Visit Philly’s Jeff Guaracino, ‘true champion’ of Philadelphia and LGBTQ tourism pioneer, has died

The Philadelphia native was 48 years old.

A native of Philadelphia, Jeff Guaracino became CEO of tourism organization Visit Philly in 2018

A native of Philadelphia, Jeff Guaracino became CEO of tourism organization Visit Philly in 2018

Courtesy Visit Philly

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Visit Philadelphia President and CEO Jeff Guaracino died Tuesday night at 48 years old. A Philly native, Guaracino became internationally known as an advocate for LGBTQ tourism.

His death comes after a long battle with cancer, according to Visit Philly.

“Jeff was a beloved family member, partner and friend, as well as a passionate leader, avid traveler, celebrated author, teacher, mentor and role model,” said Visit Philly spokesperson Justin Pizzi. “His fun spirit and strong sense of self were with him until the end.”

Over his decades in the hospitality industry, Guaracino was key in helping boost Philadelphia’s profile, friends and colleagues said.

“Jeff loved Philadelphia with his heart and soul,” Jim Cuorato, president of the Independence Visitor Center, told Billy Penn. “He had this great innate ability to look three or four steps ahead of everyone else, and was really responsible for so many great developments in the regional and local hospitality industry.”

Mayor Jim Kenney remembered Guaracino’s passion for the city, and said he “left an indelible mark.” Kenney’s statement continued: “Jeff was also a proud advocate for the LGBTQ community. With his trademark energy, charismatic charm, and never-ending wit, he helped make Philadelphia the welcoming city and destination that it proudly is today.”

After working at Visit Philly from 2001 to 2012, Guaracino rejoined the tourism marketing organization as its leader in 2018. Just prior to that, he spent two years as CEO of Welcome America — the group responsible for running the city’s annual Fourth of July events.

During his first stint at the local travel agency, Guaracino came up with the groundbreaking 2003 campaign: “Get your history straight and your nightlife gay.”

Guaracino was also an author, and he wrote the first book about marketing for LGBTQ tourism. That niche earned him worldwide recognition — he spoke all over the globe about traveling for queer and trans people, in cities like Tel Aviv and Buenos Aires.

In recent years, he kept up a regular column at The Philadelphia Gay News. PGN publisher Mark Segal called him a close friend, and said they met to say goodbye a few days ago.

“​​Jeff was brilliant, compassionate, pragmatic, and creative, with an incredible. outrageous sense of humor,” Segel wrote on Facebook this morning. “But most of all passionate about Philadelphia.”

Guaracino’s work helped transform Philadelphia into an LGBTQ vacation destination, with friends, family, and former coworkers remembering the impact he had on the city and their relationships with it.

“This is such a huge loss for me, his family, friends and the City of Philadelphia,” said Bruce Yelk, who worked alongside Guaracino at Visit Philly, in another Facebook post. “I’ve never seen anyone organize his thoughts, plan and execute various projects so effortlessly. And it wasn’t just his success he took into account, he brought everyone along he could.”

Though he loved to explore the world, Guaracino was deeply committed to the Philly region. Born in the city, he most recently lived in Society Hill. After graduating from Rowan University he worked at tourism agencies in Philadelphia and Atlantic City. There, he led the Atlantic City Alliance, a marketing firm charged with revitalizing the shore town’s image after Hurricane Sandy and the collapse of several prominent casinos.

Throughout his career, the Philly lifer endured repeated blows to the tourism industry: 9/11, the Great Recession — and, of course, COVID.

“Jeff stepped right up, right at the beginning [of the pandemic,” said Cuorato, of the Independence Visitor Center. “He pulled us all together, said we’re all going to get through this, we’ll support each other. What he did for the city will be remembered for a long time.”

Michael DelBene, current Welcome American CEO, agreed about Guaracino’s lasting impact. “Jeff was a kind, smart, and passionate leader, and a tireless advocate for our city. His leadership changed Welcome America profoundly for the better,” DelBene told Billy Penn. “His friendship, wisdom, and board leadership will truly be missed.”

At Visit Philadelphia, Guaracino succeeded founder Meryl Levitz. Under his leadership, the org launched a podcast called Love + Grit and ran regular virtual events like Philly Live Weekends. Guaracino also oversaw a Black- and brown-owned business initiative, which culminated in City Council’s Shop Black Business Friday declaration.

Guaracino was a pillar of Philly tourism. So what were his favorite local spots? He told PGN in 2008 that he loved spending time in Fairmount Park, at Race Street Pier, Morris Arboretum, and the azalea gardens outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

His work came naturally, colleagues said, because he truly appreciated everything about Philly.

“I’m from here, we love this city and region,” Guaracino told Billy Penn in 2020, describing the feelings Philadelphians have for their hometown. “There is a lot of love happening in this city.”

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