Salamander Resort Gets Five-Star Rating: An Interview with Sheila Johnson

Sheila Johnson, owner, Salamander Resort & Spa

Ever think of opening a world-class luxury resort & spa over 340 gorgeous acres of land in an idyllic setting? Entrepreneur Sheila Johnson thought about it a decade ago after visiting a quaint area in Loudoun County, Virginia; and in 2013, she did it.

Today, the 168-room Salamander Resort & Spa (part of Salamander Hotels & Resorts), where “forever First Lady” Michelle Obama was spotted with her daughters in 2014, has a Five-Star rating from Forbes Travel Guide – the gold standard in the hospitality industry since 1958.

Considered one of the country’s finest luxury hotel companies, SHR recently opened the magnificent Hotel Bennett in Charleston. It also operates three Florida resorts: The Henderson in Destin; Hammock Beach Resort near St. Augustine; and Innisbrook Resort in Tampa, which will host the PGA TOUR’s Valspar Championship next month.


A room at Salamander Resort & Spa


No stranger to being a businesswoman, Johnson is co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), and also a partner in Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Washington Wizards, Mystics and current Stanley Cup Champion Capitals.

Her accomplishments span the arenas of sports, TV/film, the arts, education, women’s empowerment and community development, although her current passion is hospitality.

Here, Johnson tells me how she maintains the sought-after Salamander resort, and the must-dos when it comes to being a successful hotelier. What were some of the highlights and challenges that went along with growing Salamander Resort & Spa to the point where it has achieved Forbes’ prestigious Five-Star rating?

Sheila Johnson: This is kind of a personal anthem, but I built this resort from the ground up. It was the beginning of my third act in life.  We sold BET, and I was trying to figure out what to do next. I moved out to the Virginia area, and I knew immediately I was going to build a resort & spa. I saw 340 acres of a beautiful, substantial piece of land. I did an in-depth feasibility study to make sure the location was going to work, and right outside of Washington D.C. an hour and 45 minutes away, it’s the perfect location.


Salamander Resort & Spa property


I didn’t realize the complications involved. There had never been a resort around there in 150 years, so there were some battles. It’s been a 10-year journey – one that I am really proud of. I’m glad I opened Salamander here. It’s made a big impact on the Loudoun County Visitors Bureau. The resort has brought in people from all over the world.

It’s been a terrific journey, but of course moving that far out, I wondered about hiring. Where was I going to find employees that had hospitality experience?  I knew this would be a tough job from day one. More than anything, I had my sights on service excellence. I knew I could build a beautiful building, but I wanted to make sure that along with that we had incredible food, and great service. So, I had to train everyone, and they had to share my vision; not come in with their own agenda. What was key was that they really understood the level to which I was aspiring.

Hospitality has really been the essence of the journey. It’s something you keep your eye on every day. Watch your employees and the way they serve people; the way they greet people; the quality of the rooms; the way they clean. This has all been very important to achieving that five-star status.


A dining area at Salamander Resort & Spa What are some of the biggest business lessons you’ve learned along the way that serve as your “secrets to success” in running a company? 

Sheila Johnson: Understanding the importance of leadership. You have to be an example to all of your employees. There is no way that I would demean myself, be untrustworthy, or disrespect anyone because in the end, all of the people around you are the ones who helped you build the company. I didn’t do this alone. I simply set an example, and set the boundaries to let them know what I wanted; it’s up to them to execute.

And if you want to be an entrepreneur, you’ve got to keep your eye on EVERYTHING. That includes financials, to make sure people aren’t stealing from you or abusing your business in any way. Everything has to be under a magnifying glass. You have to watch everything that’s going on, and you have to be present otherwise you’re not going to be successful. What do you most enjoy about owning and running the resort?

Sheila Johnson: Being able to use the facility in many different ways. I started a film festival at the resort which happens every fall. Over a four-day period, we feature all the top films in Hollywood.  We’re now considered to be the best-known film festival in the country. People have even said we’re the road that leads to the Oscars!

I decided to do this right after I opened the resort just to bring in more eye- balls. Since I have an arts background, I really wanted to bring the arts not only to my resort, but to the town as well. We do jazz concerts too where we bring in a variety of jazz artists. We also bring chefs in and do special cooking classes. I try to diversify all these options for all my guests, so that every day is different. On their last day, my guests tell me of their plans to come back for the film festival, or for the jazz concert, or for another spa treatment. In fact, we have an incredible spa, which is the core of the resort.


A horse stable at Salamander Resort & Spa


We focus on health & wellness, and believe in having very physical offerings. So, guests can go horseback riding, zip lining, swimming or even just walk along the path and into town to shop. We also have a golf course and 11 wineries at our doorstep. Why Middleburg, Virginia? What brought you there?

Sheila Johnson: My daughter is an exceptional horseshoe jumper; she’s been on horses since she was 3 years old. I became familiar with the area when she was there competing for horse shows in Lexington, and other nearby towns, so I got to know Virginia very well. I’ve spent a lot of time here. I went through a divorce, and decided that was where I was going to settle. It’s an amazing town, and it’s got a lot of history behind it and a lot of wonderful people.