Everything Sheila Johnson touches turns to gold. When she co-founded Black Entertainment Television (BET) in the early 1980s, it quickly became the mainstream’s go-to cable channel for urban culture. The NHL team she co-owns, the Washington Capitals, won the Stanley Cup last season. Johnson’s Middleburg Film Festival showed Roma months before the word “Oscar” started buzzing. And the Valspar Championship, held annually at her Innisbrook, A Salamander Resort, is one of the PGA calendar’s most-anticipated tournaments.
So, it should come as no surprise that when Forbes Travel Guide announced its 61st list of Star-Rated hotels, restaurants and spas on February 20, Johnson’s Salamander Resort & Spa, an elegant equestrian escape just outside of Washington, D.C., shined brightly with a Five-Star distinction.
But hotel awards and hockey trophies aren’t just handed out to anyone who wants them. Johnson has earned everything that’s come her way. Since starting Salamander Hotels & Resorts in 2005 — in addition to Innisbrook and Salamander, the company’s portfolio includes St. Augustine’s Hammock Beach Resort, Destin’s The Henderson and the just-opened Hotel Bennett in Charleston — she has had a vision, and her teams have put in the work to make it a reality.
Forbes Travel Guide was fortunate enough to spend some time with the pioneering businesswoman recently where, of course, she shared pure gold about her team, new projects and the hotel industry’s old ways.
What does the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star distinction for Salamander mean to you?
I am going to give you first the personal answer. When I decided and conceived a vision of doing Salamander, I’ve always wanted to earn this honor. It’s something I’ve always aspired to.
But I also have to thank all of my employees at the resort, the resorts associates, who deliver service every day. We have guests from all around the world. We have [members of] the International Monetary Fund [as guests]. We host just unbelievable corporate groups. And with each and every one of them, I want to be able to deliver the top service that I possibly can.
I’m very hands-on about this because this Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star has meant everything to me. Many years ago, I had a little boutique property outside Charleston, Woodlands Inn, and it got the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star. But, you know, that was just a tiny little [property]. I think it had 18 rooms. But it meant a lot back then.
But because [Salamander Resort & Spa] is my baby, and I built it from the ground up, this is a truly exceptional distinction for me.
Salamander’s service, food and amenities are all impeccable. When you think about the word “excellence,” what comes to mind?
I sort of define it as having the Salamander thumbprint on it. I’ve been to many hotels, not only in the U.S., but all over the world. And I wanted to find something that was going to really make Salamander stand out beyond all of these hotels.
You have to understand, there are a lot of people, investment companies, with very deep pockets. And what I’m seeing is that there are hotels that are being built way over the top. There is no way in the world I can compete with that.
It’s just that I have to have the Salamander thumbprint, which means providing our guests with different experiences. I want a more relaxed feel. I want them to not feel uncomfortable. I call [Salamander Resort & Spa] Middleburg’s living room. I want them to leave that resort wanting to come back and not just say, “I’ll be back in six months.” I want them to come back all the time. I wanted the resort to really embrace the community because it’s so different, with the equestrian and the ziplining.
I watch people in there closely. They come in there and they just exhale. [They say,] “We can relax now.”
The community has certainly embraced the Middleburg Film Festival.
I go to all of these film festivals all over the country, but when we do our film festival, the resort really becomes Hollywood. We turn it inside out to really help our clientele experience the best films out there. They call us “The Road to the Oscars.” We’ve already got 32 films [in our festival] that are in Oscar contention. We have 28 for Golden Globes.
And not only do we want to bring that experience there. We even bring the directors, the stars there. It’s just been amazing. And we want it to feel comfortable enough so that when people come, they can sit in the living room and talk to one of the directors or to Mahershala Ali and Maggie Gyllenhaal. To have those people right there in this little town is just magnificent.
That’s the type of facility I wanted to be able to bring to this region. Not only is it just that; it’s sports, too. For me to be able to bring my Stanley Cup to the resort [is remarkable]. I see lines coming all the way down the driveway for people wanting to have their picture with the Stanley Cup. I don’t know of any other hotels that can do that!
They can do it, but they don’t have the experiences that we’re able to bring. I am constantly trying to find a way to help Salamander Resort & Spa stand out head over heels above any other hotel — not only in the area, but in the nation.
