Sheila Johnson - a billionaire you can empathize with - looks back on her journey to become a luxury hotel chief, and how Salamander is guided by the same principles she has followed across all of her businesses.
Skift Global Forum was held in New York City on September 26-28, 2023. Read coverage of the event at the link below.
From media to hospitality, billionaire Sheila Johnson “took the bull by the horns” when she decided to create her own hotel group. The BET co-founder launched Salamander Collection in 2013, and a decade on, has seven luxury hotels.
Speaking at the Skift Global Forum 2023, Johnson looked back on her journey to creating Salamander. She strives for “unstuffy luxury” and hires a truly diverse, empowered workforce.
(You can watch the full video and read the transcript below.)
Johnson also spoke about how women in hospitality can excel and progress; her company’s potential growth plans outside the U.S.; and where she sees the hospitality industry going.
Sean O’Neill: Well, it’s a professional highlight for me to introduce our next guest. Sheila Johnson became the world’s first Black billionaire in 2001 when she… Let’s have a round of applause. When she sold Black Entertainment Television to Viacom. And since then she’s had a very varied career getting into a bunch of different businesses. And she’s talked about that in her personal dramas in a new book that just came out last week called Walk Through Fire. We’ll have some free copies of the book after the event over on the stand there. And so we’re going to talk a little bit about the book.
We’re going to specifically focus on her hospitality journey during this conversation because Sheila is the founder of Salamander Collection, which is the largest Black-owned luxury hotel brand in the Americas and possibly soon in the world. So Sheila, we’re very honored to have you here. Thank you.
Sheila Johnson: Well, thank you very much. This is quite an audience. This has just been amazing. Last night I was at the Library of Congress promoting the book and speaking with Carla Hayden there. It was just… Now look at…
O’Neill: Yeah, look at this, it’s big time in New York. So it feels to me that with Salamander Collection, which is a collection of seven luxury properties, it’s seven now, right?
O’Neill: The first one opened in 2013.
Sean O’Neill: But it does feel like a bit of an overnight success that’s been more than a decade in the making. Because this year, Travel & Leisure readers picked it as one of the dozen favorite brands in the whole world. Recently, USA Today readers named it as their favorite luxury brand.
Johnson: Number one.
O’Neill: Number one. So how did it take so long to get to this moment in the sun?
Johnson: Well, we all know when you’re doing construction, building from scratch from a hotel, it takes almost five years to even get it started. And when you look at where we started from, and opening in 2013, as many, those of you that will read the book will understand, I had some difficulty even getting the permitting process to even build this resort. So it was quite a journey to do that. But when you look at it, once we started, we just celebrated our 10th anniversary.
Johnson: And we have seven hotels in 10 years, and that’s how we look at it. But starting from the ground up, you have to understand, I got into the hotel business, unlike a lot of the people out here, I came from a different industry, from the media industry. But this is my third act in life. First act as a concert violinist and performed all over the world and played concerts. And some of the best from Isaac Stern to Yehudi Menuhin, traveled all over. Once I finished that and we started Black Entertainment Television, which is the second act of my life, and was just really building from the ground up. John Malone was our investor in that network, stayed with us until the sale of Viacom. And then from there, going into the hotel business. Now, I didn’t know anything about the hotel business except I loved it.
I loved going in and really experiencing some of the best hotels, not only in this country, but also in Europe. And I knew then that I wanted to do it, but how was I going to do it? So I bought 340 acres just right in Middleburg, Virginia. And it was the estate of the late Pamela Harriman. And it was brought to me by a broker. And I looked at it, and you have to understand, this is a town that was literally bankrupt. They didn’t have an economic engine in order to stay alive. And I could notice that right away.
So just from my business background, I knew that if I took the bull by the horns, bought this land, I could build this resort up there. Which would give them the money, the tax dollars to start to grow and financially heal. We built a water sewage treatment plant, which I had to do anyway. Made a deal where they could hook into this water sewage treatment plant. And to make a very long story short, did a boundary line adjustment, brought the resort into the town of Middleburg. And that is where they’re making money. They’re now the wealthiest historic town in the state of Virginia.
O’Neill: That’s an incredible, incredible…
O’Neill: Congratulations on that. It was a very long journey. So, Walk Through Fire feels like a very appropriate title for the book, having read it. I was reading it this weekend, and when it came out more than a week ago, I was talking with my husband about it, and I was saying, “I never thought I would feel sympathy for a billionaire,” but I do after reading this. What you’ve gone through and everything that you had, it was a very tremendous story. It was a tremendous challenge.
