Thanks to its seminal place in U.S. history, Philly’s always been a destination for class trips and American Revolution buffs. But over the past couple of decades, it’s evolved into a serious hot spot for travelers of all kinds, from conventioneers to daytrippers to fun-seekers from around the world. Per Visit Philly, last year the region saw a record number of visitors: 42 million, up 58 percent compared to 1997 data.
In our September edition of Who’s Next, we’re highlighting some of the young people under the age of 40 who help keep the momentum going.
If you aren’t yet familiar with Who’s Next, which is presented by the Knight Foundation, check out the archives here. The intent of the series, comprising monthly lists of honorees and follow-up Q&As, is to introduce readers to the most dedicated young people working to shape Philadelphia. Our goal is to identify and track the next generation of leaders and influencers across a broad spectrum of fields.
Over the past two and a half years, we’ve showcased up-and-comers in fields that range from music to food to politics. Now we’re turning our attention to the tourism industry. Meet 14 young ambassadors helping build Philly hype.
“I was one of those weird kids who rushed home from school to watch History Channel documentaries,” said Bucks County native Mike Adams, describing his lifelong obsession with history. He translated that passion into not only his job, but also his various hobbies. While getting his master's degree in education, he worked at Historic Philadelphia, Inc. and then was asked to help expand the organization’s educational programming. In 2015 he moved over to the National Constitution Center, where he works on everything from school group visits to public programming to the interactive constitution on the center’s website. “I try to make sure people are actually learning something when they visit here,” Adams said, laughing. It’s no laughing matter keeping up with all the other hats he wears, which include founding co-chair of the Young Friends of Independence National Historical Park and president of Philadelphia’s Historic Neighborhood Consortium, plus board member for the internationally touring Philly troupe Almanac Dance Circus Theater. He loves that the perception of this city has evolved. “It used to be, ‘Go see the Liberty Bell, get a cheesesteak, leave,’” he said, “but now people are spending more time and expecting to do multiple things.”
Having grown up elsewhere (in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, after being born in Davenport, Iowa), Brittany Benjamin feels she has a different perspective on Philadelphia than lifelong residents. “I wish I could take them out of it and put it back in with a new set of eyes,” she said. “Part of what’s holding Philly back is people who live here don’t realize or believe how great it really is.” Benjamin realized she wanted to be a booster for this city soon after she moved here to attend Temple, when she switched out of pre-med to the School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management. Her college internship at the CVB led into a job there right after graduation in 2015, and she now works with the bureau’s various sales managers to help show off the city’s diversity to prospective conventioneers. Already well-traveled, since trips abroad are a passion of hers, she’s able to sell her home city’s charms with a global perspective. “We have the capacity to be a long-term hot spot like New York,” she said. “We have history, we have diversity, it’s easy to access and to get around. Philly is working its way up.”
After 10 years as a concierge at various hotels around Philly, Jamie Cooperstein realized that as much as she loved interacting with visitors to the city, she enjoyed giving tips on how to be hospitable even more. In 2014, the School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management at Temple grad decided to make teaching others into a business, and launched her consulting firm. She acts as an extension of an HR department, providing training for employees in how to give great customer service. That’s a direct boon for visitors and anyone those staffers come in contact with, Cooperstein said, but also helps boost company morale. Her intention isn’t to take away personality, but to soften it. “There’s a bit of a tough love that we all have in Philly,” she said, “but that grit is a good thing. It helps transform a transaction into a memorable moment.” She’s also an adjunct professor at both Drexel and Delaware County Community College, where she schools future tourism professionals on how to extol the Philly of the future.
More often than not, when Terrance Keene spots a confused looking tourist and asks if they need help, they’ll initially say no. “Then you stand there a minute,” he said, laughing, “and they’ll turn around and say, ‘Well, actually....’ and you’ll look and see they’re holding the map upside down or something.” Keene, a West Philly lifer, has worked for the Center City District for 15 years. He loves that his position as a community service representative lets him be outside all day, where he gets to interact with people from all over the world under the open sky. Now that he’s a manager, he helps oversee the other 47 CCD reps on the street, helping make sure they show hospitality to everyone they run into. He loves Philly’s walkability and that it has a good public transportation network, including an increasing number of bike lanes. When Keene’s not helping visitors find their way, he helps the local community in various positions: He’s a volunteer firefighter with the South Media Fire company in Delaware County, serves on the urban search-and-rescue PA Task Force team and is also part of the U.S. Coast Guard’s volunteer flotilla unit that deals with boats on the Delaware River.
