HOSPITALITY & TOURISM
Drawn to beaches, mountains and entertaining cities, more U.S. citizens visited North Carolina than all but four other states in 2020, according to the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. Visitors spend more than $20 billion annually, helping support 230,000 jobs, about 7.5% of total employment.
CEO | Bojangles
Bojangles announced a 10-restaurant expansion in New Jersey this year, underscoring efforts to expand the chain beyond the South. Founded in Charlotte in 1977, it has about 760 restaurants in 14 states. The University of Miami graduate, 61, signed on in 2019 after stints at LensCrafters and McDonald’s.
Pre-workday motivation: Every weekday my grandson, Peter, comes to my home, where he spends each day under the watchful care of his aba — that’s short for abuela, which is Spanish for grandmother. I also am motivated by the privilege of leading a great company that’s filled with wonderful people.
Key to industry success: Having great people who live your culture and are determined to make customers happy is the key to success.
Best advice: Always do the right thing, because no matter the outcome, you will never be disappointed in yourself.
Three people to share a meal: Jesus Christ, my mother and Ronald Reagan.
Proud family accomplishment: All of our children have earned a bachelor’s or master’s degree, and they are good people who care for others and live a life of solid character, values and integrity. I also am proud to be married to my high school sweetheart for 42 years.
Favorite hobby: I have a passion for old Ford Mustang muscle cars. I have owned a few Shelbys, and I have a 1970 Boss 429 Survivor in my corral. I also love grilling in the summer.
Where to entertain a visitor: Bojangles. Then we will share a bourbon in the University of Miami Cane Cave in my basement.
LEAH WONG ASHBURN
president, CEO | Highland Brewing
With the good humor that characterizes her father, Oscar Wong — “vice president, schmoozing, and cleanup guy” — Ashburn, 51, became CEO in 2018. She started as Highland’s Charlotte sales rep in 2011 and has earned an Asheville Chamber’s Woman Executive of the Year award and a James Beard Award nomination. Highland has the capacity to fill 60,000 barrels annually.
Pre-workday motivation: Finding new ways for our beer and brewery to bring together people in ways that fit our values and lifestyle. Continuous energy comes from community partnerships, live music, weddings, watch parties and weekly beer releases.
Proud family accomplishment: Our family business launched the craft beer industry in western North Carolina. We’re in our second generation of ownership with an ever-evolving brewery — and an intact family! Asheville rallied around a finely crafted locally produced beer, which was likely introduced to them by my father. All the while, community has been part of our ethos as we grew from a factory into a destination.
Where to entertain a visitor: I am so proud to take guests to Highland. In the past 10 years, my husband, Brock, engineered and led the construction of every brewery buildout, always mindful of the environmental impact. Our brewers revolutionized the beer portfolio. We rebranded. We are, in large part, a new brewery. But we embrace our roots, our name and reason for being — to create connections through beer and beyond.
president and CEO | Boddie-Noell
At the helm since 1990, when he succeeded his father, Mayo, Boddie stepped in as the holding company’s Hardee’s fast-food franchise was growing. Formed in 1962, it remains the largest Hardee’s franchisee, with 343 sites in four states as of January.
BILL CECIL JR.
president | Biltmore Co.
Cecil oversees the 250-room Biltmore House, the centerpiece of the 8,000-acre estate developed by his great-grandfather George Vanderbilt. It welcomes about 1.5 million tourists annually. Cecil, who attended the University of Colorado, heads a peak-season staff of more than 2,000, who also work in its hotels, restaurants and winery.
JOHN "JACK" CECIL
president | Biltmore Farms
The UNC Chapel Hill graduate presides over real-estate projects such as a Biltmore Park, medical office buildings, hotels and a 1,000-home development. He is on the board of directors of the Research Triangle Foundation and is vice chairman of the nonprofit Dogwood Health Trust.
founder, owner | Bogue Sound
A licensed real-estate appraiser and contractor, the Sanford native embraced his family heritage of distilling when he and his wife, Margaret, fired up a still about five years ago. The Carteret County tourism attraction includes a 1900s grist mill and a museum with a 1923 Ford Model T pickup
owner | AC Restaurants
The Greensboro native and N.C. State University graduate has been named one of the nation’s best chefs multiple times. She temporarily closed her Poole’s Diner and Beasley’s Chicken + Honey amid the pandemic.
