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A Unique Passion

Sheila Johnson Leads Salamander Hotels And Its Growing Portfolio

Wednesday, May 31, 2017
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Sheila C. Johnson didn’t need to start Salamander Hotels & Resorts to secure her place as one of America’s more successful business women. But Johnson, 68, is not a person to rest on past successes—even if those successes include being co-founder, along with now ex-husband Robert L. Johnson, of the BET Network, or being the first African-American woman to be an owner or partner in three professional sports franchises—the Washington Capitals (NHL), Washington Wizards (NBA) and Washington Mystics (WNBA).

In 2001, the Johnsons sold BET to Viacom for more than $2 billion. Four years later, Sheila Johnson founded Salamander Hotels, whose properties include but are not limited to Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, FL, north of Tampa Bay; Reunion Resort in Orlando; and Hammock Beach Resort in Palm Coast, FL, between Daytona Beach and Jacksonville.

“I love the uniqueness of each of the properties in our portfolio,” said Johnson, Salamander’s CEO. “My team and I look for properties that really speak to us—properties where we know we can take an existing product and truly enhance its unique qualities while making it more profitable.

“We also take pride in identifying the right team of employees at each property and that includes employees who truly love what they do and feel right at home in a position of providing personalized service to our guests. Our staff genuinely cares and that makes an incredible difference.”

In 2013—more than 10 years after she first envisioned it—Johnson opened the 340-acre, 185-room Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, VA; and the 171-room Henderson Beach Resort opened this past March in Destin, FL, as the Emerald Coast’s only true luxury hotel and spa. Later this summer Johnson will open the NOPSI, a 217-room luxury hotel in New Orleans’ Central Business district; and this fall, Hotel Bennett, a 179-room luxury property will open on King Street in Charleston, SC.

“I’ve always loved entertaining and hospitality, even as a child,” said Johnson, a graduate of the University of Illinois. “My love of music and the arts began with learning music as a student to later becoming a music teacher and accomplished violinist, to the creation of BET (Black Entertainment Television) and then to the creation of Salamander Hospitality. It felt like a natural extension of what interests me and what I knew and where I could excel.”

Johnson also has made her mark as a film producer. Her 2008 film, “Kicking It,” was shown at pal Robert Redford’s 2008 Sundance Film Festival; that same year, the film “A Powerful Noise,” for which she was executive producer, debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Johnson is founder of the Middleburg Film Festival, which completed its fourth year this past October.

“If I have a passion for something,” Johnson said, “I never take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Her success with the growing Salamander portfolio has made Johnson one of the hospitality industry’s more powerful and visible leaders.

What’s more important—being a successful business person or a successful business woman?

“I take great pride in my accomplishments as a business woman,” said Johnson. “We all know the struggles females face in the business place in terms of equal pay and opportunities to excel in top executive positions. These challenges are something we all still face today and I love supporting other women who are also striving to reach their goals.”

Johnson also is a strong supporter of the golf industry. Between them, the Salamander’s Innisbrook, Hammock Beach and Reunion properties have nine golf courses. The PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship is held annually at Innisbrook’s famed Copperhead Course; the Jack Nicklaus-designed Ocean Course at Hammock—probably the last course ever to be built on Florida’s east coast, is undergoing renovation and is scheduled to re-open this fall; Reunion’s three courses are designed by Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson.

“Growing the game of golf means reaching out to all different types of golfers and that includes junior golfers, female golfers and golfers of all diversities,” said Johnson, a member of the U.S. Golf Association’s executive committee. “We create programs at all of our resorts to introduce the game and interest young players, and offer instruction programs tailored just to them. For women this is also true, and we may find we don’t always have 4-5 hours to dedicate to a round of golf, so offering nine-hole play and fun events like a ‘Wine and 9,’ that include formats of play that don’t intimidate the beginning golfer are important.

“It’s also a great networking opportunity for women and professional groups to combine a little golf with a little time to meet other professionals. We continually try to reach golfers of all ages and segments and make it easy for them to try out the game in whatever format best suits their skills and time restraints.”

Time restraints, however, don’t seem to be a concern for Johnson. Remember, she never takes “no” for an answer.
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