BET Co-Founder's Resort and Spa Offers Southern Hospitality - Black Enterprise
Black Enterprise Magazine September/October 2018 Issue

Walking through the doors of the Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, Virginia, feels less like checking into a hotel than akin to visiting an old family estate in the countryside. Equestrian touches everywhere allude to the horse country provenance of the region, the lush garden surroundings tucked into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains entice you to sit for a spell on one of the overstuffed window seats, and the library is stocked with classic books befitting the quaint historic town—or with a chess set and a roaring fire, if you prefer.

It’s no accident that the resort feels welcoming and homey in the most luxurious way. The personal stamp of owner Sheila Johnson and her exquisite attention to detail are everywhere.

“I knew what I wanted my clients to feel when they came through the door. It’s welcome home, welcome to my home,” Johnson says. “And in every single one of our resorts, I want to be able to project that and have the Sheila Johnson thumbprint on every one of my properties.”

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Sheila Johnson (Photo: Ron Ceasar)

That warm welcome now extends to guests of the company’s seven properties—two owned by Salamander and five more that it manages—across the Southeastern United States. Its growth strategy has resulted in an impressive 24% jump in revenues, from $170 million in 2016 to $210 million in 2017. And satisfied Salamander guests mean success for the cities it does business in, expressed in the form of tax revenues, jobs, and tourist spending. Johnson has risen among the ranks of the nation’s largest black-owned businesses through the execution of her multipronged strategic approach: recruiting the industry’s leading executive talent; designing exclusive, high-end customer experiences; rebranding and renovating select properties to make them more competitive in the marketplace; and leveraging strategic partnerships to generate revenues and exposure. For the development of a portfolio of luxury hotels that have proven to bolster the bottom line, extend the premium brand, and benefit the communities in which it serves, Salamander Hotels & Resorts has been named the 2018 BE 100s Company of the Year.

Hospitality a “Third Act” for BET Co-Founder 

Salamander was founded in 2005 by serial entrepreneur Johnson, born in 1949 in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, to a neurosurgeon and an accountant who were both accomplished pianists. After graduating from the University of Illinois she taught violin before starting her own music teaching business. In fact, she considers hospitality her third act, after famously co-founding Black Entertainment Television (BET) with then-husband Robert Johnson and selling it to Viacom for roughly $3 billion in 2000.

It was that varied life experience, and the travel that came with it, that spurred Johnson into the hospitality sector. “I have traveled all my life. I guess it started when I was a little girl and had to move 13 times. Even in the first act of my life, I was a concert violinist. I performed all over Europe, so I got to stay in some of the finest hotels,” she says.

“Every time I was in one of these great hotels, and watching the service, the quality of food, how it is put on the table, how the beds are made up, I’m thinking, you know I could do this.”

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Getting the chance to do it, though, proved way more difficult than Johnson had anticipated when a combination of public perception, regulatory issues, and an economic downturn threatened to derail Salamander Resort before it even got started.

“I got racial hate mail. My life was threatened; my kids’ lives were threatened,” Johnson told Black Enterprise Business Report in 2007 about the challenges she faced when trying to open the $130 million resort, which she financed herself on property she owned.

“I was determined to make it work,” Johnson says now of her perseverance during the 10 years it took to get the hotel built and opened. “And you have to understand, the town really needed this resort. I could see it, I could feel it. I talked with the town council. They were economically in a very precarious situation and I knew that once I built this resort, the taxes were going to really feed the town.”

Paying It Forward In the Community 

Taxes aren’t the only way Salamander has improved Middleburg, the town Johnson has called home for the last 20 years. “They needed a new water sewage treatment plant, which I built. I did a boundary line adjustment to bring the resort into the town of Middleburg; all of our guests love to walk into the town and of course, they shop. So it was bringing even more revenue to the town.”

Five years after the resort opened, and despite the initial opposition, it has now become a vital part of the local community. “I call Salamander Resort and Spa Middleburg’s living room. They come up here for drinks, for dinners, at Christmastime we do the lighting of the Christmas tree,” Johnson says.

