It doesn't get much better than working across the street from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall for this mother of two.
Ellie Slomine had just sold a Ride the Ducks tour ticket to the out-of-town visitor, a 20-ish scruffy young man who could have easily been either a Silicon Valley startup mogul or an unemployed bicycle courier.
But Slomine, director of visitor services for Philadelphia’s Independence Visitor Center, didn’t yet consider her work complete. She briskly emerged from behind the desk in the airy, light-filled space on the perimeter of Independence Mall to escort the tourist to the amphibious vehicle’s boarding point outside the center’s brick Sixth Street facade.
That type of service seems to come naturally to the buoyant, 41-year-old Penn Valley mother of two who even hosted her 14-year-old son Jarred’s Bar Mitzvah reception last year at the center’s Liberty View ballroom overlooking Independence Mall.
“We’re doing the same kind of things for the visitor that you’d like people to do for you,” Slomine said during a brief lull behind the desk on a recent sunny weekday afternoon in advance of Memorial Day, the official kickoff to the tourist season.
The next visitor wanted to book a Segway tour. Slomine made a quick check of the Segway schedule, then reminded the visitor of the operator’s Groupon offer, whereupon the tourist pulled out her smartphone to download the deal, saving $50 off the regular $100 price.
As Slomine helped the would-be Segway rider, one of her employees spent about 20 minutes creating a full itinerary with two young visitors from Barcelona who arrived without definite plans for their stay.
The extra effort is in line with Slomine’s view that she and the 20 others who staff the desk are not mere dispensers of information and tickets, but concierges, always ready to do what it takes to make a visitor’s stay easier and more enjoyable. They provide the service at the main center on Independence Mall as well as four satellite locations in Center City.
While most questions fielded by the staff, whether at the desk, on the phone or via email, Twitter or web-based chat, are predictable, some come out of left field:
There’s a dead bird in my driveway. What do I do?
How do I start a new business?
How do I get to the Statue of Liberty?
Could you help me find my great-great-grandmother’s grave?
But no matter the question, Slomine’s concierges are trained to respond without rolling over with laughter and point the questioner in the right direction, even if it’s just “north” to the Statue of Liberty or providing a phone number to a city agency.
Slomine entered the hospitality and tourism industry while studying European literature at the University of Tirana in her native Albania’s capital city.
“I was in high school when communism fell, and my goal since I was 15 was to get the hell out of the country,” she said. That opportunity presented itself after the fall of the regime, when Austrian Airlines formed a joint venture to create an Albanian airline to connect Tirana with the rest of Europe. She earned a spot as one of the carrier’s first four flight attendants.
“It was my ticket out,” said Slomine, “and I got to travel without having to pay for it.” While in college, she spent two years flying for the now-defunct Albanian Airlines, mostly during summers and holidays. She worked flights to Turkey, Greece, Austria, Germany and Sweden, living at one point in Innsbruck, Austria.
She came to the United States right after college, following her father to New York. Her mother came soon after.
Neither parent was Jewish but Slomine, who converted prior to marrying Keave Slomine, whom she met in New York, is proud of the deeds of many Albanian families in protecting Jews during the Holocaust. They protected both its small pre-war population of about 200 and the estimated 1,800 refugees welcomed during the war, lured by the Muslim Albanian tradition of besa, a code of honor to provide hospitality and protection to those in need. Only a single Jewish family in Albania was a Holocaust casualty by the end of hostilities, according to Yad Vashem records.
Slomine, with her strong language skills — she speaks fluent Italian, Albanian and English, though she says she’s lost most of her French and German conversational skills — soon found work in the hotel industry, working the front desk at a small Manhattan hotel, moving on to a manager’s job at the Hilton and eventually becoming a supervisor at New York’s posh Four Seasons hotel.
After moving to the area about a dozen years ago, where she and her family are members of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Slomine spent four years devoting her attention to son Jarred, who was diagnosed with autism at age two. Her second son, Bradley, is 8.
Slomine re-entered the work force with a temporary job at Comcast Center before she learned of an opening at the Independence Visitor Center, where she started as manager of visitor services in 2008.
“The fact that it’s a welcome center for people from around the world is a big deal for me,” said Slomine. It also helps that her boss, James Cuorato, the center’s president and chief executive officer, “really cares about his employees, enabling me to work a full-time job while raising two kids.”
But the biggest deal of all, according to Slomine, might be her job’s location.
“I work across the road from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. For someone raised in a communist country, that’s a big deal, too.”