nobody’s paying attention” that the city should be taking the most action.

What can a tourism marketing agency do about any of this? Val has no shortage of ideas, large and small. She’s currently working with the Chamber of Commerce on developing a trash pickup and street beautification program — “not a conversation we would ever normally have with the Chamber.” She’s joined the board of the Center City District, a first for a Visit Philly CEO, because she wants to “have a say in what it is that they’re working on.” She invited SEPTA general manager Leslie Richards onto her board, because she knows that many of Philadelphia’s tourists come from other parts of the world “where public transportation is a big thing done really well,” which means she needs to be in the know about what’s going on with transit here. She’s thinking more about lobbying and ways she can influence legislation in City Council to help the city. She wants to place a giant banner reading WELCOME TO THE HISTORIC DISTRICT on one of the buildings across the street from Independence Hall, because if you’re a sightseeing tourist, it’s nice to have an indicator that, yes, you’re walking in the right direction. She’s working with the airport on a program to spruce up the baggage-claim area, because it’s one of the first things you see when landing in the city.

“I don’t think my hands are tied,” Val says. Far from sitting back and hoping the city’s course corrects itself, she says, Visit Philly has to “be more vocal and part of the solution than we ever have.” Ultimately, tourists and residents care about the same things: “It’s our basic needs that we’re out there advocating for, no different than the neighbor down the street.”

If you’re a resident of Philadelphia and don’t know a whole lot about Visit Philly, don’t feel bad. You aren’t exactly its audience. Still, you’ve likely encountered the organization, even if you didn’t realize it. If you’ve ever been bored on a Saturday afternoon, searching for things to do in town, you’ve probably ended up on the events website Uwishunu. That’s Visit Philly. (Conceived as a tourist resource, it often gets more traffic from residents.) You may have heard some of its marketing campaigns, like the “Get Your History Straight and Your Nightlife Gay” one of 2003, which was the first advertising explicitly focused on the LGBTQ community run by any city-marketing organization in the country and generated plenty of stories about itself — the advertiser’s holy grail.

Despite what now looks like abundant success, the creation of Visit Philadelphia in 1996 — initially under the uniquely unmarketable name of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corporation — wasn’t a source of happiness for much of the city’s hospitality industry. Before Visit Philly, the Convention and Visitors Bureau handled marketing the city to tourists and business travelers alike, the same way it’s done in the vast majority of other cities. But then-mayor Ed Rendell thought the city would be better served by having its own marketing entity, and he worked with Levitz, a former CVB employee, to initiate a divorce, thereby pissing off the CVB. “There was no aspiration and no belief,” Levitz says of Philly tourism at the time. “The Liberty Bell was a drive-by. You did the cheesesteak and went on to D.C. or New York.”

This was the state of affairs when Val got to the city in the 1990s. She grew up in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, the oldest of three kids, her mother a teacher and her dad a principal. By her own admission, she was “never really great at school.” What she was good at was working, which is how she found herself at Drexel, attending hospitality school, where she figured the working part of the degree was surely more important than the books. There was a touch of romance to the decision, too: As a kid, Val would watch the TV show Hotel, starring Shari Belafonte, and think how glamorous it would be to manage a hotel, living there, having dinner at its restaurant every night.

In Philly, though, it turned out there was a problem: Hardly any hotel jobs were available. Her first summer, Val ended up at a Holiday Inn in Georgetown. Later, she managed to find a local gig, at the Embassy Suites near the Parkway. It wasn’t quite the Carlyle, but that hotel, Val says, “is where I think I first understood how this industry starts to broaden.” She worked the front desk and saw the way conventions impacted the rest of the economy: They drew throngs of guests to the hotel, who then asked her for recommendations on where to shop, eat and drink.

After graduating in 1994, Val went back to work at the Embassy Suites. Four years later, she got hired at Visit Philly, working double duty at the front desk and as ­Levitz’s assistant. At the time, the organization, which tasked itself with marketing not just Philadelphia but the entire five-county region, was in a trial period, having been granted temporary funding and seeking to prove its worth to justify permanent support. “Meryl was up front with me: If we don’t get this funding, you won’t be here longer than a year,” Val says. But she was promised a few perks: severance, in the event of her firing. Plus, she’d get to keep her desk chair.