“And one of the biggest things that we do is the Middleburg Film Festival. I started it two months after we opened this resort because I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got to get people to Middleburg. I need people to stay.’ We had about 1,800 people that showed up at the resort because of the film festival.”

Back in 2007, while Johnson was still in the thick of getting Salamander built, she bought a second resort: Innisbrook Golf Resort & Spa in Tampa Bay, Florida, which features four championship golf courses and hosts the PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship every March. “The silver lining to the delay,” she told Black Enterprise earlier this year, “was that I had assembled an amazing team, so it allowed us to expand our portfolio—especially into Florida.”

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Johnson credits that team not only for the company’s expansion but much of its success: “I have the most incredible executive team. I didn’t know anything about the hotel business, but you know what? You hire the best in the business. You want to hire people that are smarter than you. And then you learn from them. I give them full credit for what they’ve helped me build.”

Innisbrook is a true turnaround story, with Johnson investing a reported $25–$30 million into the redevelopment of the 900 acres after the purchase, restoring the golf courses, adding a spa, and—in the process—saving hundreds of jobs and millions in real estate value for the almost 1,000 condo owners on the property.

“I’m very proud of Innisbrook because I was able to take that out of a bankruptcy situation and put it in the black, literally,” Johnson says. “And now we’re part of the PGA Tour. We’re very proud that we were able to host Tiger Woods this year. We had the highest ratings of the PGA Tour in 12 years.”

From Spa to Full-Service Management Company 

Having forged success with Salamander and Innisbrook, Johnson and her company have shifted their approach from owning hotels to operating them. She explains that the pivot made good business sense, especially considering the economic realities of women business owners.

“You don’t want to keep pouring your own money in, which is what I had to do. For women, we cannot get loans from banks and we don’t get the help of investment companies. For women, it’s very, very hard unless you have money,” Johnson states. “And I’m not going to shy away from that fact.”

So she decided to form a full-service management company to develop and operate four- and five-star resorts and to turn the Salamander ethos of authentic luxury into a brand. “That’s what all these other people, the St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton, all of them, do.” “We’re good at it,” she continues. “We are really good at it.”

In 2011, Salamander was hired to manage Hammock Beach Resort, situated on two miles of beachfront in Palm Coast, Florida, and Reunion, a four-diamond resort in Orlando, both owned by real estate equity firm Lubert-Adler L.P. Together with Innisbrook, they make up the company’s Golf Collection—stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean with a total of nine courses designed by legends such as Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

Four years later, Salamander added The Henderson to its portfolio of managed properties, coming on board the year before the hotel opened. Located in Destin, Florida, the 170-room resort has sweeping views of the Gulf of Mexico.

“Our vision is to deliver a beachfront level of luxury previously unavailable between New Orleans and Sarasota,” William B. Dunavant Jr., chairman of Dunavant Enterprises Inc., the Memphis-based company that owns The Henderson, said in a statement during construction, “and Salamander’s team of professionals is the perfect fit to help us create, manage and operate this destination resort of which the entire region can be proud.”

Developing a resort pre-opening requires an entirely different set of skills than managing existing hotels, but it’s something Salamander is well-qualified to provide. “We don’t just manage. We do the design work, we do the interior, we do the exterior, we work with the architects, we do the back of the house,” Johnson says.

“We know how hotels need to operate. We want to be able to make our clients feel comfortable without them knowing and seeing what’s going on behind the scenes,” she says. “It is a very involved project.”

Undertaking a Massive Restoration Project in New Orleans 

The newest Salamander property is the NOPSI Hotel, which opened last year in a landmark 1927 building in New Orleans’ Central Business District. The former home of New Orleans Public Service Inc., the city’s electric and gas utility, underwent a reported $50 million historic restoration and now houses 217 rooms, including 76 suites; 10,000-square-feet of meeting space; and a rooftop pool and bar.