Just in that answer you spoke of a film festival, the Washington Capitals and your hotel. Your life has been incredible. What’s been the best part of this journey?
I have to say my core business, and that is my hotel group. But I would say the sports [have been great]; it’s just been an amazing vanity play. I was able to go to London to watch my [Washington] Wizards win against the [New York] Knicks. But just being able to be over there with the players and some of the other owners and to be able to experience the 02 Arena. This was the biggest arena I’ve ever seen, and it was sold out.
To be able to go to Kensington Palace for dinner, it gives me a lot of pride. And then, of course, winning the Stanley Cup this year [was tremendous]. To be able to participate in the parades and everything [was memorable]. That brings a smile on my face. But it has also helped me to make some other important connections out there.
In what ways have guests evolved over the last 15 to 20 years?
There is such a huge age range of people. You have the millennials without kids; they’re more my technology fans and want things yesterday. But then, if they start building a family and bringing their family, they want to be relaxed, but they still want that level of excellence.
But it’s more about experiences, being able to give that family that enormous experience that they can’t get anywhere else. With my hotels, I like to have a culinary experience, equestrian, spa, bring guest speakers in and camps for the kids. We have to make sure that our facilities really do attract families.
And we are very dog friendly, where we’ve sometimes set up agility courses out back. We have “yappy hour,” where people can come drink and the proceeds go to the ASPCA [American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals].
They’re all things around families. But above all, the service has got to be right on point.
You just opened Hotel Bennett in Charleston. What makes that new property so special?
I was just there to cut the ribbon. It is truly going to be one of the more iconic hotels there. You’ve got some special areas, from the La Pâtisserie pastry shop to the special bar, Camellias, which is really beautiful. It’s pink. It’s a lady’s bar.
It’s a hotel that is truly a civic monument for the city of Charleston. When I was there, there must have been close to 500 people that showed up. And they were the people of Charleston. I just have to say that I’m really honored to be a partner with Michael Bennett [owner of Bennett Hospitality]. And I just think that this is one of those hotels that is really going to stand the test of time.
It’s really the grandest new hotel in the South. We’ve been getting so much publicity for this hotel. It’s truly amazing. And I’m sure it’s going to join the Forbes Five-Star list shortly.
Unfortunately, the flip side of the hospitality industry is its lack of women in top positions. What needs to be done to change that over the next four or five years?
Well, number one, is access to money. When I got started, I couldn’t get a loan. I had to use my own money to get Salamander Resort & Spa. It just seems like investors and banks just do not believe in women and their entrepreneurial growth.
And that’s really sad because we’ve really got to get more diversity in the workforce so that women can learn to rise through the ranks of the hospitality business. And that’s the only way — it is absolutely the only way — that we’re going to get more gender involvement.
I mean, when I go to meetings, it’s amazing how I may be one of two or three women in there — and the other two or three women are not hotel owners. They work in the industry, but it’s that access to capital that we need. We really do need it.
I get tired of wringing my hands because I want to grow my business and I need access to capital. I need an investor who is going to believe in me and believe in the Salamander brand. And that’s the only way that I’ll continue to grow.
I own Innisbrook. I own Salamander. But I’ve also started a management company, which is really important. I’ve been able to be pretty successful with doing that and would like to pick up more hotels to manage. And that’s the way our company will grow.
I started out in a very unique position where I had my own capital to be able to get started. But there have got to be banks and investors that believe in helping women who want to be entrepreneurs in the hospitality business. And it’s just really, really important that they really take a look at this.
When you do have down time, what do you enjoy doing?
I love traveling. I just got back, like I said, from London. But before that, I was in Milan.
I have two incredible children that I have a lot of fun with. They keep me busy. My son [Brett] is a menswear designer, and he just opened a showroom in Milan. Just to watch him in this kind of business, where he designs men’s clothing and sells out of Milan, [is wonderful]. He’s got a store in Soho in New York.
Also, I’m a grandmother now. And I enjoy my new little baby granddaughter. I just love watching my children. My daughter [Paige] is a show jumper, and I love watching her compete on the big stage. That’s really the downtime that I enjoy.
This week, we revealed our 2019 Forbes Travel Guide Star Awards. Click here to see the complete list of winners.