Johnson: Nothing’s easy. Nothing’s easy.
O’Neill: It was a very tremendous challenge. We can’t get into some of the stuff, it’s not germane for this stage.
O’Neill: But I salute you for what you came through. Walk Through Fire, it was a biggest thing. Another thing that came across to me in the book was it felt like it was harder for… You had more headwinds as a woman than as someone who’s Black.
O’Neill: Did I get that right?
Johnson: You got it absolutely right. And what you don’t understand, especially I was getting into a new business. We were lucky with BET that we had a guardian angel that just saw the vision right away and was able…
O’Neill: John Malone?
Johnson: John Malone, yeah. And wrote a $500,000 check to get us started, but kept us afloat all the way until the sale. So I’m getting into the hotel business and I have a lot of money in the bank. And I went to the bank and I was telling them what I needed to do to move forward. They didn’t take me seriously. I could not get a loan, I couldn’t get anything. So I had to use my own money to get this first resort built.
And the other thing you don’t understand, especially for women, it is really hard to get banks to believe in us, especially as entrepreneurs. And so I just said, “Well, I’m going to move forward. I’m going to prove that I can do this.” Once I got the resort up, and within five years we saw a lot of success. The important thing is we did a very careful feasibility study. People said, “Why are you going to Middleburg, Virginia?” We’re 30 minutes from Dulles Airport, one hour outside of DC. There was nothing else around where anybody from Capitol Hill, corporate America, lobbyists, there was no place that they felt as though that they could go and get out of the city.
O’Neill: Maybe if we could run some video in the background while you’re talking. So go ahead, please.
Johnson: And once it was there, they say, “You build it, they will come.” You’re sitting on 340 acres. Not only can they have great conference space, but they could also do so many other things from horseback riding to zip lining, you name it. Cartier came and did a complete buyout. So we had touches of success from the moment we opened.
And once I saw that, I knew even from my opening, this is all goes to programming and media, and I just wanted to really capture the attention. When David Gergen shows up and does the major speech to greet guests, that’s amazing. Then you get celebrities, Donna Karan, Tim Gunn, all the people that I knew, they came to support, that draws a crowd. And then I also own the teams in Washington, DC, the basketball players, the Wizards came, the Caps came.
So you have to create the vision to make people want to come. So even just for that opening, we had close to 4,000 people show up.
Johnson: So it was my PR marketing guys here. And we plan everything. Everything, it’s like shooting a movie, and this is the way you have to look at it. And what’s been so much fun from building on my acts in life, from performance music and then going into the television business, I carry that into my hospitality, which makes it different. My company is different because we do so many neat things.
O’Neill: Yeah. So one of them you mentioned, like a movie. In the book, I learned you invited Robert Redford to come by, and he was like, “This would make a good place for a film festival.” And then you did it.
Johnson: Well, in all fairness, I was on the board of Sundance for six years. And Robert Redford was looking at his facility. He says, “I don’t want to manage this. I don’t know what to do.” I said, “Why don’t you come and see what we’re doing?” I said, “We’re just getting ready to put the shovel in the ground.” He comes out, I drive him up in my Hummer, which I got scolded about. Take him him up there.
O’Neill: You have the big gas-guzzling…
Johnson: Yeah. And he’s looking down on the town and he says, “This is a great idea.” He says, “You need to put a film festival here.” And that planted in my head. So for the next few years until after we got through the recession, I never let go of that idea. And sure enough, we opened in August of 2013. And I went to someone, and I’ve been involved in film work too. And I said to this person, I said, “I want you to help me run. We’re going to start a film festival.” She says, “You’re out of your mind.” I said, “Nope, we’re going to do it.” She says, “When do you want to do this?” I said, “We’re going to do an open in October.” She says, “It’s already August.”
So we formed a film advisory board out of LA. They were terrific. They were on board with this. We watched films. We went to other film festivals. We chose films. Our very first film we opened with was Nebraska.
O’Neill: Oh, wow.
Johnson: The place sold out. I mean, we had over 1,800 people that came to the film festival. We are now hitting our 11th year with the film festival. We have over 8,000. So that creates eyeballs onto my property, which has just been amazing.
O’Neill: Very cool.
Johnson: We get all the celebrities, we get directors. You have no idea. We have the greatest lineup of films, which I can’t tell you about right now because we don’t announce it for another week.
O’Neill: All right.
