2021 Virginia Business Person of the Year: Bruce Thompson
Gold Key | PHR CEO realizes Cavalier Resort vision
Standing on a hill overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the Cavalier Hotel is a callback to a time when Virginia Beach was a sleepy little resort town inside Princess Anne County.
Opened in 1927 as the largest brick building in the state, the Cavalier was a product of the Jazz Age. Over the years, the Y-shaped building hosted seven presidents and a long list of luminaries, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Ella Fitzgerald and Bob Hope. President Richard Nixon stayed at the hotel during the height of Watergate, and — according to legend — torched either a stack of documents or audiotape in the fireplace of the Cavalier’s Hunt Room.
Yet this historic structure likely wouldn’t still be standing if it weren’t for Bruce Thompson, one of Hampton Roads’ most prominent developers and hoteliers. Once destined for the wrecking ball, the hotel is now the centerpiece of the Cavalier Resort, a $435 million effort to reshape 21 acres of the Virginia Beach Oceanfront into a tourism-fueled development with three hotels, seven restaurants, homes, condos and an exclusive beach club. With the third hotel, an Embassy Suites, anticipated for a January 2023 opening, Thompson’s resort vision is nearing completion.
The Cavalier Resort is the culmination of nearly four decades of work by Thompson to reposition Virginia Beach and Hampton Roads. Once unflatteringly referred to as the “Redneck Riviera,” the Oceanfront now boasts high-end hotels and amenities that Thompson played a role in establishing. During the past 15 years, Thompson’s Virginia Beach-based hospitality company Gold Key | PHR has carried out more than $1 billion in investment in Hampton Roads and the Outer Banks. The company employs 1,700 people and owns 20 properties worth more than $500 million combined.
“He’s a visionary,” says Will Sessoms, mayor of Virginia Beach from 2008 to 2018 and past president and CEO of Towne Financial Services Group, a division of Suffolk-based TowneBank. “We ought to have a statue at the Oceanfront of him, and I’m not exaggerating.”
Even amid the swirling headwinds of the pandemic — which have been particularly unkind to the hospitality industry — Thompson and Gold Key | PHR have come through the other end in good shape, with 2021 revenues anticipated at $160 million, compared with 2019’s $120 million, primarily due to the opening of the Oceanfront Marriott.
Because of Thompson’s continuing efforts to propel the Hampton Roads region beyond the status quo, Virginia Business has named Thompson its 2021 Business Person of the Year.
With construction of the Cavalier Resort’s final hotel underway, a new $200 million mixed-use project in the planning stages for Virginia Beach, and a proposal on the table to convert Norfolk’s old Military Circle Mall property into a $663 million development with an amphitheater, Thompson continues to burnish a legacy of transforming Hampton Roads.
Priesthood, foosball, football
Wearing a fashionable blue suit, Thompson sits in a booth at Orion’s Roof, the 23rd-floor Asian fusion restaurant at his $125 million Oceanfront Marriott, which opened last year. Surrounding him are panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean that include both the Eastern Shore and the Outer Banks in their sweep.
That’s apropos, as it was the water that first sparked the entrepreneurial spirit in Thompson. Growing up without much money on a creek in Norfolk, Thompson caught minnows and crabs to sell. Later, as a head altar boy at Norfolk’s St. Pius X Church, Thompson would trade funeral and wedding assignments with other boys for better paper routes.
“At that point in my life, I just knew I was destined to figure out how to make a buck,” says Thompson, with an old-school Hampton Roads twang.
For a time, though, the priesthood was also a consideration. After completing ninth grade, Thompson left Norfolk for a high school seminary — something like a prep school for aspiring priests — in Richmond. He didn’t last a month.
“In very short order, the priests realized, as did I, that I really didn’t have a calling. I really was too sweet on a girl in Norfolk,” recalls Thompson, who turns 70 this month.
In the interim, his family moved to a farm in Virginia Beach. Tensions between Thompson and his father escalated, so he left home at 17 and managed garage bands. During this period, Thompson met Ed Ruffin, co-founder of Virginia Beach nightclub Peabody’s.
“Bruce will outwork you. He’ll read and self-educate himself,” says Ruffin, who became a longtime business partner. “When you meet up with Bruce, you’re dancing with a bear. He ain’t going to let up until he’s finished with you.”
