Last week we unveiled our 2024 Forbes Travel Guide Star Awards. Click here to view the list of winners.
Calling Sheila Johnson one in a million is unfair. One in a trillion feels more accurate, but we’re not even sure if that’s appropriate. Johnson is the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET) and the first Black female billionaire. With stakes in the Washington Capitals, Wizards and Mystics, Johnson is also the first Black woman to have a principal ownership stake in three professional sports teams. As if that weren’t impressive enough, Johnson’s Salamander Middleburg recently earned the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star award for its resort, spa and signature restaurant, becoming only the 15th property in the world to earn the triple distinction.
But there is another side to this pioneer, a side full of tragedy and tears. Johnson didn’t let many people know about 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 disappointments and heartbreak she experienced from those she thought were in her corner. “I had endured so much,” she says in chapter seven, “but when would that be? at a lot of?”
Whether it was personal trauma or professional trauma, Johnson never gave up. And today she runs a hospitality brand, Salamander Collection, with incredible locations stretching from Colorado to the Caribbean. Forbes Travel Guide recently caught up with the one-in-a-trillion CEO to talk today’s hotel industry, the secret to earning stars and underrated DC attractions.
Congratulations on another year of success with Star Ratings for Salamander Collection. I know there are a million factors in running a five star hotel, but if you had to highlight a few essentials what would they be?
Operating a five-star hotel can certainly be complex, but the most important aspect is undoubtedly our people. Retention is critical because if you can retain your employees and keep them happy, you have consistency, experience and excellence.
This year, Salamander Middleburg accomplishes the rare feat of a three-time five-star honor, with a five-star hotel, restaurant and spa. How does it feel to be part of such an exclusive club?
Receiving one Forbes Five-Star award is an honor, receiving two is a privilege, but receiving three is simply humbling. We are extremely grateful and enthusiastic.
I first interviewed you in 2019. Tell me some of the biggest ways the hospitality industry has changed in those five years.
Of course, in between our conversations, we all endured the trauma of the pandemic. I am proud of the way the hospitality industry pivoted during that period and reinvented so many of our procedures and processes. We are all stronger from this experience.
Unfortunately, one thing hasn’t changed enough: the number of properties owned by African Americans. Where does the sector fall short most when it comes to achieving more diversity?
I’ve talked about this situation repeatedly, and it comes down to one thing: opportunity. The gap between starter position and catering manager is large, but the leap to ownership is much greater. The problem goes beyond our sector: it is a social problem.
You have two great properties in the highly competitive DMV market: DC, Maryland and Virginia. What makes Salamander Middleburg and Salamander DC so special among the area’s luxury accommodation offerings?
It’s been ten years since we opened Salamander Middleburg, so we’ve had time to gain traction within the DMV on our service and facility. But it was after we launched Salamander Washington DC almost 18 months ago that we really emerged as a major player in the region. People are attracted to our distinct and varied style of luxury hospitality.
Let’s stick with DC for this next question. You know the area better than almost anyone. Name some underrated sights/attractions in the city that deserve more attention.
I’ll leave it to others to decide whether it’s underestimated, but the way The Wharf has blossomed in recent years is truly astonishing. Our guests really enjoy the short walk to the waterfront.
I also need to plug the new US Park Police Horse Stables and Education Center, for which I was very involved in helping to raise funding. The newly opened facility was built by the Trust for the National Mall in collaboration with the National Park Service and the US 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 need to travel incessantly. What items do you never board a plane without?
I always travel with my iPad to stay connected, but especially for longer trips I also like to take a hardback or paperback book with me so I can really lose myself in the story or storytelling. A fantastic shawl is always a must-have.
What does the rest of 2024 look like for Salamander Collection? Are there any renovations or grand openings you’re excited about within the company this year?
A lot is happening in our portfolio. In Middleburg, we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the resort’s opening and are also seeing the first homeowners move into our Residences at Salamander brand. At Salamander Washington DC, we are undergoing a major improvement project including the renovation of the lobby, spa, suites and the opening of our new restaurant, Dōgon, with Chef Kwame Onwuachi.
We have just completed a stunning renovation of the Bauhaus style arrivals hall and opened the West End Social restaurant in Aspen Meadows [in Colorado]. At Innisbrook [in Palm Harbor, Florida], we are almost done with the renovation and relaunch of our Packard’s Steakhouse. At Half Moon [in Jamaica]we are celebrating 70 years of service and will soon announce a major project around our Rose Hall Villas. And finally, we just celebrated five years at the Hotel Bennett in Charleston – it’s amazing. Where has the time gone?