Johnson: But it has become one [of] the top five of film festivals according to Variety Magazine. But that’s what helps my brand also. It’s not just doing that. So we will expand this idea to Aspen Institute, Aspen Ideas. They will be attending this film festival. It’s one of our properties now. But there’s so much that you can do to cross and start connecting the dots.
O’Neill: So one thing that strikes me, I live in Washington DC, Sheila. So for the past, my adult lifetime, the Mandarin Oriental has been a standard of luxury in the city. And you bought it with a capital partner for $139 million last year. And I just feel like that’s a very audacious move because Mandarin Oriental, they have it, they know luxury. They’ve got these properties in a bunch of different places, and you’re going to come in and take it up to another level.
Johnson: We’ve started already.
O’Neill: So one thing that’s particularly striking for people here in the New York audience is that you brought in a chef from New York.
Johnson: Oh, wait, wait, wait, wait. No, I discovered him.
You discovered him.
Johnson: Before he came to New York. Kwame and I met, we were on a speaking engagement down in The Bahamas.
O’Neill: Kwame Onwuachi, the chef of Tatiana.
Johnson: Yes. He has a restaurant, Tatiana, which is now the number one restaurant in New York.
But we met long time ago. And the way I met him, I was listening to him, I was so impressed with him. And then there was an event that night with Preston Bailey. He was being honored and so forth. And then we were dancing and Kwame’s just sitting there and I said, “Why don’t you get up and dance with me?” He says, “I don’t know how to dance.” I said, “I’m going to teach you.” From that moment on, Kwame and I had been like this.
He had a restaurant called Kith/Kin in Washington DC. And during when COVID hit, his restaurant was closed down. The Intercontinental kept going. But it broke my heart and it hit the Washington Post the next day. And I called him, I said, “Kwame, you’re coming with us.” I recognized his talent. I had been eating in his restaurant. I have never tasted food like this in my life.
Johnson: I mean, he is just that talented. He’s a young 30-something year old. And I’m just so impressed with him. And I usually don’t make gambles like this, but I know my instincts were right on this.
So in the meantime, we decided that we were going to address the issues of diversity in the culinary business because a majority of the restaurants of people of color had been shut down during COVID. And I just wanted to bring attention to this and also to the frustrations of how to find financing to keep their businesses going. So he and I sat down with my team and we decided to start something called the Family Reunion. And what we do is we bring in over 40 of the top chefs from all over the country, and sommelier, where we meet for a total of four days.
We have panel discussions, we talk about the issues that are going on in the culinary industry, keeping restaurants alive. We have unbelievable discussions. I bring banks in to talk to them about financing. But these are really important issues that we need to get into a safe place to talk about the issues of growing diversity in the hospitality industry. And this is one of the key issues that I have in hotels.
O’Neill: Well, could we hold one moment there, please. We do have a video of the Family Reunion. If we could pull that up, please.
Johnson: This resort behind me is a gathering place of love, adventure, fine culinary cuisine from all over the country.
This year’s Family Reunion is so unique because we have been able to expand, and really share the love and the adventures that we have here.
Johnson: So, there we have it. I think you recognize some of the chefs in there from Carla Hall to Alexander Smalls. I mean, it’s really… Rodney Scott, Bryan Furman, the Pitmasters. It’s really become a magical experience to the point where we’re now getting calls from some of the major networks and cable networks. They’re very interested in us. So we’re starting to document everything.
O’Neill: That’s great.
Johnson: But again, the reason why I’m doing it is then also continuing to build our brand. We will take this to Jamaica, to one of our other properties. We are already in Aspen. We do the Juneteenth event at the end of Ideas. And I think you saw Hunter in there, who’s the CEO of Food & Wine Magazine.
And this is something that Carla Hall had brought to my attention. She says, “We go to Aspen and Kwame and I are the only two people of color up there.” We’ve changed that. Hunter gets it now. He even said it in front of an entire audience of tourists, travel tourists, I mean travel salespeople, whatever, they sell tourism. I get it all twisted up and I just lost something.
O’Neill:Nope, that’s okay. Sorry.
Johnson: But it’s just really… Here, I got it. All these gadgets. But they get it. And what I’m saying, we’re trying to check the box. I’m trying to check the box in the hospitality industry where people are wrestling with this diversity and inclusion issues and everything. You can do it in a fun way. I do it through film. I do it through the culinary experience. I don’t mind talking about it and showing the general public here in our country and globally what can be done. Because there’s great minds out there and there’s so much talent. And we need to bring them in our industry. We need to include them even more.
