Meet the first African American woman to direct Philly's visitor bureau
This year, Julie Coker Graham took over as the new President and CEO of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. She is currently the only African American woman leading a major CVB in a major city.
After 21 years in Hyatt Regency, Graham came over to the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau in 2010 as a senior vice president. She became executive vice president in 2014, and as part of a strategic succession plan, she assumed the president role earlier this year following the retirement of former president and CEO Jack Ferguson last December.
“The first thing that I would say is that anytime you are the first, there is a level of responsibility that I think you take because you’re opening the door. You are hopefully opening the door for others who do come behind you,” Coker Graham said. “I also think as an African American woman I have a responsibility, an obligation to give back to those that are up and coming. I think that is extremely important and I was fortunate enough to benefit from that in my career.”
There were African-American women — and men — who were role models in Coker Graham’s career. Her interest in the hospitality industry was peaked back in high school, at a time when the service and hospitality industry was still relatively new to females.
Out of high school, she had the opportunity to go to college and pursue a degree at Johnson and Wales University, and after graduating she began working with Hyatt.
“I had the opportunity to work in various cities with them, so I worked in Columbus, Ohio, Cincinnati, Chicago and then eventually here in Philadelphia,” Coker Graham said. “So I bring to table experience from various markets and customers appreciate that, that you’ve traveled around the country but most importantly you’ve worked in different markets so not every customer is the same, not every meeting is the same.”
She had a unique opportunity when she joined the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Instead of selling a hotel brand, she could now sell an entire destination to conventions, tradeshows as well as international visitors.
While at Hyatt, Coker Graham was able to work her up to general manager. She was fortunate enough, she said, to be able to start out as a corporate management trainee which allowed her to learn how to manage people, influence partnerships as well as other skills that translated well over to PHLCVB.
“Hospitality is similar to what we do now,” she said. “You really are managing expectations.”
Simply put, PHLCVB is responsible for “putting heads in bed,” Coker Graham said. The organization generates taxes for the city and creates jobs. PHLCVB also focuses on international visitors and are usually tasked with bringing them to Philadelphia, whether it be for a leisure or business trip.
“We sell Philadelphia to those segments and then we’re also responsible to selling Philadelphia as a destination,” Coker Graham said.
Being the president and ceo of the PHLCVB, Coker Graham is constantly working and interacting with different people who may be interested in visiting or hosting an event in Philadelphia in some way. When dealing with customers of any type, being a good listener is everything.
“Put yourself in their shoes as to what they were hoping to expect or what they were expecting and where we fell short of the mark and then providing solutions, which is what we do here everyday,” she said. “So we sell to whether its international visitors or convention attendees, we provide them with all of the great information about Philadelphia. We are the local expert in Philadelphia in everything that they can do here and why they should choose Philadelphia for their convention.”
Events like the World Meeting of Families last year and the Democratic National Convention taking place this summer certainly put Philadelphia on a national and international stage, in terms of awareness, Coker Graham said.
But the Barnes Foundation, the rebranding of the Gallery, and the Philadelphia culinary scene also help boost that image.
“I’m taking over at a great time in Philadelphia’s history,” Coker Graham said. “My goal is to make sure that we continue to win as a city when it comes to hospitality and tourism, in terms of meeting and conventions and international visitations. What we have done in international visitation is move from the 21st visited city to the 15th and we want to continue that work and beyond.”