100 People to Meet: Hosts
In a tough year for restaurants, hotels and amusement parks, these professionals rose to the occasion to provide nourishment for our bodies, minds and souls through dining, lodging, spirits, tourism and entertainment.
Founder and principal, Excel Group
In 2011, Shoham Amin founded Excel Group, a real estate company that has purchased more than $700 million in hotels and debt instruments, including properties in Springfield, Fredericksburg and Herndon. Amin’s firm placed in Inc. Magazine’s list of fastest-growing real estate firms for three years — topping the category in 2015 — and the company now owns 35 midsize hotels on the East Coast valued between $15 million and $60 million apiece. While 2020 has been extraordinarily difficult for the hotel and hospitality industries, Amin says his company is in the process of raising $150 million in equity to purchase about $500 million in hotel real estate around the nation by 2023.
Incoming general manager and vice president, Kings Dominion and Soak City
As everyone knows, the coronavirus has been hard on theme parks — including Kings Dominion, which did not open this summer for the first time in its 45-year history. Bridgette Bywater was named general manager of the Hanover County amusement park in October after a two-decade career with park owner Cedar Fair Entertainment Co., including, most recently, as corporate director of operations for the company. She also served in various leadership roles at Worlds of Fun and Oceans of Fun in Kansas City, Missouri, where she started out as a seasonal staffer in 1992. Bywater starts her new job in January, which reopened for limited-attendance Christmas holidays events starting in November.
Scientist; podcaster; editor, The Cycle
The self-styled “Election Whisperer,” Rachel Bitecofer has been a person to follow on Twitter since her 2018 electoral model predicted the congressional blue wave. In 2020, she left Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy, where she was assistant director and a political science lecturer, because she was denied tenure. She then founded The Cycle, an election forecasting site that heavily favored Joe Biden. She also serves as an unpaid senior adviser for anti-Trump Republican political action committee The Lincoln Project. A staunch progressive, Bitecofer has written that trying to persuade right-leaning voters to change their minds is nearly impossible and that Democrats should focus instead on mobilizing voters. “Everything is being driven by polarization and hyperpartisanship,” she tweeted Nov. 5.
Artistic director, American Shakespeare Center
A director with credits on his résumé from Broadway and Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, Ethan McSweeny was named artistic director at Blackfriars Playhouse in 2018, making his Staunton directorial debut with Shakespeare’s tragedy “Julius Caesar.” This year has been a major challenge for all theaters and live performance venues, and the playhouse was no different, shutting down between March and June. However, following medical protocols, the American Shakespeare Center returned in September with innovative live performances of “Othello” — featuring a woman, Jessika D. Williams, in the title role — performed outside, inside a half-filled theater and with streamed performances. “I guess our solution was to surf the wave and hopefully stay afloat,” McSweeny said in an October interview with PBS.
Chair, BLK RVA; founder, Afrikana Film Festival; assistant curator of film and special programs, VCU Institute for Contemporary Art
Last year, Richmond Region Tourism started its BLK RVA initiative to promote African American tourism in the state’s capital, led by Enjoli Moon, one of Richmond’s film and arts leaders. When the pandemic hit, though, “we did have to pivot and get creative,” she says. BLK RVA started selling merchandise to raise funds for Black-owned restaurants and offered advice and resources for Black business owners — many of whom were starting at a financial disadvantage, she notes. In September, Moon’s fifth annual Afrikana Film Festival, focused on both up-and-coming and established Black filmmakers, successfully went virtual, and Moon is considering mounting a mixture of outdoor and virtual film events at the ICA. The Richmond native is optimistic about the city’s creative scene: “You will not say there’s nothing to do [in Richmond]. That’s really great.”
Master distiller, A. Smith Bowman Distillery
Although it hasn’t quite reached Kentucky levels, Virginia’s spirits industry has grown prodigiously in recent years, and in 2020 the state created the Virginia Spirits Board. One member is Brian Prewitt, who oversees production at Virginia’s oldest distillery, which has won international awards for its bourbons and other offerings — including “World’s Best Bourbon” at the World Whiskies Awards in 2016 and 2017. Before joining the Sazerac-owned Bowman Distillery in 2013, Prewitt held positions at New Belgium and Great Divide beer brewers, as well as E&J Distillers. He switched from studying pre-med to food science at Colorado State University, telling a whiskey podcaster earlier this year that in the midst of dissecting a cadaver, “I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’”
Katie and Ted Ukrop
Co-owners, Quirk Hotel
In early March, Katie and Ted Ukrop opened their second Quirk hotel — in Charlottesville — with a grand gala. The world changed days later — but the Richmond couple did reopen the Quirk flagship hotel in Richmond and the new boutique hotel in late June, with multiple COVID-19 precautions. Quirk hotels offer high-caliber dining, rooftop bars, original artwork and a color palette with punches of pink (the couple’s favorite color). Katie was director of Quirk Gallery, which preceded the hotels and now exists as an artspace adjacent to the Richmond hotel. Richmonders know the Ukrop name from the former grocery chain started by Ted’s family, as well as their civic work. Ted currently serves as chairman of the Virginia Capital Trail Foundation Board of Directors.