“It was vacant since 1980 and the owners of that property came to me and said, ‘look, can you turn it into a hotel for us?’ I remember going in there with a flashlight and a mask. I can’t even begin to describe to you the dilapidation,” Johnson says. “But we were able to make lemonade out of a lemon, and it is now one of the most beautiful hotels in all of New Orleans.

The revitalization is not just cosmetic. “This project will have a positive impact for New Orleans, creating new jobs and tax revenue and attracting further investment in our city,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in a statement when the project was announced. “I welcome a Salamander property and its owner Sheila Johnson to New Orleans.”

Next up for Salamander is another historic site, Hotel Bennett on Charleston, South Carolina’s King Street. Billed as the South’s grandest new hotel, it’s slated to open this fall. “A luxury hotel in the best location in the best city in the world should have the best team,” said Michael Bennett of Bennett Hospitality, the hotel’s owner, in a statement.

“At the time, I was advised by then-Mayor Joe Riley to take the 100-year view with the hotel’s design and construction, and I’m following a similar strategy regarding its management,” Bennett continued. “Salamander provides unique expertise in the luxury hotel, spa, and meetings industries.”

Hand-On Presence 

Johnson’s passion for detail is evident in how she describes the process of opening a hotel: “We have all hands on deck and we start getting all of the furniture moved into the rooms, all the way to where the tissue boxes are going to be put. We lay down on the bed, does this feel good? Are the TVs working?

“You only have one chance to open a hotel. That first impression is everything,” she says. “When people come through the door, I want that wow factor.”

It is Johnson’s very hands-on presence—that personal touch, or as she calls it, the “Sheila Johnson thumbprint”—that comes up again and again when looking at how Salamander has been able to make such a mark so quickly on the luxury resort market. “I am very involved. I greet people at the door,” she says. “And if I’m in New Orleans or if I’m in Destin or if I’m in Innisbrook, I am very integrated with my clients. I sit down and get to know them. That’s what creates repeat business.”

It’s also what creates the company’s competitive advantage when it comes to winning management contracts. “Salamander’s philosophy and core values are a reflection of those of our founder,” says President Prem Devadas. “We focus on delivering comfortable luxury and warm, gracious service. These characteristics, along with our independent nature and flexibility, have contributed to the growth of our management portfolio and relationships with a variety of hotel and resort developers.” In fortifying her position in the marketplace, Johnson has been successful in retaining and expanding a solid array of alliances. Salamander’s partners include the Preferred Hotel Group, a global leader in the hospitality sector; luxury car manufacturer Audi; the FTI Consulting Winter Equestrian Festival, the world’s largest such competition; and Valspar Corp., the sixth biggest global coatings manufacturer and sponsor of the PGA TOUR event held at Innisbrook.

A Stake in Professional Sports, Too 

Despite how busy Salamander keeps her, it’s not Johnson’s only venture. Through Monumental Sports & Entertainment, she’s the only black woman with an ownership stake in three professional sports teams: the NHL champion Washington Capitals, the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. She co-founded WE Capital, which provides venture capital to women-run startups, and is a partner in bath, body, and home products maker Mistral. She also has her own line of silk scarves inspired by her travels—many of which have been framed to adorn the walls of Salamander Resort.

Having survived a 10-year launch for one hotel and another on the brink of bankruptcy early on, perhaps it is fitting that Johnson chose to name her company after an animal with a mythology of withstanding the fire. She attributes its success to “perseverance, courage, fortitude—because that’s what the salamander stands for.”
And also, she says, to focus on what’s really important. “It’s service; it’s the quality and the excellence which we provide all of our customers that come through the door.”

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Alisa Gumbs

Alisa Gumbs is the executive managing editor of BLACK ENTERPRISE, planning and executing content across the company's print, digital, events, and broadcast platforms, and writing features when she finds a story she's passionate about--including the November 2011, December 2010, and September 2006 cover stories.


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