Hospitality & Tourism
With its beautiful beaches, towering mountains and lively cities, North Carolina is a hot spot for travelers. The record $26.8 billion in direct visitor spending in 2019 supported more than 236,580 jobs statewide.
LEAH WONG ASHBURN
family owner, president, CEO | Highland Brewing
Ashburn, 50, took the reins of Asheville’s first craft brewer, which her father started, in 2015. The UNC Chapel Hill graduate was a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Outstanding Beer and Wine Professional in 2018.Read More
Best advice: My parents gave me a scroll featuring two Chinese characters. Together, they mean crisis. Apart, they mean danger and opportunity. My dad said: “When you are in crisis, you feel the danger. Look for opportunity.”
Proud family accomplishment: What we’ve built and how we move it forward
Favorite passion: Outdoor activities
president, CEO | Atma Hotel Group
A UNC Wilmington graduate, Atma started his company in 1995. It owns 10 hotels under several well-known names. It added a Courtyard by Marriott and Sheraton in its hometown in 2019. The purchase added meeting space close to Research Triangle Park.
general manager | The Umstead Hotel and Spa
Beley oversees the award-winning 150-room hotel. The Florida International University and Culinary Institute of America graduate is a North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association Lodging Operator of the Year and on an N.C. State University Poole College of Management advisory board.
managing director | Turnpike Properties
Blizzard, 48, has spent the past 15 years at the commercial real estate company owned by the Slick family. The UNC Chapel Hill graduate was a lobbyist at N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry and chief of staff for former N.C. Senate President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight.Read More
North Carolina’s challenge: Truly addressing reconciliation in our divided society and not just applying eyewash
Person you admire: The late Marc Basnight, who was a model of leadership, humility, fairness, compassion and determination
Something surprising: I was a Tar Heels basketball team manager under Dean Smith.
founder, president | Magellan Strategy Group
A winner of Southeast Tourism Society’s Shining Example Award, Cavanaugh, 57, started his consultancy in 2004. He previously led marketing at The Biltmore Co. for nine years, helping double revenue at the nation’s most-visited house attraction.Read More
First job: Delivering balloon bouquets
Employer’s distinction: My business is an extension of my passion for marketing, strategy, research and travel.
North Carolina’s challenge: Education is the state’s No. 1 challenge. We’re not doing enough to feed and sustain it.
Best advice: Steve Miller, a former boss, said, “It’s better to be forewarned than forearmed. Be prepared.”
Decision you would change: When I started as a consultant, I thought I had to use important-sounding jargon in my presentations to show my audience how smart I was.
Favorite recent book: The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson
BILL CECIL JR.
president, CEO | Biltmore Co.
Cecil runs the nation’s largest privately owned home, which his great-grandfather, George Vanderbilt, built in the 1890s. It was permanently converted into an attraction in 1956. As a youth, Cecil worked at the Biltmore Estate, clearing manure from stables and doing other chores.
president | Biltmore Farms
The Vanderbilt family heir joined the famous business in 1984 and has led various expansions through residential and commercial real estate projects, including building more than 1,000 homes. Active in many local and statewide boards, he is a graduate of UNC Chapel Hill and American Graduate School of International Management.
owner | AC Restaurants
The James Beard Award’s Best Chef: Southeast in 2012 and 2019 Outstanding Chef, Christensen opened her first restaurant in 2007. The N.C. State University graduate now owns five eateries and bars in the capital city. She is a past board member of Southern Foodways Alliance.
president | Mast General Store
Cooper started working at the original general store at age 11 after it was acquired by her family. It opened its 10th store last June in Roanoke, Va. She serves on several boards of directors, including the Blue Ridge Conservancy and Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership.
president, CEO | Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau
Edwards, 59, has led the 29-employee bureau since 2007. The University of Northern Iowa graduate previously worked for tourism bureaus in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Houston and Palm Springs, Calif.Read More
First job: Mowing lawns
Employer’s distinction: We are responsible for increasing visitation to Wake County. More than 67,000 county residents are employed in the leisure and hospitality industry.
North Carolina’s challenge: Ensuring our tourism industry recovers quickly from the pandemic. More than half of the jobs lost during the pandemic were in leisure and hospitality. Wake County lost 327 conventions and sporting events, representing a $176.6 million direct economic impact.
Best advice: “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” (Benjamin Franklin)
Person you admire: My father, who I lost a few years ago to brain cancer
Favorite recent book: The Book of Joy by 14th Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams
Favorite music: Country western
Something surprising: I worked with Gene Autry at his hotel in Palm Springs, Calif., for three years in the 1980s.
managing director | The Omni Grove Park Inn
Froeba leads one of the state’s most historic resort hotels, which opened in 1913. He chairs the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority board and led last year’s search to hire Explore Asheville CEO Victoria Isley. Dallas-based Omni Hotels & Resorts owns the property.
president | Duplin Winery
Fussell started at the family-owned winery at age 5, loading corks in the corker. A UNC Chapel Hill graduate, he became Duplin Retail manager in 2001 and Duplin Wine Family president and Duplin Wine Cellars vice president in 2010.
A.D. “ZANDER” GUY JR.
chairman | N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission
A former Surf City and Jacksonville mayor, Guy, 72, has chaired the regulatory group twice. He owned a real estate company for more than 40 years and served on the N.C. Banking Commission under four governors.Read More
Employer’s distinction: Balancing commerce, public health and public safety is necessary for us to be successful.
