Spotlight: Sheila Johnson, Founder of Salamander Hotels & Resorts

Feb 4, 2021

Pick a moment, any moment, in Sheila Johnson’s life story, and you’ll find that she was probably the first, only—or one of a very few—to be doing whatever she happened to be doing at the time, whether that was becoming the first young African-American violinist to win a statewide competition in Illinois, or starting up the nation’s first Black television network (yes, she cofounded BET), or becoming the first Black woman to own a pro sports team, let alone the three in which she’s now a stakeholder (the Washington Wizards, Capitals and Mystics). 

In light of that pattern, you’d be forgiven for thinking her father—who broke ground as one of a few African-American neurosurgeons when he began practicing midcentury—was the most formative career influence at home. But now that Johnson is well into her third act—as she’s described life as the founder and CEO of Salamander Hotels & Resorts—she considers her mother’s love of hospitality a pivotal influence.

Salamander Resort in Virginia

Having inherited a deep-seated drive to welcome people with good, healthy food and crisp, clean sheets—then elevated those instincts to Forbes Five-Star levels at her flagship property in Virginia’s rolling green horse country—Johnson helms one of the most respected and beloved luxury hotel brands in the U.S. And though she remains the only African-American woman to wholly own a Forbes Five-Star resort, she’d like to see that change.  

“Because the hospitality industry already employs such a diverse cross-section of people—people of all different colors, cultures, languages, backgrounds and religions—we have a gigantic head start in learning how to fix this country’s single most burning social issue today, namely…racism,” Johnson noted in her 2020 Virtuoso Travel Week keynote address.

“We do it by providing promotions and professional opportunities to people who don’t always look or talk like we do,” she added, preaching what she’s already known to practice—i.e., diversity in her own management ranks, and a perennial eye toward inclusivity.

One of the newsiest examples? The Salamander Resort & Spa’s forthcoming Family Reunion—cohosted by Food & Wine from Aug. 19-22, 2021—promises to be a celebration of diversity in hospitality like no other (attendees include Kwame Onwuachi, Food & Wine’s Best New Chef of 2019 and author of the acclaimed Notes from a Young Black Chef, plus Carla Hall, Edouardo Jordan, Nina Compton, Mashama Bailey, Rodney Scott and Pierre Thiam—for starters). For access to the festival’s cooking demos, wine tastings, dinners and panel discussions—plus the associated resort packages—check back here in April.  

Not that you need attend a special event at Johnson’s properties to appreciate their genuine specialness. Salamander Hotels & Resorts manages five hotels, each aiming to capture authentic local character, and—according to guests—succeeding without fail. One particular favorite among Travelzoo members is The Henderson, which blends beautifully into the Emerald Coast beach town it calls home: Destin, Florida.

Henderson Resort in Florida

Beyond its impeccable seaside manor vibes—think shaded colonnades, swaying palms and vista-blessed balconies—the resort bears Johnson’s imprint in another way that Travelzoo members love. Her “approach to hospitality is the same as it is to family: You will always belong, always feel welcome, respected, appreciated, and special.” Little wonder that 100 percent of our members who’ve stayed here have enjoyed their experiences. (Of course, the neighboring Henderson Beach State Park, with more than a mile of additional beachfront to explore, doesn’t hurt either.)

With that in mind, our team has curated a special deal at the Henderson for Travelzoo members, so you can experience the top-notch hospitality Johnson is known for. And there’s no more appropriate time to book.

Learn more about Travelzoo’s new Spotlight Series on the underrepresented community of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)-owned hospitality companies and entrepreneurs. Help us shine the spotlight: Click here to nominate a business or entrepreneur.

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