Ross D. Levi did not take a linear path to become the Executive Director of Tourism for the State of New York. Each career choice, although seemingly not connected in their trajectory, has helped create a well-rounded leader in the tourism industry whose dynamism has lead the state to receive a record number of visitors, despite a slump in tourism nationwide.
One could point to his experience in the movie industry as helping him craft the cinematic beauty of some of the New York State ad campaigns; his time as a lawyer fueling his passion for equal rights and the respect of all people; and his time at the Empire State Pride Agenda in helping craft an inclusive New York State that welcomes all visitors.
Currently, Levi manages all New York State tourism staff, coordinates efforts with the state’s regional Tourism Promotion Agencies, and partners on all I LOVE NEW YORK (www.iloveny.com) marketing initiatives. Additionally, he works closely with Governor Cuomo’s Tourism Advisory Council that provides input and advice regarding the state’s tourism efforts.
While his achievements include many successful tourism campaigns, particularly LGBT-welcoming ones, at the heart of it all Levi is a down-to-earth guy who loves traveling throughout the state’s 11 different tourism regions, connecting with the people, relaxing at home in New York’s Capital Region, and planning future initiatives to increase the number of visitors to New York.
We had the chance to sit down with Mr. Levi who shared a bit about his prolific career, his favorite spots in New York, and what it was like pioneering LGBT campaigns.
You’ve held a variety of positions, everywhere from the entertainment industry, teaching, and tourism to marketing. Can you please describe your career progression?
My career path has certainly been a winding road! I started in the movie industry, doing marketing, publicity, and promotions at studios like 20th Century Fox, Miramax, and Universal. As I was coming out and becoming more socially conscious as a gay man, I wanted to get more involved with justice and social change. I went to law school and, upon graduating, received a fellowship in the New York State Senate. The senator I was placed with hired me as her legislative director, and later I secured a position with the state’s LGBT advocacy organization where I worked for more than a decade, eventually serving as its executive director. When my time there was done, Governor Cuomo offered me the opportunity to join his administration, particularly to help develop the I LOVE NY LGBT tourism initiative (www.iloveny.com/lgbt). So, in a way, it was back to the future for me, drawing on my past marketing experience and my work within the LGBT community. All during that time there were some interesting sidelines as well, from teaching college classes, to writing a book on film, to being a professional DJ at clubs in New York City.
What is the most exciting marketing campaign you’ve been a part of?
It’s been a very exciting time to be part of I LOVE NY because of Governor Cuomo’s commitment to tourism, with so many new and exciting efforts underway. It was exciting to help launch the Path Through History program, which highlights heritage tourism opportunities across the state, and the Adirondack Challenges, where the governor hosts opinion makers for a day of outdoor activities like whitewater rafting to showcase the beauty of the region. But I was probably most excited to help create the I LOVE NY LGBT initiative, where New York State extends an invitation to the LGBTQ community to come experience all the amazing travel opportunities in the Empire State. I’ve certainly learned a lot while coordinating that program, including the importance of market research to have the most concrete sense of your audience as possible. We all take vacations, so when dealing with tourism there is the temptation to ask, ‘What would my friends and I like?’ However, that is rarely the right question in and of itself. As I’ve heard said, that’s just me-search, not research.
How is it managing the various tourism teams across the state, plus working with the governor? How do you manage so many different people?
Tourism in New York is so successful because of the strength of our partnerships. From our local tourism promotion agents, to our state’s trade groups, and our network of hotels and attractions. We work hard to amplify each others’ efforts and find areas for collaboration. When you have a governor who is so publicly committed to tourism that only makes it easier. Tourism in New York State is not only about memory making, it’s big business. Tourism is the state’s fourth largest industry and one of the fastest growing, literally responsible for one in 12 jobs and a record $105 billion in economic impact. There is a real responsibility on the state’s tourism division and all our partners across the state to keep tourism as a vital economic engine.
Taking over the I Love New York campaign is no small job, what do you love most about New York? Any advice for first-time visitors? Road trips? Unexpected surprises?