Philadelphia native Chris Kuncio has some opinions about his city’s traditional tourist reputation. “We’re known for three things: the Liberty Bell, Rocky and cheesesteaks,” he said. “So...a broken bell, a thin cut of cheap meat topped with fake cheese, and our most famous sports star is a fictional character?” Though his day job is as a high school English teacher, he does his part to help visitors appreciate Philly beyond those things as founder of the Philly OG Tour Company. His tours are more memorable than most, because Kuncio expounds on the city’s history and attractions as a rapping Benjamin Franklin. He first developed the character in 2012, when he realized many of the memorable things the Founding Father had done were in his 30s, but Franklin was only thought of as a balding old man. “He created the image of what it means to be an American,” Kuncio explained. “Bootstrapping your way up and helping make society better.” His raps during tours expound on that notion, where he plays Franklin as if “he’s pissed off at modern people manipulating the American values he created for their own political gain.”
Over the course of his many years working for the Independence Visitors Center, Albert Lee earned the nickname “Mr. Philadelphia.” A graduate of La Salle University with a double major in communications and history, he was even honored in one of our first Who’s Next lists for those communications skills. But now that the Chinatown native has a new position working directly for the City of Philadelphia, which has been a dream of his since he was a little kid, he’s become even more of a proud ambassador. “When I ran into a tourist,” Lee said, “I used to say, ‘On behalf of the city, welcome, I hope you enjoy it!’ Well, now that holds a lot more weight — it actually means something.” At Philly 311, he helps make information digestible, so that residents have an easier time living here, and therefore become invested in seeing the city thrive and grow. He also continues to tell Philadelphia’s story to a wide audience via 42,000-follower-strong Instagram account, which he feels is now unbridled by any connection to his work. “Now I post Philly sunset photos because I want to, not because it’s part of my job.”
Last year, when her sister saw there was a job opening at City Hall’s visitor center, Heather Murphy got a text: “This is perfect for you!” Her sister knew, of course, that Murphy had been interested in both tourism and Philadelphia ever since she’d been a kid. A Holmesburg native who still lives in the Northeast (Burholme, now), Murphy got her first taste of on-the-job hospitality participating in the Disney College Program while attending Indiana University. After graduation, she returned to Philly and became familiar with just about every facet of the city via her job with the Office of the City Representative. She relies on that knowledge now, using it to help direct tourists who poke their heads in looking for directions, and to convince them to take a tour of the impressive building that anchors the center of the city. Groups visiting the observation deck range from schoolkids to seniors to architecture buffs, but “City Hall is underrated compared to the Liberty Bell and other attractions,” Murphy said. She thinks Philly in general is underrated. “We get a bad rep for our attitude, but it’s just like, we love the city so much that sometimes our pride gets in the way.”
Chris Petrucci didn’t grow up in Philly — “I’m originally from Yonkers, a New Yorker through and through” — but he did fall in love with the city after he moved here in 2007 to attend Temple’s School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management. How much does he love his adopted home? He and a group of friends actually threw a party to celebrate their 10-year Philly-versary. Petrucci jumped into promotion of Philadelphia from his first college internship, which was at the PHL CVB, where he’s now employed full-time. In between, he worked with Liberty Travel, where he developed a training module for staff on how to craft trips appealing to the LGBT community, and also as a convention services manager at Le Meridien. At the CVB, he works to bring in groups that need anywhere from 10 to 199 rooms from throughout the Northeastern U.S., using a sales pitch that extols Philly’s uniqueness. “There’s an authenticity that sets it apart from other megacities,” he said. “It has more of a community feeling. When you have 6,000 people coming for a convention, there will definitely be some who want to explore off the beaten path, and we have all these little neighborhoods perfect for that.”
There are several different bus tours in Philadelphia, but when people sign up for one of Sebastian Petsu’s excursions, they’re getting something special. The Central Jersey native has lived here since he came to attend St. Joseph’s University in 1997, and has been a tour guide since 2005, when he fell into the tourism industry by chance. “It was supposed to be a stop-gap,” said the former social worker, “but I felt like I found my calling.” Four years ago he launched the Double Decker Music Series as a side gig. On it, guests are treated to live music performances as they take a narrated ride past the city’s various attractions. Petsu tries hard to use the three things he says every tourist asks about — “Rocky, the Liberty Bell and cheesesteaks” — as jumping off points to get people interested in other features that make Philly special. He loves that the city has so much going on but it’s not overwhelming like that spot 90 miles north, and that when it comes to history, many of the actual buildings are still around.
