Woodlands owner aims to make a splash in the high-end hospitality business
12 / 22 / 2008 The Post and Courier
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By Allyson Bird
SUMMERVILLE — As Sheila Crump Johnson emerged from the darkly tinted Lincoln Navigator outside Woodlands Resort and Inn, her facial expression revealed no hint of her mood to the expectant staff waiting to greet her.
Those employees only see her, often described as "America's first black female billionaire," for a few hours every quarter at the luxury property her company bought in 2006.
A photographer waited in the wings, ready to capture her entrance. But halfway up the stairs, 59-year-old Johnson paused, and a small grin formed at the corners of her mouth.
She dramatically flung her back against the railing, threw back her head and kicked up one foot in the perfect Hollywood starlet pose. She giggled.
Ice broken. Tension resolved.
She walked in, shook a few hands and scanned the entryway. A perfectly pruned and trimmed Christmas tree stared back.
"This place looks beautiful," she said to all the men in dark suits gathered around her.
The hardwood floorboards themselves seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. The boss had come to town and liked what she saw.
But none of it surprised her. Johnson did, after all, pick out everything herself, right down to the colors on every wall, the pattern in the dining room rug.
Johnson earned her fame when she and then-husband Robert L. Johnson started Black Entertainment Television in the 1980s. But that's just a small chapter in a storied life.
After graduating from college, Johnson founded a youth orchestra that performed around the world, and she began teaching music in the Middle Eastern country of Jordan while serving as a U.S. Information Agency cultural liaison.
She's a doting mother of two and now wife of Arlington County Circuit Court Judge William T. Newman Jr. She co-owns three professional sports teams, is a partner in an aviation company and serves as a global ambassador for a leading humanitarian organization.
And in 2005, the woman with the golden touch decided she wanted to try her hand at luxury accommodations, so she founded Salamander Hospitality. Johnson adopted the name from a war hero who previously owned her 200-acre estate in Middleburg, Va. Named for a mythical amphibian that could walk through fire, Salamander the bomber pilot had crashed in Belgium during World War II. He evaded capture before linking up with a resistance group waging war against the Germans and eventually settled in the idyllic Virginia countryside outside Washington.
Johnson will open Salamander Resort and Spa in Middleburg in 2010. Last year, she purchased Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, a 900-acre property near Tampa, Fla., for $35 million. But she truly launched her line with Woodlands in 2006.
Travel + Leisure this year selected Woodlands as the No. 1 hotel for service in North America, the only U.S. hotel to even make the cut and third in the world. The property is only one of four in the country to hold both AAA's Five Diamond and Mobil's Five Star distinctions for lodging and dining. This month, it landed a four-page spread in Southern Living under the headline "Dreamy Getaway."
"It was a jewel, but it needed a face-lift," Johnson said from the inn's private dining room during her recent visit. "It had the Lowcountry smoky feel."
Rooms had floral wallpaper. The Dining Room had a blue-sky ceiling. The whole place was best described as "English country garden."
Johnson wanted more paint and less wallpaper, earth tones to make spacious rooms feel even grander and, because it is almost 2009, flat-screen televisions for every guest.
Her December visit coincided with the finishing touches on that total renovation.
Woodlands dates to 1906, when a Philadelphia industrialist named Philip Parsons constructed it as his winter home. The inn is situated down a tree-lined path off a road named for him.
The property eventually fell to an eccentric widow, who filled it with dozens of goats, dogs and chickens. It was turned over to business-minded hands and became the Gadsden Manor Inn in 1986. After another sale and extensive renovation, it made its debut as Woodlands in 1995.
Structurally, it remains the same. But as general manager Bob Seidler explained, since Johnson took over, "Every area the guest sees and touches has been renovated."
Walking through one guest room prior to Johnson's arrival, he spotted a piece of lint camouflaged against the carpet and stooped down to pick it up. The last time Johnson visited, she noticed a spot on a guest room rug tinier than a thumbnail.
When she arrived, Seidler walked her into the Winter Garden, a light-filled room adjacent to the drawing room, where Summerville's Bridge Club, a group of longtime lady friends, meets every year.
"This is Sheila Johnson, the owner," Seidler told the group.
"Oh, hiiiiii," the women cooed. They dropped their game and immediately set to telling her how much they like what she's done with the place.
This inn is not just for those spending the night.
Another 100 Summerville residents come here as members of a social club that uses the inn's amenities and gets a discount on dining. Woodlands, under Johnson's direction, also added a more casual dining section called Pines geared toward guests staying multiple nights and local residents who want a nice meal without a coat-and-tie requirement.
"This is their own," Seidler said.
In fact when Woodlands renovated its restaurant, it sold all the chairs within two days under the direction of a police officer guiding traffic.
"A lot of it was already spoken for," Seidler said.
Johnson's Florida property already has significantly higher bookings for 2009 when compared with this year, according to Prem Devadas, president of Salamander and former managing director of the Kiawah Island Golf Resort. He attributes that business to renovations completed there.
"In economies like this, people typically pull back," he said. "The fact that we are spending the money gives us a big advantage."
Devadas anticipates the Virginia property, when it opens in 2010, will become known as the most luxurious new resort in the country.
With renovations wrapping up at Woodlands, Johnson said the next step here is a major marketing push. Despite all the accolades, "It's still the best-kept secret in the state and locally and throughout the country," she said.
She calls hospitality the core of her business pursuits, which range from sports to philanthropy, and the key to her success is tying it all together. She brought the WNBA draft to her Florida property in April and hopes to attract international global conferences to the Virginia property, located a half-hour drive from one of Washington's major airports.
"You have to learn to make those connections," she said.
You also have to demand the best, from staff to dining to decor.
Sitting down at The Dining Room piano at the end of her tour of the renovations, Johnson effortlessly plunked out "The Spring Song" by Felix Mendelssohn.
"You can tell I don't practice," she said, but not before stopping for a moment to point out to her staff that a few of the keys needed repair.
Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594 or firstname.lastname@example.org.