Val made a quick impression. “It took me about 11 seconds to say this is a really capable person who’s determined and who believes in the city and that hospitality and tourism could be an economic development agent,” Levitz recalls. Val, meanwhile, got an up-close look at the inner workings of our town. “I was lucky Meryl was one of those CEOs that let you in the room,” she says. “I didn’t talk. But when you don’t talk, you listen.”

Visit Philly ended up proving itself useful. According to one report — written, admittedly, by a hospitality marketing publication whose methods are opaque — one of its first ad campaigns, a $1.8 million expenditure titled “Philadelphia — the place that loves you back,” helped bring an additional one million visitors to the city, who then spent a total of $97 million. (Quantifying the impact of advertising has long been one of the sticking points between Visit Philly and the CVB, which uses a much more direct formula: number of conventions booked, resulting in a specific number of attendees and hotel nights.) Hindsight offers another way to judge: In 1997, Center City hotels booked roughly 250,000 leisure-travel nights — a quarter of the current total. Levitz got the hotels in the city to agree to the tax that would help fund the organization going forward. Val got to keep her job. (These days, the hotel tax accounts for about 80 percent of Visit Philly’s $13 million budget.)

Angela Val Visit Philly

Angela Val got her start in the tourism industry working at a hotel. Today, as head of Visit Philly, she spends her time thinking of how
to keep them full of guests.

One of the formative events in Val’s early career came in 2000, when the city played host to the Republican National Convention — one of the first large-scale national events to come to Philly in years. At the time, the Convention Center could hold more people than all the city’s hotels combined. That wasn’t a great look for a wannabe world-class city, so in 1997, the Rendell administration kicked off an ambitious hotel-building campaign: 2,000 rooms by 2000. A series of hotel propagations and migrations ensued: the Loews taking over the historic PSFS Bank building on Market Street, the Ritz-Carlton moving from 17th and Chestnut to Broad Street.

These were significant changes at a time when, as Val puts it, “The city didn’t look that great. You look back at Rittenhouse Square — I mean, I’d be afraid of walking through it, honestly.” Avoiding national embarrassment, it turned out, proved good motivation for cleaning up the city. The convention went well, and for Val, it offered another point supporting her theory about the direct relation between major events and civic improvement. The RNC would be long gone, but all those new hotels would be sticking around — and now, they’d need someone to help market them.

Much of that responsibility fell to Val, who for a few years after the RNC ran Visit Philly’s hotel program, coming up with packages — free parking, museum ­discounts — to entice visitors to stay overnight. She spent the next decade working on special projects, like helping to coordinate a Philly pop-up at Austin’s SXSW festival.

In 2016, another convention opportunity came up: This time, the Democrats wanted to come to town. Val was tapped to be the second-in-charge of the host committee, handling a $10 million budget and organizing activities for the special kind of people who get excited about attending political conventions. There was a festival at the Convention Center that included a replica of the Oval Office and fuselage from Air Force One, and a scavenger hunt where people downloaded an app prompting them to find 57 painted fiberglass donkeys scattered throughout the city. (The app, it turned out, was owned by Jesse Rendell, son of DNC host committee chair Ed, prompting questions of nepotism. “Donkey Deal Smells Fishy,” read the Inquirer headline.)

By this point, Philly was far from the city that had been described by travelers, according to a 1996 survey by Visit Philly, as “lacking excitement and adventure; somewhat boring.” It was no longer the city that, when it bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics in the mid-aughts, received feedback from the International Olympic Committee saying, as Val recalls it, “Nobody knows where Philadelphia is or what it is, so we can’t have it there.” After the DNC, the NFL draft was held on the Parkway. There were new hotels cropping up not just in Center City, but in Fishtown. The city had momentum — kinetic energy all around. “We were feeling ourselves,” Val says. “The trajectory was like this.” She lifts her arm into the air and points straight up.