O’Neill: So luxury, I’m a person of a certain age, when I think of luxury, I think a little bit of excluding. It’s like you’re in with the right crowd and you don’t have the other crowd. So what does luxury mean for you at Salamander Collection?
Johnson: It’s different. It’s about the environment and the experience in which you’re curating. Yes, you want to build a product that is really beautiful. But I don’t want it to be stuffy. I want it to be affordable luxury where they feel like they’re in the most exclusive place in the world. But they’re really coming to my home, and that’s the touch point that I want. I want them to feel like, “Oh, this is okay.” And they feel like family. And we get so many repeat guests. They said, “We’re only going to go to Salamander properties.”
O’Neill: Very cool.
Johnson: And we want to keep our value, our core value is the same through all of our properties. I want that hospitality to be authentic. I want them to feel respected. And I want them to feel my passion that I have for greeting them, for welcoming them there. I am very visible on the floor of every property when I’m traveling around. And of course, Middleburg, because that’s where I live. And when I’m home, I am at that front door and I’m greeting people. And they’re just so happy when I’m there. Even when they’re eating, I’ll go around and make sure that they’re okay.
O’Neill: That’s cool. And so part of it, when you look out… I interrupted you earlier and you said, when you look at the diversity in the hospitality industry, a lot of the hospitality leaders in management don’t reflect the diversity of their staff as well as the guests. And partly, I think one of your values is making your staff feel included and empowered, and then that gets reflected out in the sense of hospitality. What encourages you and what discourages you in the hospitality sector on this?
Johnson: I don’t believe in discouragement. I believe in educating. I believe in being a strong leader to show my value system and why this is so important. And we’re doing it. I talk to my executive team about it. It’s right on their radar screen. We go out and we purposely look everywhere and hire. We have our tentacles are out there and all of our connections. We let them know that we want to hire not only people of color, but people that have the passion and also share the vision that I have. I don’t want people coming in with their own agenda because I will not hire you. You got to share my vision and our value system because that is what’s important.
O’Neill: Very cool. We have a couple of audience questions. So it’s so refreshing to have a powerhouse woman on stage.
Johnson: Yeah. We got to talk about sports too.
O’Neill: It’s refreshing for me to have an executive actually says what’s really on their mind as well. So your top tip for women, what seems to be predominantly male-dominated profession to be successful, a top tip?
Johnson: Says it’s so refreshing to have a power… Your top tip for women. Oh, understand your passion and your power. Do not be a shrinking violet about what you want to do. You have to go in there and you got to fight for what you believe in, and that’s important. And you set boundaries. Those boundaries are so important to really make sure that you’re able to communicate your vision and to stick by your value system.
O’Neill: Beautiful. Any plans to expand outside the U.S. to emerging markets in Latin America or Africa?
Johnson: We get asked about that all the time. If I could get a good investor, yes.
Johnson: Yeah. All right.
O’Neill: How has your work at USC inspired you? And how do you see the future of the industry based on your experience as a professor with current hospitality students?
Johnson: Yeah. This is something, and I’m glad you asked this question. But this was something that I decided to do and it’s something very unique within my company. We do go to universities and we lecture and we teach classes. So for a whole year I was at the University of South Carolina, working with students there and introducing my brand. And I bring every one of my team members in there from my general manager to my marketing directors, human resources. I want to introduce these students, I just don’t want them to take a class. But they have to understand every level of the hospitality industry to really get a full vision of what’s really going on. Because the more we can educate them and bring excitement about it, because we’re losing it. I mean, you’ve got like Temple University is struggling.
O’Neill: In Philadelphia.
Johnson: Yeah. They are struggling to keep just their hospitality division going. We can’t let this fail. We have to go out there and be really our cheerleaders for the industry.
O’Neill: For the next generation.
Johnson: For the next generation. We have got to bring them along, otherwise we’re going to die. And this is one thing that I learned by getting out on the field. We go to the University of South Florida, we go everywhere to make sure that we can spread the joy and the pride of what this industry stands for because we’re not communicating that very well.
O’Neill: I agree.
O’Neill: Well, ending this on spreading joy and raising opportunity for the next generation is a good point. Thank you so much, Sheila.
Johnson: Oh, this was…
O’Neill: It’s been a pleasure. It goes by so fast.
Johnson: Thank you. Thank you.
Have a confidential tip for Skift? Get in touch
Photo credit: Sheila Johnson on stage at the Skift Global Forum 2023