Best advice: “Don’t react, but act with a plan.” (my dad)
Proud family accomplishment: My dad prepared me for life’s physical, emotional and spiritual challenges.
Decision you would change: I would have finished my college degree.
chairman, CEO | Discovery Insurance, Hill Realty and Mother Earth Brewing
Hill is a graduate of Lees-McRae College. His family has operated one of the state’s biggest nursing home companies for decades. He has invested more than $12 million to renovate more than 60 homes and commercial properties in Kinston.
president, CEO | Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau
A UNC Chapel Hill graduate, Isley returned to North Carolina in December. She started her career in Durham and most recently was chief operating officer at Destination Marketing Association International.
president | Greater Charlotte Hospitality & Tourism Alliance
The graduate of UNC Charlotte, 61, has led the alliance since its start in 1994. It represents more than 900 hotels and other businesses, helping build support for projects including the downtown convention center and baseball stadium.Read More
First job: Pizza Inn cook
North Carolina’s challenge: Overcoming our political divides and bickering
Best advice: An older friend told me, “If they don’t give you a job, become an employer. If they don’t rent an apartment to you, become a landlord. If they don’t lend you money, become a lender.”
Proud family accomplishment: My parents taught me the values of family, friends, education, respect for others, positive thinking, work ethic, working smart and believing that I can accomplish anything.
Person you admire: Jerry Orr, former Charlotte Douglas International Airport director. He helped create one of the world’s best, most efficient and busiest airports.
Favorite recent book: Leverage Your Best, Ditch the Rest by Madeleine Homan and Scott Blanchard
president, CEO | Concord Hospitality Enterprises
Laport began developing and managing hotels in 1985. His company oversees more than 135 properties and is majority owned by New York-based Alleghany Capital. He is a graduate of Mount Union College and Rochester Institute of Technology.Read More
First job: Pumping gas
Employer’s distinction: If people feel safe and free to be authentic in the workplace, they will bring their best selves to work, fueling innovation and optimal performance.
Best advice: My first boss said if you want to become a successful leader, don’t tell people what to do. Instead, sell what it is you want to convey.
Proud family accomplishment: My wife, a former French teacher, raised our two great children while I, too often, was working.
Person you admire: My high school basketball coach, who taught me to be a team player and avid competitor.
Favorite recent book: Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies by Jim Stengel
Favorite music: ’60s and ’70s rock ‘n’ roll
Something surprising: I am a wine snob.
president, CEO | McConnell Golf
After leading several medical software companies, McConnell, 70, turned to golf in 2003, when the Virginia Tech graduate purchased Raleigh Country Club. McConnell Golf now owns 15 courses and had its best year in 2020, he says.Read More
North Carolina’s challenge: How our economy will be affected by this year’s government policy changes
Proud family accomplishment: Our family is growing with a recent marriage and the birth of my sixth grandchild.
Something surprising: My business success began with me being fired.
CEO | Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority
The Villanova University graduate, 61, spent more than 30 years in the hotel industry before taking his authority post in 2011. Its 200 full-time and 1,500 part-time employees typically host about 600 events and 2 million visitors at city-owned venues annually. Past employers included Marriott, Hilton and InterContinental Hotels Group.Read More
First job: Hotel company controller
North Carolina’s challenge: Continuing to make policies that support the hospitality and tourism industry. It’s the region’s fourth largest sector.
Best advice: “Inspire your employees to come to work every day.” (a former boss)
CEO | Summit Hospitality Group
Parrish founded Summit in 1988 and built the business to about 18 hotels across the state with more than 700 employees. The UNC Chapel Hill and Wake Forest University graduate has served as board chairman of the N.C. Travel & Tourism Coalition and Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau.
president | Pinehurst Resort
The famous resort was a big player in landing the U.S. Golf Association’s second headquarters last year. The University of Georgia and Duke University graduate has worked at “The Home of American Golf” since 2000.
president | CN Hotels
Patel purchased his first hotel more than 30 years ago, joining the family business. Today, CN Hotels manages 30 properties across the Southeast with eight more under development. Its collection includes hotels under the Marriott, Hilton, IHG, Wyndham and Best Western labels.
executive vice president, general manager | Charlotte Motor Speedway
Affiliated with Speedway Motorsports since 1999, Walters took the wheel of the company’s Charlotte track in 2016. Earlier in his career, the UNC Chapel Hill journalism school graduate worked for Capitol Broadcasting and ESPN.
area director of operations | Northwood Hospitality
Whitmarsh, 37, is a McGill University and UNC Charlotte graduate. She is also general manager of Aloft Charlotte Ballantyne, one of 13 Northwood Hospitality properties that include Courtyard by Marriott and Staybridge Suites inn and The Ballantyne Hotel & Lodge.Read More
First job: Sales manager at a Lake Placid, N.Y., resort
Employer’s distinction: Northwood Hospitality has a distinguished portfolio of hotels and resorts nationwide and believes in putting its people first.
Favorite passion: Travel
Something surprising: I lived in Montreal for four years.
ROBERT WINSTON III
owner, CEO | Winston Hospitality
Winston, part of a family with a long history in N.C. hospitality, oversees about six hotels. Over his career he has helped develop or redevelop about 100 properties. He’s a trustee at his alma mater, UNC Chapel Hill, and is a past chairman of the Raleigh-Durham International Airport Authority board.