Thompson promoted a roster of bands including Grand Funk Railroad and the Allman Brothers Band. After some financially disastrous shows, though, he pivoted to foosball sales in the early ’70s, just as the craze was taking off in America. Thompson opened foosball parlors in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
At 21, Thompson ran into financial difficulties at a foosball parlor in Blacksburg and had to start over again. It was around this time that Thompson’s girlfriend became pregnant and, being “a good Catholic boy,” he married her and found a job working on a hog farm back in Virginia Beach. Part of the job entailed getting the hogs to mate.
“You go there at four in the morning. You introduce Bubba to all the ladies. It was horrible,” he says, recalling one low point: “It is snowing, it’s cold, Christmas Eve, and I’m repairing a fence, and I’m praying like I’ve never prayed. I’m praying, ‘Dear Lord, don’t make me do this for the rest of my life. This is not my destiny.’”
At night, Thompson tended bar at Virginia Beach haunt The Raven, owned by twin brothers Ricky and Bobby Dunnington. When the Dunningtons opened a sail and ski shop, they asked Thompson if he could help with the ski side of the business. Soon, Thompson’s full-time job was promoting and organizing ski trips just as the skiing craze hit Virginia in the mid-’70s. Thompson became the largest ski travel wholesaler on the East Coast, and at the height of his business, his company annually taught 12,000 people how to ski.
Because Thompson needed buses to get people to the slopes and back, he got deeper into the travel business. His Great Atlantic Travel became the largest seasonal ticket holder for the Washington Football Team just as it was hitting its 1980s stride. During one particularly disastrous trip, the planes he chartered for a return trip from Super Bowl XVII in Los Angeles were delayed for days. Thompson made up T-shirts for his clients that read, “We won the game, but we lost the plane.”
Seeking more stability and tangible assets, Thompson began to pivot toward the hospitality industry. Around 1982, he and some business partners opened the Ocean House Hotel at 31st Street and Atlantic Avenue, his first hotel.
‘A true visionary’
Under the name Professional Hospitality Resources, Thompson’s hotel empire grew. Thompson also founded Gold Key, a timeshare company, as well as his own marketing and finance companies to assist with timeshare sales. During a 10-year period, Gold Key sold vacation ownership interests to 35,000 people.
At its peak, between the hotels and timeshares, Thompson says, his companies owned 60% of the commercial bedrooms on the actual oceanfront in Virginia Beach, totaling 3,000 sleeping rooms.
Thompson also got into the restaurant business. At one point, his portfolio included 21 restaurants; Catch 31 at the Virginia Beach Hilton alone brought in $18 million annually, he says.
After Thompson and his wife, Kathy, divorced in 1983, he gave her their retail and local travel skiing business. Thompson would eventually sell off his travel, marketing, finance and timeshare companies, merging the remainder of his business to form Gold Key | PHR in 1999.
In 2003, Thompson opened the Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront at 31st Street, a controversial 21-story hotel constructed in a public-private partnership with the city for nearly $80 million. In a nonbinding 2000 ballot referendum, 58% of city voters said they wanted the land to become a park. Virginia Beach City Council’s decision to undertake a public-private partnership with Thompson to create the hotel, a park and a parking garage made him a lightning rod for controversy.
“That was one of the best things that ever happened to our oceanfront,” says Sessoms, the former Virginia Beach mayor, noting that the hotel generates $5 million in direct tax revenue annually for the city, helping keep other taxes low. “It really raised the bar. It was extremely controversial to make it happen.”
Vinod Agarwal, deputy director of the Dragas Center for Economic Analysis and Policy at Old Dominion University, says the Hilton was far from a sure thing when it was pitched.
“He’s very forward-looking, and he is a risk-taker,” Agarwal says of Thompson. “A lot of people thought he was crazy to go with high-end hotels. Obviously, he’s done quite well.”
Gold Key | PHR sold the Hilton and its Oceanfront Hilton Garden Inn to Richmond-based Shamin Hotels in 2018.
“Bruce is a true visionary,” says Neil Amin, CEO of Shamin, one of the nation’s largest independent hoteliers. “He foresaw that there is tremendous demand for high-quality lodging at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront, and by coupling hotels with unique [food and beverage] outlets, he has been able to generate above-market hotel rates to support his first-class developments.”