The pandemic turned back the clock at least 20 years. The number of domestic visitors fell from 44 million in 2019 to 30 million in 2020 — the fewest since 2002. Visitor spending contracted by nearly half, from $7.6 billion to $4.13 billion. Those stats might be underselling the extent of the catastrophe. Suddenly, Philadelphia was once again confronting challenges with basic city services — cleanliness, public safety. “We are a little bit back to where we were in the beginning of the ’80s or the ’90s, where you’re worried about some of those same issues,” Val says.

She’s now coming at these challenges from a different angle. After the DNC, she moved from Visit Philly to the CVB, wanting to get more experience beyond tourism. In the slightly petty world of Philly hospitality, this qualified as a fraught move. “People were shocked, and I do think Meryl was unhappy about that,” Val says. (Levitz, for her part, pooh-poohs that notion: “I know people like to construct all kinds of drama around stuff, but I’m not into it.”)

In late 2020, Sue Jacobson, then the chair of the Chamber of Commerce board, approached Val with a proposition. She was starting an initiative called “Ready. Set. Philly!,” a Chamber-and-city-sponsored program to help businesses prepare for reopening. Figuring that Val wasn’t too busy at the CVB since there were no conventions to speak of, Jacobson asked her to be its part-time executive director. Val wound up coordinating monthly meetings with CEOs from the city’s major companies and employers — meetings that had never taken place before, according to Jacobson.

This kind of leadership role was new to Val. For her entire career, she’d been the second-in-charge, and she’d begun to feel like that was where she belonged. There was a reason for this, one that Val has shared with very few people: She’s dyslexic. “I read differently, slower than other people,” she says. Her learning disability was why she decided to go to hospitality school in the first place, figuring that if she flunked out, she’d at least be able to get a job in the industry. Once she began working, it felt natural to avoid the spotlight, sticking to jobs where she could remain obscure. “It’s easier to hide some of those issues,” she says. “Being the number one, there is no place to hide.” When Levitz revealed she’d be retiring in 2018 and announced a search for her successor at Visit Philly, Val didn’t even apply for the job. “I talked myself out of it,” she says. “I was just afraid. And I didn’t feel ready.”

The Ready. Set. Philly! job started to change how Val felt about herself. Then, in 2021, another opportunity came up: The CVB’s CEO, Julie Coker, who had recruited her, was leaving to take a different job in San Diego. Val, who at the time was the chief administrative officer, applied for her position, thinking she had a good shot. She didn’t get it.

“It was devastating,” she says. Val resolved that her next job was “going to be the one I stay at until I retire” and took a private-sector gig for a hospitality marketing company. She thought opportunity had passed her by, both at the CVB and at Visit Philly, where Guaracino, who was about Val’s same age, had just taken over. But after his unexpected death, the organization found itself searching for a CEO again. This time, Val applied and was offered the position.

By now, the job was no longer about maintaining Philly on its slingshot trajectory. Instead, Val would essentially be starting over from scratch. She wanted certain assurances. As the organization’s first Black CEO, she didn’t want to be the longtime insider brought in during the crisis, a short-term leader whose fate was to be replaced. “Are they just going to have me clean it up and then they’re going to kick me out?” she wondered. She had no interest in that, and she asked the Visit Philly board that question directly. “They assured me no,” she says.

It’s hard to find anyone who wasn’t thrilled with Val’s appointment as CEO. She’s worked for all the various factions of the local hospitality industry — Levitz jokingly refers to them as the five families — from Visit Philly to the CVB to the hotels. “I don’t think there are too many other people who are able to see the whole in the same way that she can,” Levitz says.

That experience and general popularity seem to have already helped Val alleviate some long-standing civic distrust. Tiffany Newmuis, who worked with her at the DNC, says she’d never seen the Visit Philly and CVB chief executives stand next to each other and jointly present at any of the city’s state-of-the-tourism-economy meetings — not until Val got to Visit Philly. This year, Visit Philly and the CVB announced they’re working on a joint marketing campaign for the first time in their history.

