Bruce Thompson Builds a Legacy in Coastal Virginia



The man who has been called the Donald Trump of Virginia Beach got his start as a snow ski instructor. As more and more people wanted to learn to ski, some of his clients expressed an interest in finding new venues for ski trips. Thompson and his buddies started putting together trips to other mid-Atlantic resorts and eventually moved up into the Canadian ski areas. As thousands of people flocked to the program, the business expanded out to Colorado, California and Wyoming. To meet the demand, the company bought buses, chartered flights and eventually ended up with a motor coach and charter airline companies.

But Mother Nature can sometimes be unpredictable, so Thompson and his partners decided to sell their travel and recreation business to move into the hospitality business. Born in Norfolk and raised in Virginia Beach, Thompson wanted to concentrate his efforts on Coastal Virginia. The newly formed company started by investing in a small hotel on the oceanfront in Virginia Beach. From there it began developing hotel properties, then restaurants, then a time-share company, and eventually moved into other commercial real estate. Today, Gold Key | PHR Hotels & Resorts owns and operates four hotels, five timeshare resorts, eight restaurants, a commercial laundry business to serve the resorts, and is in the process of creating a new mixed-use venue in downtown Norfolk. The business generates annual revenues exceeding $170 million and employs more than 3,000 associates in season.

Coastal Virginia Magazine: Success seems to follow you.

Bruce L. Thompson: We’ve been really fortunate. We had a great team, and it all started before deregulation of the airlines, back when it was very difficult for people to get out West to ski. Our charter planes allowed us to facilitate people who wanted to go to bigger and better places. At the time, travel agents didn’t necessarily have the expertise to handle trips like these, so travelers relied on us to coordinate all the activities. We did everything from renting skis to selling gloves, hats and goggles to arranging for lessons. The whole nine yards of accommodations, airfare and equipment—all in one package.

CoVa: Your daily schedule must be exhausting.

BLT: Everyone seems to attribute this company’s success to me, but there are 3,000 associates who work in our company. We have a great management team that has been with us for over 20 years. By building and focusing on quality in our operations, we’ve been able to attract quality personnel, and they’ve stayed with us. It really is a very large team effort.

CoVA: Your vision has really put Coastal Virginia on the tourist map.
BLT: I’d say our transition point was about 23 years ago when we obtained the Ramada Virginia Beach Oceanfront. We put Mahi Mah’s in and decided we were going to sell sushi, have an extensive wine list, and offer steaks and fresh seafood on the boardwalk. A lot of folks said “This is a hotdog and hamburger town, and you’ll be challenged to make that successful.” Inside of 24 months, Mahi Mah’s was the leading restaurant in Coastal Virginia, and it proved to us that it wasn’t just a hotdog and hamburger town. Our continued success has given us the confidence to start a major project called The Main in Norfolk, as well as to acquire the Cavalier and do the first aspiring five-star hotel at the oceanfront with a full bourbon distillery and three restaurants. We’ll also be building a major Marriott resort on the oceanfront across from the Cavalier that will again raise the bar substantially from back in 1994 when we built Mahi Mah’s in the Ramada.

CoVa: Any thoughts on branching out?

BLT: We have a 100-acre development that we’re doing on the Outer Banks, complete with a water park and a lake, cabins and cottages, full recreational, mixed-use resort, timeshare, restaurant experience, so we’re going to wait and see how that goes. We have an interest in doing something in the mountains of Virginia as well. So we’ll have a different type of vacation in North Carolina, then we’ll have the oceanfront at Virginia Beach, then Downtown Norfolk, and potentially something in the mountains.

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