Last week, we revealed our 2024 Forbes Travel Guide Star Awards. Click here to see the list of winners.
Calling Sheila Johnson one in a million is unfair. One in a trillion feels more accurate, but we aren’t even sure that’s fitting. Johnson is the cofounder of Black Entertainment Television (BET) and the first female Black billionaire. With a stake in the Washington Capitals, Wizards and Mystics, Johnson is also the first Black woman to have principal share in three professional sports teams. As if that weren’t impressive enough, Johnson’s Salamander Middleburg recently earned Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star honors for its resort, spa and signature restaurant, becoming only the 15th property in the world with the triple distinction.
But there’s another side to this trailblazer, a side filled with tragedy and tears. Johnson didn’t let many people know this part of her success story until the release of Walk Through Fire: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Triumph last September. In the book, Johnson bravely opens up about all the disappointment and heartbreak she’s experienced from those she thought were in her corner. “I had put up with so much,” she says in chapter seven, “but when would it be too much?”
Be it personal trauma or professional, Johnson never gave up. And today, she leads a hospitality brand, Salamander Collection, that has stellar properties that stretch from Colorado to the Caribbean. Forbes Travel Guide recently chatted with the one-in-a-trillion CEO to talk about today’s hotel industry, the secret to earning stars and underrated D.C. attractions.
Congratulations on yet another year of Star Ratings success for Salamander Collection. I know there are a million factors to running a Five-Star hotel, but if you had to highlight a few essentials, what would they be?
Operating a Five-Star property can certainly be complex, but undoubtedly, the most important aspect is our people. Retention is critical because, if you can keep your employees, and keep them happy, you have consistency, experience and excellence.
This year, Salamander Middleburg accomplishes the rare feat of a triple Five-Star honor, having a Five-Star hotel, restaurant and spa. How does it feel to be a part of such an exclusive club?
To receive one Forbes Five-Star award is an honor, to receive two is a privilege, but to receive three is simply humbling. We are extremely grateful and excited.
I first interviewed you in 2019. Tell me a few of the biggest ways that the hospitality industry has changed in those five years.
In between our conversations, we have all obviously endured the trauma of the pandemic. I’m proud of how the hospitality industry pivoted during that period and reinvented so many of our procedures and processes. We are all stronger from this experience.
Sadly, one thing that hasn’t changed enough is the number of African American-owned properties. Where is the industry falling short the most with getting more diversity?
I have repeatedly talked about this situation, and it boils down to one thing: opportunity. The gap from entry-level position to hospitality executive is a large one, but the jump to owner is much wider. The issue goes beyond our industry — it’s societal.
You have two stellar properties in the highly competitive DMV market — D.C., Maryland and Virginia. What makes Salamander Middleburg and Salamander DC stand out in the area’s high-end accommodations crowd?
It’s been a decade since we opened Salamander Middleburg, so we’ve had time to gain traction within the DMV for our service and facility. But, it was after we launched Salamander Washington DC nearly 18 months ago that we truly emerged as a significant player in the region. People have been drawn to our distinct and diverse style of luxury hospitality.
Let’s stick with D.C. for this next question. You know the area better than almost anyone. Name some underrated landmarks/attractions in the city that deserve more attention.
I’ll leave it to others as to whether it is underrated, but the way that The Wharf area has blossomed over the past few years is truly amazing. Our guests really enjoy the short walk down to the waterfront.
I must also plug the new U.S. Park Police Horse Stables and Education Center, for which I was very involved in helping raise funding. Recently opened, the facility was built by the Trust for the National Mall in partnership with the National Park Service and the U.S. Park Police. It replaced the original horse stables that were built as a temporary facility for the 1976 Bicentennial.
With all your business and philanthropic endeavors, you must travel incessantly. What are a few items you never hop on a plane without?
I always travel with my iPad to stay connected, but, especially for longer trips, I also like to take either a hardback or paperback book with me so I can truly lose myself in either the narrative or storytelling. A fabulous wrap is always a must have.
What does the rest of 2024 look like for Salamander Collection? Are there any renovations or grand openings that you’re excited about within the company this year?
We have a tremendous amount happening across our portfolio. In Middleburg, we’re celebrating 10 years of the resort’s opening and also seeing the first homeowners move into our branded Residences at Salamander community. At Salamander Washington DC, we’re undergoing a major enhancement project, which will see the renovation of the lobby, spa, suites and the opening of our new restaurant, Dōgon, with chef Kwame Onwuachi.
We have just completed a beautiful renovation of the Bauhaus-style arrival area and opened West End Social restaurant at Aspen Meadows [in Colorado]. At Innisbrook [in Palm Harbor, Florida], we are nearly complete with refurbishment and relaunch of our Packard’s Steakhouse. At Half Moon [in Jamaica], we’re celebrating 70 years of service and will soon announce a major project surrounding our Rose Hall Villas. And, finally, at Hotel Bennett in Charleston, we have just celebrated five years — it’s amazing. Where does the time go?