DENNIS "DENNY" EDWARDS
president, CEO | Greater Raleigh
Convention and Visitors Bureau
The University of Northern Iowa graduate oversees about 30 employees and an $8 million annual budget, having led the bureau since 2007. His credentials include similar jobs in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Palm Springs, Calif.
Pre-workday motivation: I’m anxious to see what new opportunities we have to bring tourism-related business to Wake County, making it a better place to live and visit.
Key to industry success: Monitoring national and international trends to ensure Wake County is delivering what visitors want today and will want in the future.
Best advice: Do today what you think you can put off until tomorrow.
Three people to share a meal: Billy Crystal, Will Ferrell and Steven Spielberg.
Proud family accomplishment: Both my sons have a strong work ethic and understand the importance of honesty. We appreciate spending as much time together as we can. I have a beautiful wife who I cherish every day. And I think my 3-year-old grandchild, Owen, is the world’s best grandchild.
Favorite hobby: Golf and watching the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Cubs and Iowa Hawkeyes.
Where to entertain a visitor: Any of our state museums or craft breweries.
president | Duplin Winery
Fussell represents the third generation of the winemaking family that opened Duplin in 1972. It produces more than 370,000 cases of wine and welcomes more than 100,000 visitors annually. He started corking bottles while attending UNC Chapel Hill.
president | Visit Winston-Salem
Geiger has been promoting the Camel City’s virtues for conventions, group tours, meetings and sporting events since he was named president in 2010. Road Runners Club of America named it a Runner Friendly Community, one of only 66 in the country, last year. He’s a State University of New York-Brockport graduate.
president | Kitty Hawk Kites
History says Harris was the first to hang glide from Grandfather Mountain. In the nearly half-century since, he has turned his passion for unpowered flight into Kitty Hawk Kites, selling hang gliders and giving lessons at nearly 20 East Coast locations that employ 350 people. The Missouri University of Science and Technology graduate has been credited with introducing thousands to North Carolina’s coast.
Pre-workday motivation: Coffee and the beauty of the Outer Banks, where we are headquartered, is reason enough to get the day started.
Key to industry success: Customer service, a sense of urgency, building good teams and developing good relationships with vendors, community leaders and others outside the company.
Best advice: Hugh Morton, the photographer and nature conservationist who developed Grandfather Mountain, once told me, “If you are blessed, you have a responsibility to give back.”
Three people to share a meal: Volodymyr Zelensky, Richard Branson and Elon Musk.
Proud family accomplishment: They’re good people taking care of themselves and their families independently.
Favorite hobby: Flying.
Where to entertain a visitor: The Wright Brothers National Memorial and Jockey’s Ridge State Park.
chair, CEO | Discovery Insurance Co.,
Hill Realty and Mother Earth
The heir of a family that owns dozens of nursing homes has pumped millions of dollars into revitalizing the Lenoir County city. He’s a former president of Lenoir Community Council for the Arts. He graduated from Lees-McRae College and attended Appalachian State University.
president, CEO | Explore Asheville
Convention & Visitors Bureau
Isley was appointed to the post in 2020 after similar stints promoting Bermuda, Washington, D.C., and Tampa Bay, Florida. A graduate of UNC Chapel Hill, she began her tourism career in Durham.
Key to industry success: People are at the heart of travel and hospitality. We travel to connect with cultures, people and places.
Best advice: There is a profound difference between information and meaning.
Favorite hobby: Passionate traveler, foodie and music lover.
Where to entertain a visitor: A walk along the French Broad River on the Wilma Dykeman Greenway in the River Arts District. It’s a perfect microcosm of Asheville — a bit of nature, art and exercise capped off with a local brew. It also is an excellent example of achieving big things collaboratively. The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority contributed more than $7 million to the project, which also attracted federal, state and city support.
president, CEO | Greater Charlotte
Hospitality & Tourism Alliance
The UNC Charlotte graduate, 62, has headed the alliance since it was created nearly 30 years ago. It represents hotels, contractors and others involved in tourism.
Pre-workday motivation: Thinking about seizing opportunities to be more thankful for everything I have.
Key to industry success: Having passion for the industry, specific and measurable goals, being the best in hiring and motivating staff, patience and perseverance.
Best advice: Be thankful for everything you have and focus on leveraging your strengths to achieve your personal and professional goals.
Three people to share a meal: Michael Jordan, Brian Moynihan and Marvin Ellison.
Proud family accomplishment: They taught me the work ethic necessary to believe in myself and achieve my goals.