The Oceanfront Hilton whetted Thompson’s appetite for bigger projects, leading him to create the 21-story The Main in downtown Norfolk. The $77.5 million, 300-room Hilton hotel opened in April 2017, offering three restaurants and one of Virginia’s largest ballrooms.
Kurt Krause, president and CEO of destination marketing organization VisitNorfolk, served as managing director for the Cavalier Hotel, The Main and the Oceanfront Hilton. Krause, who previously spent more than two decades with Marriott International Inc., says Thompson stands apart from his peers for his “relentless pursuit of excellence,” and that traditional hoteliers “never would have put more than one restaurant” at a property. “Bruce wants the local community to fill his restaurants, and then they’ll spend the night. That model works, and it has continued to work at The Main especially well.”
Interviews with longtime associates and colleagues describe Thompson as a workaholic with an eye for detail. When touring his properties, he’s known to adjust the lighting or music to fit a space’s mood. When traveling, he takes photos of spaces and ideas that he wants to emulate, down to a hotel’s doorknobs. For employees, receiving 4 a.m. emails of what he expects of you that day is not an uncommon experience.
Bob Howard, Gold Key | PHR’s chief investment officer, says that Thompson is the best boss he’s ever had: “He challenges you to do better than you think you can do. [He’s] certainly very thoughtful and proactive in addressing issues.”
Thompson’s involvement in remaking the Cavalier — where he worked as a night watchman and grass cutter in his early 20s — began in 2013. It’s likely the Cavalier would have been demolished if Thompson and his associates hadn’t bought the hotel and surrounding properties for $35.1 million; its restoration cost $85 million.
The large part of the decision to turn the Cavalier property into a resort was an economic one. With the real estate being so valuable, it would have been more profitable to tear down the Cavalier and build denser hotels or housing on the property. Because Thompson and his partners wanted to save the Cavalier, they had to add hotels, housing, condos and other amenities to make the math work.
“The challenge was to be dense, because we were so heavily invested in the restoration of the hotel, yet preserve the integrity, the vistas and the spirit of what the Cavalier … meant to the community in the past and what it should represent in the future,” Thompson says.
Not all of Thompson’s endeavors have been successful. His pitch to create a $200 million arena in Virginia Beach went to another developer, who later sued the city when the local government backed out. Thompson also once proposed an Oceanfront fishing pier at 15th Street that ultimately didn’t get off the ground.
Still, Thompson has cemented a legacy in the region.
“He’s become one of the leading developers, certainly of Hampton Roads, if not the commonwealth. He’s done it with grit and determination, and also a concern for his community,” says Bryan K. Stephens, president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Chamber. “He’s got a passion for turning Hampton Roads into a well-known tourism industry location.”
Politics and philanthropy
As Thompson began breaking into the hospitality market, he also became involved in politics.
Seeing the need in the 1970s for Virginia Beach to create a separate funding stream for economic development and tourism-related endeavors, Thompson was part of the city’s inaugural Resort Area Advisory Commission, which created and managed the Tourism and Growth Investment Fund. This fund used a separate tax from the resort district’s tourism amenities to create some of Virginia Beach’s largest endeavors, including the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, the Virginia Beach Convention Center, the Veterans United Home Loans Amphitheater and a major overhaul of the Oceanfront boardwalk.
Thompson also chaired inaugural functions for Democratic Govs. Chuck Robb and Gerald Baliles and served on their finance committees.
Thompson’s close association with Robb would get him into trouble. As Robb and then-Democratic Lt. Gov. Douglas Wilder were political rivals, Thompson’s friend Bobby Dunnington approached Thompson with a recording of a cell phone conversation of Wilder saying Robb had no political future. Thompson passed the tape onto the Robb campaign and became embroiled in a scandal. Thompson pled guilty to two misdemeanor charges of wiretapping and witness tampering. He was fined $7,500 and placed on probation for a year.
Thompson says he thought he was doing the right thing at the time — even consulting a criminal lawyer on the issue — and believes there was a political bent to the scandal. “I really felt like I was a pawn,” he says.
Still, that experience wasn’t enough to deter Thompson from politics. Twice, Thompson has stood in for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in local debates, acting as a surrogate for future Democratic Govs. Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam.
