When Sheila Johnson, founder and CEO of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, decided to go into the hotel business, it was for love. “I love traveling. I love going to new hotels and finding hidden gems,” she says. However, as an experienced businesswoman—in 1979, Johnson was one of the founders of Black Entertainment Television (BET)—she also knew that if she was going to take on a new industry, she needed help from the best.
“I said to myself, ‘To do this I’ve got to bring the best people in.’ That’s where I really started doing my homework and finding professionals who were seasoned in the hotel business, who had worked on other properties, and who could share my vision in how I wanted to grow this company,” she explains. “And hiring the best minds is what it takes for a company to move forward.”
In 2013, Johnson opened the company’s flagship hotel, Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, Va. This was just a few years after Prem Devadas, now president at Salamander, and Dale Pelletier, now CFO, joined Johnson’s team to help ensure that she was growing a destination brand—not just a one-off hotel.
It worked. Now Salamander’s portfolio includes six properties, with more in the pipeline. In September, the company announced its seventh, the NOPSI Hotel, which will open in spring 2017 in the New Orleans Central Business District. Formerly the headquarters of New Orleans Public Service, Inc. (NOPSI), the building was purchased by a company in Connecticut that wanted to transform the space into a luxury hotel. “We were awarded the management agreement to assist them in re-imagining the historic property, so we’ve been involved from day one regarding the concept and design of the hotel,” Johnson says. “It’s a fantastic project, and I can confidently say that it is going to be a reflection of Salamander’s luxury standards, while also offering a really unique program of activities.” The property will feature a number of specialty spaces, including a rooftop pool, street-level outdoor courtyard, open kitchen restaurant, and a ballroom that showcases the property’s history. “The ballroom is actually in an old brick building. We’re not going to cover up the walls to make it look like a conventional ballroom, and I think it’s going to be something that people are going to be very excited to see,” Johnson adds.
The NOPSI Hotel fits right into Johnson’s vision for Salamander, which is very thoughtfully crafted. “We’re very excited about how we’ve been able to strategically build the company. It’s required a lot of patience, but our team works so well together. We are all working and learning together to advance Salamander in the industry,” Johnson says.
While Johnson puts a lot of emphasis on her team, she does have a distinct leadership style that she has developed over many years in business. “As an African-American woman, I learned early in my career that you have to show your leadership skills and you cannot be afraid to really talk about your goals and mission with authority,” she explains.
Having worked hard for her place in hospitality, Johnson is also paving the way for young people who might need some help to achieve the same heights. She started a program at the Kennedy School Center For Public Leadership at Harvard University that covers all of the costs for 50 students looking to complete a graduate program at the Center. “These students are from underserved communities but they’ve already proven themselves,” says Johnson. “They decided to come back to school because they’ve hit a wall in their professional lives. I pay for everything. I teach them how to network, and I teach them how to state their case when they have a plan to change their communities for the better.”
She adds, “It’s not only about building a successful company, it’s about being able to reach out into communities and improve people’s lives. And that is what these students will do.”
Sheila Johnson has the following advice for hoteliers looking to create a luxury brand from the ground up.
Size up the competition. “Learn from other hotels what you should and shouldn’t be doing. Even now, I am a student more than anything else, and that is helping me build a strong brand that features the things that other hotels are missing.”
Get your name out there. “I was recently invited to Silicon Valley to speak in front of 1,500 aspiring business people, and that’s helping us get the Salamander name out there. I speak all over the country about Salamander and what we’re building.”
Build your identity. “I want to make sure our thumbprint has its own identity. Everybody’s different, and I worked to put together a team that can deliver top-tier service. That is our identity.”