What I love most about New York is its variety. There is no other place in the world where during one vacation you can walk the shores of an LGBT beach community one day, see a Broadway show the next, then hike in the mountains, sip wine lakeside, spend the night in an island castle, sail on a Great Lake or the Erie Canal, and finish the trip standing under the spray of Niagara Falls. I also love the authenticity of New York State’s destinations. We are anything but a theme park. In fact, even our theme parks aren’t cookie cutter and instead serve as reflections of their local communities. I think people are constantly surprised by the world-class attractions that exist across the state. I hesitate to start mentioning specific places because I would leave out so many gems. As our current campaign so accurately sums it up, “It’s all here. It’s only here.” My advice for first time guests would be: Don’t look at New York State as a one-time destination. Visit our website, find a couple regions that appeal to your interests, spend a few days there, and then come back again using a similar approach for an entirely different area of the state.
How has being an openly gay man impacted or advised your career? Do you have any advice for someone looking to follow your path?
What a great question! I often forget how scary it was coming out decades ago, when being rejected by my family or facing discrimination in my career felt like a real possibility. I think the process of proudly becoming an out gay man gave me a confidence that still makes it easier to face challenges, whether professional or personal. It also creates an opportunity for empathy with all marginalized people, which I think not only makes a person stronger professionally, but also just as a human being. As far as advice, I think there is no such thing as wasted knowledge. You never know when or how an experience is going to be helpful in the future. It’s best to always be seeking out new experiences and keeping yourself open to new ways of looking at things. From there, follow your passion, ask questions and advice of people who know more, work hard, and treat everyone kindly and with respect. Being a decent person and having integrity is probably more important professionally than any skill or job experience you will acquire.
The Empire State Pride Agenda is widely credited with making New York State one of the most LGBT-friendly in the US. When you look back at your time there, what was your greatest achievement?
Undoubtedly, the most intense and high profile victory was achieving marriage equality in New York. That ended up being a tipping point for the nation, the same way that New York’s passage of women’s suffrage a hundred years ago led to national suffrage three years later. But I also think of those first accomplishments just a relatively short time ago in the early 2000s, when LGBT people appeared in New York State law for the very first time, like in the hate crimes law and the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, our basic civil rights law. I was very proud of my role in passing the Dignity for All Students Act, not only because it helped LGBT youth by fighting bias harassment in schools, but because it was New York’s first statewide law to explicitly include transgender people.
What’s in store for New York State? Any new regions the LGBT traveler must discover? Any new and exciting events?
What do you expect the executive director of tourism to say—there is always something new and exciting in New York State! Seriously, we do have some exciting new developments happening over the next couple of years, from new luxury resorts in the Catskills, to the new National Comedy Center in Lucille Ball’s hometown of Jamestown, to LEGOLAND New York, the first of its kind in the Northeast, being built in the Hudson Valley. This year, the Corning Museum of Glass is celebrating the 150th anniversary of moving to upstate New York with their GlassBarge, a floating canal barge with glassblowing demonstrations traveling along the Hudson River and Erie Canal. Next year is the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Music Festival at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in the Catskills. For LGBT visitors, the biggest news is probably WorldPride coming to New York in 2019 to celebrate Stonewall 50 (www.stonewall50.org), the anniversary of the birth of the modern LGBTQ rights movement. Besides hosting the biggest LGBT party on the planet in New York City, it will also be a statewide celebration with cultural events, exhibits, and special performances planned.
What is the future of LGBT travel in New York?
Tourism is so dynamic, especially in today’s environment that it’s difficult to say what the future holds. One thing for certain is that as long as our current governor is in place, New York State will have the red carpet out for ALL our guests. New York has always been a place where everyone is welcome, and we truly see diversity as our strength and something that has and continues to make us great. So, whether it’s a group of LGBT friends, an LGBT family, or a couple getting married or celebrating a lifetime together, they will find a warm welcome here in the Empire State.