Favorite hobby: Traveling.
Where to entertain a visitor: Any of Charlotte’s abundant sports activities.
president, CEO | Concord
He started the business in 1985 and built it to more than 90 hotels under management through its sale of a majority interest to New York-based Alleghany Capital in 2018. Laport, 74, is a graduate of Mount Union College and Rochester Institute of Technology.
CEO | McConnell Golf
McConnell, 71 and a Virginia Tech graduate, founded two medical software companies then sold them for a combined $1.4 billion. He turned to golf, buying Raleigh Country Club in 2003, then adding more than a dozen other courses in the Carolinas and Virginia.
Pre-workday motivation: McConnell Golf strives to have the best facilities for members to enjoy each day. The passion I have for keeping our properties in topnotch shape, along with seeing the smiles on members’ faces each day, is what motivates me.
Key to industry success: To be successful in the golf industry, you needed multiple clubs and an economy of scale. With that, you need a competitive advantage with offerings that set your company apart from others. Success starts with hiring the right people and having a talented leadership team.
Best advice: Never be complacent, always give your best effort each day and finish the task you started.
Three people to share a meal: Tom Morris, Donald Ross and Pete Dye.
Proud family accomplishment: Making memories with my wife, children and grandchildren. Watching my children grow, and most importantly raise the next generation for a better tomorrow, is truly something special.
Favorite hobby: Golf and spending time with family on Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia and watching the Virginia Tech Hokies play football at Lane Stadium.
Where to entertain a visitor: The nearest McConnell Golf property to enjoy a round followed by the best cuisine prepared by our food and beverage staff.
president, CEO | North Carolina
Restaurant and Lodging Association
Minges’ group represents more than 20,000 restaurants and lodging establishments, which employ about 11% of the state’s workforce. Leader of the group since 2012, the former N.C. Commerce Department marketing executive has degrees from N.C. State University and Peace College.
CEO | Charlotte Regional Visitors
The Villanova University graduate has promoted Charlotte as a tourism destination since 2011. The authority-run Charlotte Convention Center completed a $130 million expansion in the last year. He previously worked at Marriott, InterContinental and other hotel groups.
CEO | Biscuitville
Niven joined the family-owned chain in 2011 and took her leadership post in 2021. The chain, which closes its restaurants by mid-afternoon, has about 65 locations in North Carolina and Virginia. The Elon University graduate previously worked in foodservice marketing at Quiznos, Arby’s and Krispy Kreme.
founder, CEO | Summit Hospitality
Parrish started the business in 1988. It now operates 18 hotels in North Carolina including properties with Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott brands. A Wake Forest University and UNC Chapel Hill graduate, he’s a past chair of the N.C. Travel & Tourism Coalition.
president | Pinehurst Resort
The Duke University MBA joined the resort in 2000 and has had his current post since 2014. He is also a board member of FirstHealth of the Carolinas and the region’s tourism bureau. The business got a boost with the opening of the United States Golf Association’s second headquarters in Pinehurst.
president | CN Hotels
Patel’s family immigrated from India and bought a small California hotel in 1976, moved to North Carolina a couple of years later and built a chain of about 30 hotels in the Southeast. Nayan Patel took an active role in 1989.
CEO | Cook Out
His father, Morris Reaves, started the fast-food chain in Greensboro in 1989. It now ranks among the fastest-growing operators nationally with more than 300 restaurants in 10 states from Georgia to West Virginia. Starting with drivethroughs, it has added sit-down locations. Cook Out employs about 13,000.
president, CEO | Greenville-Pitt
County Convention & Visitors
president | North Carolina Travel
Schmidt has a master’s degree in public administration and hospitality from East Carolina University, where he taught classes for many years. In his trade association role, he stresses the importance of tourism in local and state economic development.
Pre-workday motivation: I work with an outstanding staff. I love coming to work because what we do as a destination-marketing organization positively affects our economy and residents.
Key to industry success: On a micro level, success starts with the people on the front lines who have day-to-day contact with visitors. Success at a macro level depends on forming meaningful relationships with local and statewide partners.
Best advice: Look at a decision’s long-term ramifications and ask if the strategy is sustainable.
Three people to share a meal: Abraham Lincoln, Wayne Gretzky and Condoleezza Rice.
Proud family accomplishment: My family members see value in all people and understand the difference they can make in the lives of others.
Favorite hobby: I am a Carolina Hurricanes hockey fanatic. With equal enthusiasm, I love being at the beach with family and friends and playing golf.