Eight years ago, Thompson served as McAuliffe’s Hampton Roads regional finance chair; this year, though, he served as state finance chair for Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, who defeated McAuliffe in November’s election. Asked about switching his allegiances, Thompson says he doesn’t like the extremes of either party and is against one-party rule in state government.
Over the years, Thompson has served on numerous boards and commissions, including the Virginia Travel Advisory Commission, GO Virginia Region 5 Council, the commonwealth’s COVID-19 Business Task Force and the board of visitors for the Eastern Virginia Medical School.
He’s also been involved with charitable causes, particularly related to ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Fourteen years ago, Thompson’s eldest son, Josh, was diagnosed with the progressive nervous system disease, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Josh, who died in October 2020, was the “heir apparent” to his business empire, Thompson says.
“He and I were tied at the hip,” Thompson says. “He was a John Kennedy Jr. kind of guy. He just had a lot of personality. He was very politically involved.”
Thompson, his sons Josh and Chris, and a nonprofit founded by Chris and his friends, championed ALS-related causes, creating the annual JT Walk to raise money for stem cell research and created a kid-friendly pediatric ICU on wheels for the Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters. Josh Thompson also designed Grommet Island Park, a Virginia Beach playground accessible for children with disabilities. The Thompsons’ efforts raised more than $20 million for ALS-related causes.
“It’s a horrible situation,” Thompson says of losing his son to ALS. “It’s the worst diagnosis a parent can have, because you don’t know where it came from and there’s nothing you can do.”
Michael Levinson, Thompson’s longtime friend and personal lawyer, says Josh’s diagnosis and death took a toll on Thompson.
“He’s just been through a lot,” Levinson says. “He once said to me privately, ‘Mike, at this point you can’t cut me and not hit scar tissue, because somebody’s already been there.’ That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and he’s pretty strong.”
‘Sleepy little beach’ no more
Never one to sit still for long, Thompson is working on new projects to add luster to Hampton Roads, including the redevelopment of Norfolk’s Military Circle Mall. Thompson is a partner in one of three bids that Norfolk City Council is considering; council is aiming to make a decision by early 2022.
Norfolk MC Associates — which includes Thompson, Charlottesville-based music industry executive and developer Coran Capshaw and Virginia Beach developer The Franklin Johnson Group — has proposed The Well, a $663 million mixed-use development that would include a 200-room hotel, 864 housing units, 77,000 square feet of office space and at least 159,000 square feet of retail and entertainment space, all with a net-zero carbon footprint.
Unlike the competing Military Circle redevelopment proposals, The Well eschews an arena for a 5,000-seat amphitheater with lawn seating for more than 3,000 spectators, along with a 9-acre lake with an island in the center. Norfolk MC Associates projects its plan would create 2,200 jobs and generate $17.7 million in annual city tax revenue. It would also, if Thompson has his way, become the home of the Thompson School of Hospitality, an expansion of Norfolk State University’s entrepreneurship school. If the city ultimately chooses his proposal, Thompson says, “it will be my legacy project.”
The two other proposals in competition for Military Circle are backed by NFL Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith and famed pop musician and philanthropist Pharrell Williams, a Virginia Beach native. In October, Williams and Thompson had a public dustup after Thompson denied Williams the use of the Cavalier’s iconic front lawn for an 800-person party where controversial comedian Dave Chappelle would have performed. Thompson says there were logistical issues related to having that many people on the lawn, and he is also critical of recent comments made by Chappelle related to transgender people and Catholicism.
When Williams came out weeks later and said he was pulling his Something in the Water music festival from Virginia Beach, citing the city’s “toxic energy” for its handling of his cousin’s shooting death by police, some also perceived a veiled dig at Thompson.
Thompson is also working on a $200 million mixed-use project in Virginia Beach’s Dam Neck area. Currently in its planning stages, “The Farm” is envisioned as a 78-acre project with apartments, office and retail centered around holistic living.
Looking back at a career that started with selling crabs and slinging newspapers, Thompson says he’s driven to create a better future for Hampton Roads.
“We live within a seven-and-a-half-hours drive of two-thirds of the population of the United States,” he says. “I wanted to make this a better destination, instead of being a sleepy little beach.”
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