by CARTER DAVIS
When Sheila Johnson decided to enter the hospitality industry, the renowned businesswoman and entrepreneur set about developing a talented and experienced team.
In 2005, she asked Prem Devadas to serve as her new company’s president. Johnson, well-known for co-founding Black Entertainment Television, had two goals: develop a 340-acre luxury resort in the Virginia countryside near Washington, D.C., and launch a luxury hotel management company. It was the perfect fit as Devadas had led the development and opening of Five-Star properties throughout his career, including The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island.
Today, Johnson’s resort vision, Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, VA, has become extraordinarily successful, making Johnson the only African-American woman to wholly own a Forbes Five-Star resort.
Meanwhile, the company, Salamander Hotels & Resorts, has established a unique niche in the luxury market, managing properties in the U.S. and the Caribbean, and employing more than 2,500 staff across its corporate office and distinct resorts and hotels.
Here, Johnson and Devadas speak candidly about the state of hospitality and the industry’s diversity efforts in the following Q&A:
HOW WERE SALAMANDER’S PROPERTIES IMPACTED BY THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC, AND HOW HAVE THEY RESPONDED?
Sheila Johnson: We temporarily closed all our properties to help protect our associates and communities but were among the first luxury hotel companies to implement a plan to safely re-open. Like everyone else in our industry, we had to rethink so much of what we do on a daily basis, but we received consistent feedback from our guests that they appreciated our commitment to safety. Interestingly, most of our properties were originally designed with ample gathering spaces to specifically encourage people to relax and reconnect. For years, we have called it “comfortable luxury.” For example, at The Henderson in Destin, FL, we worked alongside ownership to design a spacious Living Room vs. a typical lobby, while also ensuring a significant amount of terrace seating and outdoor dining spaces. In today’s climate, these types of spaces and experiences have been in high demand as people look to gather and celebrate after significant time away from each other.
WHAT IS A HOSPITALITY TREND THAT SURPRISED YOU DURING THE PANDEMIC?
Prem Devadas: The demand for luxury resort residences has exploded as a result of the pandemic. When Sheila first laid out her vision for Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, it included luxury homes. It took a while for us to find the right residential development partner that understood the value we created with a successful Five-Star resort, as well as the market’s expectation of branded Salamander residences of similar quality. At the start of 2020, we engaged with South Street Partners, which is well-known for its work at Kiawah Island and in The Cliffs Communities. We were poised to launch the marketing of our Residences at Salamander when the pandemic struck. Anticipating the business climate would not be conducive, we initially put the project on hold for a year. But, by July, it was clear that desire for this type of product had dramatically increased, mostly driven by buyers moving out of crowded environments. So, we brought our timeline forward and launched our introductory offering to our Salamander loyalists in September 2020. It has been extraordinarily successful. Fifty-five percent of the homes already have contracts.
THIS INDUSTRY HAS WEATHERED DOWNTURNS, SLOWDOWNS, SLUMPS, AND RECESSIONS BEFORE. WHAT IS IT ABOUT THIS INDUSTRY THAT MAKES IT SO RESILIENT?
SJ: Hoteliers are a creative group of people. And I think it’s this creativity that helps inform resilience and adaptability. For example, we are fortunate to work with some great ownership partners, including Guy Steuart III, who is Chairman of Half Moon in Jamaica. Along with his board, Guy had a vision to create a stunning new resort experience. Salamander was hired in 2019 as Half Moon’s hospitality partner and to help launch the new expansion, which we named Eclipse at Half Moon. However, after just three weeks of operation, the pandemic hit and Jamaica closed its borders to travelers. Collectively, we had to reset and develop a new, creative plan that re-launched Eclipse toward the end of 2020. But we prevailed, and the property was just named one of the world’s best new hotels by Travel + Leisure. It’s also a little-known fact that the salamander symbolizes courage, strength, and fortitude. So, you could say our company was born to adapt.
PRIOR TO THE PANDEMIC, LARGER HOTEL COMPANIES SEEMED TO BE THRIVING. DO YOU BELIEVE THIS WILL CONTINUE?
PD: Larger hotel brands have a pivotal and vital role to play in the rebound of our industry. When they are successful, we are all successful. But, as properties around the world closed due to the pandemic, larger companies were extraordinarily stretched. Salamander approached the crisis from an ownership perspective because we also are owners. To help our managed properties recover quickly, we exercised flexibility in terms of our fees throughout the closure and re-opening periods. We worked with our hotel partners on behalf of ownership to reduce and defer fees and expenses. We have always had a nimble corporate team, and with this unique challenge, we were able to adapt quickly to hour-by-hour changing business environments and identify new opportunities to grow revenues and recover quickly. The large hotel brands also have talented and creative teams, and I have no doubt they will thrive in the future. Our goal is certainly to continue to grow the Salamander brand. Prior to the pandemic, we hired our first chief development officer and began to develop our pipeline. Today, it remains strong with several new projects on the horizon. We also are seeing interest from owners of existing properties who have experienced challenges during the past year.
HOW DO YOU THINK PROPERTIES ARE FACING THE CHALLENGE OF A MORE DIVERSE TRAVEL SPACE?
SJ: I consider it less of a challenge and more of an opportunity, and we have faced it head on. Our type of luxury is about inclusiveness and diversity, both from a guest and employee perspective. We haven’t had to make big statements; we demonstrate by our actions that we are taking a leading role in the industry.
WHAT HAS YOUR TIME IN THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY TAUGHT YOU ABOUT DIVERSITY? IS IT POSSIBLE?
PD: I believe the hospitality industry can provide unparalleled opportunities for career growth. We have to lead in all areas, including recruitment and development, and corporate support for programs and initiatives. We simply should not allow the pandemic to slow our efforts to shift the culture of the hospitality industry. Salamander Hotels & Resorts is a company founded on Sheila’s inclusive vision, and our team lives by that vision every day.
HOW DOES DIVERSITY IN MANAGEMENT ENABLE A COMPANY’S GROWTH?
PD: We believe a company’s core values should reflect its commitment to diversity. We can start by encouraging companies to rethink their approach and help companies understand it’s not only a moral obligation, but it’s critical to their success. And it starts at the top. We’re fortunate that Salamander’s brand has become synonymous with Sheila’s ideals and beliefs surrounding luxury travel, as well as her own core values.
The Salamander Collection features:
- Salamander Resort & Spa, Middleburg, VA
- Hotel Bennett, Charleston, SC
- The Henderson, Destin, FL
- Innisbrook Resort, Tampa Bay, FL
- Half Moon, Montego Bay, Jamaica