Where to entertain a visitor: Our uptown district so they can experience its many breweries, restaurants, galleries, music venues and retail opportunities. It’s fun to see their reaction to Greenville’s rapid growth and transformation.
principal chief | Eastern Band,
The nation owns major casinos in Cherokee and Murphy. The former Marine stresses education, cultural preservation and opportunity for his people. He earned a degree from Universal Technical College in Arizona and is a licensed industrial-arts teacher in North Carolina.
president, CEO | Krispy Kreme
The Harvard MBA became CEO in 2017 after senior jobs at retailers including Caribou Coffee, lululemon and Yum Brands. Shares of the doughnut company controlled by Luxembourg-based JAB Holding slid after its IPO last June. It expects revenue of about $1.5 billion this year.
president, CEO | Golden Corral
Buffet-style restaurants were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, causing Golden Corral’s franchise count to decline from nearly 500 to about 300. But the chain owned by Raleigh-based Investors Management Corp. is coming back strong. The Mississippi State University graduate is the 2022 chairman of the National Restaurant Association.
Pre-workday motivation: After the last two years, our sense of purpose fuels us every day. We beat the odds of saving our company, but we are relentless in support of our franchisees and each other. Personally, my faith and my family lift me every day to pursue my passion and purpose at Golden Corral.
Key to industry success: You must love developing your team and serving guests. The servant leadership attitude carries into every aspect of hospitality. You need a passion for great food, too. Develop a great team of people, serve high-quality and craveable food, and spend your time serving others.
Best advice: Choose a profession that you love. It’s difficult to achieve your best if you don’t. Surround yourself with people you can learn from, trust and have your best interests at heart.
Three people to share a meal: Job, Walt Disney and Winston Churchill.
Proud family accomplishment: My wife of 37 years, Paulette, is my rock, and she has done a remarkable job keeping our family focused on the importance of love for one another, giving, faith and support. My oldest daughter, Elizabeth, is a successful attorney. My youngest daughter, Ally Catherine, owns her own bespoke rug company.
Favorite hobby: Fly-fishing, wing shooting and playing golf. As a family, we love to travel. And I have to get my annual Disney fix; I’m a big kid at heart.
Where to entertain a visitor: The Angus Barn. Its history, great food and outstanding staff encompass all the things I respect and appreciate about the industry.
vice president of tourism |
Partnership of North Carolina
Tuttell has led statewide marketing of tourism, filmmaking, sports development and other ventures since 2014. He held similar roles within N.C. Department of Commerce after learning the ropes in Florida. He is a University of Florida graduate.
president | Koury Corp.
The 70-year-old real estate company operates Triad landmarks such as Sheraton Greensboro Hotel & Koury Convention Center and Grandover Resort & Conference Center. The Greensboro native has been its president since 2019. He’s a UNC Chapel Hill graduate and licensed contractor and real estate agent.
executive vice president, general
manager | Charlotte Motor Speedway
Walter joined Speedway Motorsports in 1999 and has led the flagship track since 2016, helping promote one of the state’s most popular tourist attractions. He’s a UNC Chapel Hill graduate who previously worked in sales for Capitol Broadcasting and ESPN.
area director of operations, Charlotte;
select service/general manager |
Whitmarsh joined Northwood Hospitality, which includes the Darcy in Washington, D.C., and the Aloft in Charlotte’s Ballantyne development, in 2017 after positions with resorts in New York and elsewhere. She’s a graduate of McGill University and has a UNC Charlotte MBA.
Pre-workday motivation: Good music, yoga and coffee — in that order.
Key to industry success: Being passionate about what you do and caring about people to help them discover their passion.
Best advice: No risk, no learning. This was my calculus teacher’s motto.
Favorite hobby: Travel. I enjoy planning trips with my husband, Thomas, and exploring everywhere in North Carolina.
owner, CEO | Winston Hospitality
Winston co-founded the company in 1994 and let it through its sale in 2007. The reconstituted business now manages nine hotels and offers other hospitality services. He has served as a trustee at his alma mater, UNC Chapel Hill and is a past chair of the Raleigh-Durham International Airport Authority.
CEO | U.S. National Whitewater
The native Charlottean with an Emory University law degree has built one of the state’s most successful tourist attractions since 2002, drawing more than 1 million annual visits. He practiced health care law and worked in finance before making his mark at the 1,300-acre, nonprofit outdoor activities center.