by Padraic Gilligan, Vice President, Industry Relations, MCI
There was a sense of homecoming.
When I thought about it I realised it stemmed from a unique alignment of time and place.
The 100th year anniversary of the birth of my Dad on 28 Feb rooted my thoughts around the Gilligan family and Annie, my Dad’s eldest sister. She came to Philadelphia from Ireland as a mere teenager in the 1920s, married here and generated another branch to our family tree that’s now rich with its own foliage.
Then the train journey through New York City reminded me of another journey from Manhattan to 30th Street Station. It was August 1979, I was 19 years old and free falling in love with my travelling companion, a brown eyed girl who has been my wife and best friend for over 30 years. So Philadelphia has always had resonance and meaning for me and when I stepped onto the station platform I felt that sense of belonging that you only feel in places where your heart is at home.
Philadelphia in the 1970s
When I visited Philadelphia in the 70s no buildings were taller – or, by civic decree, were permitted to be taller, than William Penn’s statue atop City Hall. At that time its appeal as a city pivoted around the architectural and historical legacy of the old town, the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. The bi-centennial celebrations of 1976 put this in strong focus. It was also endowed with some impressive civic building laid out along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway – the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Franklin Institute, the Rodin Museum. Overall, however, Philly was a city of restrained ambition and modest vision, content to live on its historical legacy and its connection to the Rocky movie.
On the Streets of Philadelphia
The intervening years have seen Philadelphia catapult forward probably most dramatically during the 90s when Ed Rendell was Mayor. He took on a city in fiscal ruins and presided over “the most stunning turnaround in recent urban history”. His great vision and commitment to the Arts laid the foundations for impressive infrastructural investment and growth and provided the fertile soil from which Philadelphia has grown into a world class destination for culture and the arts. I was fortunate to be taken around Philly by Lauren Barnes of Albrecht Events, a Philadelphia based destination management company. Like all true DMCs, she is infectiously passionate about Philly and knows her city well.
Comcast and Palomar
We started at the Comcast building, an iconic new structure completed in 2007 and now the tallest building in the city. Built to the highest sustainability specifications the building also houses in its vast entrance lobby the Comcast Experience, a 190m2 LED screen with visuals that are typically 10 times more vivid than the latest domestic HD screens. It was mesmerizing and Lauren had to drag me away from it. The entire lobby can be rented for evening events with or without the incredible LED displays. We made an unscheduled stop at Palomar, a new Kimpton property located in an impeccably restored Art Deco building and now the city’s only LEED Gold Certified eco-friendly hotel. Despite our unplanned arrival, the delightful Kayla Howard took us around the hotel matching the quirky style and swagger of the property with her own natural warmth and exuberance. Her business card said “Manager in Training” but I cannot think of anything that this wonderful Kimpton associate needs to learn about customer service and impact. And the hotel is uber-cool too!
A new donut sensation
We took a brief detour to check out Federal Donuts on Samson Street, a new and quirky Philly sensation with three menu items: coffee, donuts (plain and fancy) and fried chicken. Bearing all the hallmarks of a true culinary cult and already lauded on various foodie blogs Federal Donuts is a strike for local artisanal independence in a marketplace so swamped and strangled by global behemoths. The brand personality is funny and frivolous – a recent Facebook posting said “No mo’ donuts on Sansom. Plenty o’ birds. And apostrophes” – but you sense deep commitment and unwavering authenticity at its core. Finding places like this makes your engagement with a destination so satisfying and I was reminded again of the importance of insider knowledge that you can only get from a DMC – so thanks Lauren and Albrecht Events!
Philly: City of Culture and Arts
The remaining time with Lauren was spent on matters cultural and artistic – we visited the vast Kimmel Centre for the Performing Arts, home of the Philadelphia Orchestra and hub location for the month long Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, a seminal moment in the city’s event calendar that brings in thousands of visitors. The Kimmel Centre is comprised of multiple events spaces including 2 auditoria and the recently re-modelled Hamiliton Garden, all of which can be privately hired. Food is provided by the star-chef Jose Garces though his eponymously named catering company. We then visited the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) where I met the very formidable Judi Garst, Director of Facility Rentals, graduate of Trinity College Dublin and friend of the even more formidable Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. PAFA occupies 2 buildings, the Historic Landmark Building and the adjacent, contemporary Samuel M. V. Hamilton Building, both of which have wonderful spaces available for private meetings and events. Located across the road from the recently extended Philadelphia Convention Centre these are premium spaces in great demand providing an unrivalled immersion into US art history.
Sonesta comes to Philly
Prior to my arrival in Philly I tweeted that I was looking forward to staying at a Sonesta property again, having stayed at the flagship Royal Sonesta in New Orleans over 10 years ago. This tweet connected me to Michele Simpson, Director of Sales and Marketing at the Sonesta Philadelphia, with whom I enjoyed a great breakfast discussion. Previously a Crowne Plaza, the property became Sonesta when Hospitality Properties Trust bought the brand from the Sonnabend family. With Stephanie Sonnabend remaining as President, the new owners are embarking on an audacious expansion programme anchored and rooted in the strong hospitality values and culture of the original owners but taking the brand to more locations both in the US and globally. Sonesta wants to avoid the sterile rigidity of global brand uniformity and is committed to imbuing each property with the unique feel and flavour of its respective destination. With this is mind the Philly property will shortly undergo a major refurbishment that will connect it visually and emotionally to Philadelphia as a city of art and culture.
Padraic Gilligan is Vice President of Industry Relations at MCI and also leads Ovation Global DMC, MCI’s destination services division. He was in Philadelphia to attend and speak at the inaugural World Congress Global Medical Meetings Summit convened and organised by the extraordinarily capable Courtney Richman. But that’s another story …