Port Richmond native Nick Pytel has lived and worked all over the globe. After graduating from Temple’s School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management, where he was class president, he taught for two years at his alma mater, Roman Catholic High School. He then headed to NYC, where he began his business development career at the Melrose Hotel. A position with international quality assurance firm LRA saw him asses and help refine hotels and restaurants in Europe, Canada, New Zealand, Asia and Australia, but then, he said, “Philly sucked me back in.” In October 2010, he started at PHS as a ticket sales manager for the Philadelphia Flower Show, and worked his way up to his current position. As the No. 3 guy in the whole organization, Pytel is responsible for handling Flower Show sponsorships from $10,000 up to $250,000, which help make sure the 10-day event is able to continue bringing in hordes of tourists. The show has an estimated $65 million annual economic impact on the city, and helps funds various urban gardens and community programs, of which Pytel is proud. “I’ve seen most of the world,” he said, “and Philly has everything. Arts, sports, entertainment, music, neighborhoods, restaurants and hotels.”
When Jasmine Rivera moved to Philadelphia in 2009, she’d only ever visited once before. A Chicago native who’d grown up in Arizona and attended college in NYC, she knew very little about Philly, and chose to live here simply because people at her place of work in Camden suggested it. After about nine months hunkered down as a community organizer in South Jersey, she switched jobs to a nonprofit in the city and got a chance to explore. Always a huge history buff, she geeked out about how much is preserved in Philadelphia, and was especially surprised to find so much of note away from the traditional tourist destinations. Since she kept coming across things she’d never heard of before, she decided to organize her finds and make them accessible to others by building a website. Called The Open Flame, after the insignia Philly furniture-makers carved to differentiate their work from others’, the website aims to highlight “some really amazing stuff in the more residential neighborhoods that are not being talked about,” Rivera said. She would love to see more official investment promoting those less-known destinations, but for now, hopes tourists use her site as a resource.
If you ever struggle to keep up with all your various social media profiles, tip your hat to Dana Schmidt. As director of social media for Visit Philly, she oversees 14 different accounts with a combined follower count of more than 1.5 million. It’s an impressive number, but since Schmidt took the position a year and a half ago, she’s focused less on growing it than on increasing engagement across the various platforms. “If no one’s liking or commenting or sharing our stuff, are we doing it right?” said the Bucks County native, who has an undergraduate communications degree from NYU but also makes use of her master’s in creative writing to help craft intriguing narratives online. Based on her experience living in cities around the world, from New York to Paris to Denver, Schmidt believes Philly is unique in the way its preserved history is integrated into the natural modern environment, and she tries to reflect that specialness in posts from Visit Philly. Although the organization has an ostensible goal of drawing tourists from out of town, it’s important to interact with locals too, Schmidt said. “Showcasing interesting Philadelphians who love the city makes the best argument for why people should want to visit.”
She passed the bar on her first try, but even when she was in law school at Temple, Jamie Shanker knew being an attorney wasn’t for her. “Not creative enough,” said the Queens, NY, native. Luckily, she already had a side gig. When she moved here for school in 2009, she helped launch and was the editor for Midtown Lunch NYC’s Philly spin-off, which allowed her to explore the hidden culinary gems of her new city. Even as she transitioned into a career in communications and then business development (she now manages a women’s biz dev center in Camden), Shanker kept her food habits up. Two years ago she decided to make a business out of it, and launch her food tours company, which offers guided tours of Chinatown’s lesser-known establishments. Her clientele is often tourists, but it’s sometimes also locals who “act like tourists” when they’re in that neighborhood. “I think Chinatown is a huge underutilized asset” for visitors to Philly, she said. “I’m trying in my own little way to work on that.”
For Carol Watson, the best part of working in a hotel is the chance to interact with people from all different places and all walks of life. “I love being part of their journey,” said the Pittsburgh native, who moved to Philly to attend Temple’s School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management. She got her first front desk experience in college as an intern, then made it her career after graduation in 2002. A position at the Hyatt at the Bellevue gave her a solid foundation, and then she helped open the Palomar in 2009. She moved to a position at Kimpton’s other Philly property, and then returned to the Palomar as head honcho last year. She’s excited about the large-scale events the city has hosted recently, and thinks visitors are also coming for the restaurant and nightlife boom. Although her day-to-day activities see her interacting more with staff than visitors, she feels strongly that’s where the guest experience begins. “We put employees first,” she said, “How are they feeling and what do they need? Because if they’re happy, that translates directly to the guests.”