“To me, Angela represents the new Philadelphia, the smart Philadelphia, the Philadelphia that’s going to move forward in the future,” says Jack Ferguson, another former CEO of the CVB. Ed Grose, head of the hotel association, describes her as a “quintessential hospitality success story.” Jacobson puts it simply: “It’s her time. She should’ve been leading things a long time ago.”

A few hours before our walk down Market Street, Val has a meeting at a Center City law office with a Pittsburgh entrepreneur whose company specializes in “augmented reality.” Val wants to learn whether it could play a role in the next large event coming to Philadelphia, one that could well be the springboard to a new era of post-pandemic growth: the 2026 World Cup.

The entrepreneur, a bald guy with thick art-director glasses who’s brought everyone socks featuring his face on them, begins his presentation, showing an example on a TV screen. You scan a QR code on your phone, and up pops a pre-recorded clip of someone talking to you. The technology is a little janky — not that augmented, not that realistic — and the challenges are fairly obvious: Do tourists really want to stop and watch a 60-second video in the middle of the city? Will they even be able to hear it? What to do about all the different languages World Cup fans speak?

Still, Val and the local World Cup committee reps at the meeting see some potential, musing that maybe visitors arriving at the airport could scan a QR code and be welcomed by a famous Philadelphian, or one of the soccer players from their country. Maybe there could be scannable codes at bus stations throughout town, featuring recordings telling people what sights and restaurants are nearby. Val and the entrepreneur agree to try a pilot program later this year at a small local event.

While the World Cup will unquestionably be the most globally significant event in Philadelphia in 2026, it’s far from the only blockbuster. There’s also the Semiquincentennial, celebrating the 250th anniversary of the United States.

Val has been spending a lot of time thinking about what, exactly, the city will offer people over the course of the year. She’s hoping to meet with a museum, for instance, to see if it might want to put on an exhibit about 1619, the year the first enslaved Africans were brought to the shores of the United States. “I don’t want 2026 to just be about powdered wigs,” Val says. “We’re also going to be playing the world’s game in Philadelphia, in the place where America started.” She wants to get tourists to venture beyond the downtown, to places like Germantown and FDR Park, recognizing that “travelers are demanding a more authentic experience, and growth in the travel industry is going to come from diverse markets. They want to see themselves in the neighborhood.” To achieve that, though, those neighborhoods need to both expect and want tourists, not to mention have the infrastructure, like transit, to support them. “We have to get those neighborhoods ready,” Val says.

One way to think about her efforts around 2026 is that she isn’t just waiting to advertise whatever the planners come up with; increasingly, she is one of the planners. It’s a fitting role, considering she’s had a hand in virtually every one of the city’s major events over the past 20 years. “Angela has seen so many evolutions of the city, so she’s not a blind optimist,” says Newmuis. “She’s absolutely seen the city at the worst, and from that, she’s really skilled at picking out what the city needs.”

Near the end of our walk down Market Street, in front of the Hotel Monaco by Independence Hall, something catches Val’s eye in the middle of the sidewalk. “Oh, look — a penny!” she says, stooping over to pick it up. “Then I make a wish! I keep a whole jar — all the wishes.” She grasps the penny tightly in her hand and shuts her eyes.

For a moment, this looks a little like blind optimism. But maybe it’s not. This is the year the number of visitors to our city is expected to reach pre-pandemic levels, and it would be easy for Val to pretend everything is back to normal. That’s not what she does, though. “I’m hoping that by the end of 2023, we feel a little bit on stronger footing, and that the people of Philly feel better. Because right now, I don’t think we feel good, right? We still feel a little anxious.” She’s talking about a generalized anxiety — something at the psychological level, a citywide sense. Val goes on: “I think we’ve all been walking around looking behind our backs so long that we just don’t feel good. And I want to get us back there.” This isn’t your standard sales pitch, which is maybe why it’s tempting to buy what she’s selling.


Published as “Tourist-in-Chief?” in the June 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.