Salamander rebrand points back to one person—its founder, Sheila Johnson

A salamander is said to be a mythical creature able to withstand the effects of fire. The truth is that when Sheila Johnson, founder of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, created her company, she took the name from the farm she bought just a stone’s throw away from its first property, Salamander Resort & Spa, in Middleburg, Va., which opened in 2013. Not the little lizard.

Ten years later Salamander now encompasses seven properties and on the anniversary of that Virginia opening it has announced that it is rebranding as the Salamander Collection, with the Salamander Resort & Spa now known as Salamander Middleburg.

(Note: There is a thread to the Salamander fire theme: Johnson’s forthcoming memoir, “Walk Through Fire: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Triumph,” comes out in September.)

Along with the Middleburg property, which is an hour due west by car from Washington, D.C, where sits Salamander Washington, D.C., the former Mandarin Oriental taken over by Salamander last September, are five other properties among the Salamander Collection: Half Moon in Montego Bay, Jamaica; Hotel Bennett in Charleston, S.C.; Aurora Anguilla in Rendezvous Bay, Anguilla; Aspen Meadows in Colorado; and Innisbrook in Palm Harbor, Fla., which each year plays host to the PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship.

The entrance at Salamander Middleburg. Photo credit: Justin Kriel

“Salamander represents much more than hotels and resorts; for the past decade, our unique culture of inclusion, kindness and warmth, has created a genuine sense of belonging, which is why Salamander Collection is an even more fitting name for our company,” said Johnson, who beyond Salamander Collection was also a co-founder of the TV network BET and is currently involved with Washington, D.C. professional teams Wizards, Mystics and Capitals. Her philanthropic work is prodigious.

Salamander’s Chief Marketing Officer Tracey Slavonia oversaw the new brand identity, which was designed to harness Johnson’s vision, forge brand pillars that reinforce Salamander’s tenets and demonstrate the positive role the company plays in its surrounding communities. To help amplify the story, Salamander’s company and property websites have been refreshed and a new Salamander magazine was recently published as another touchpoint.

Aspen Meadows in Colorado. Photo credit: Eric Stein


According to Slavonia, who has been with Salamander for five years, making the new brand come to life was not the most difficult task; it just meant telling a story that had been evolving for years. “Unlike some other brands that I’ve worked on, where you’re sort of searching for a common thread, or you are creating the storytelling, everything about this brand was right in front of us,” she said. “It was strictly about organizing and amplifying the message and the DNA that already exists, already lived. From a brand marketer standpoint, it’s the holy grail, bringing a truly authentic, indigenous brand message to life.”

The fulcrum of it all is Johnson, a billionaire, whose maternal instincts belie a shrewd business persona. “Sheila is foundational for us,” Slavonia said, citing a quote attributed to Johnson: “Our approach to hospitality is the same as it is to family. You will always belong, always feel welcome, respected, appreciated and special.” She calls that specific statement the way everyone at Salamander approaches the business. “When you listen to some of the larger companies talk about who they are and what they do, it’s coming from a boardroom, not from the heart,” Slavonia said. “We live, walk and talk this brand every day. Like the way Sheila approaches people, it’s a really personal connection.”

The living room at Half Moon in Jamaica. Photo credit: Eric Stein

Consider the traditional hotel lobby. At Salamander properties they are referred to as living rooms because Johnson’s vision was to have a place where you’re welcomed, like in a home. You also won’t find the traditional front desk, front and center. Instead, they are hidden, concealed from initial sight. Much of Johnson’s original photography also hangs on the walls, down corridors and in rooms.

Salamander, Slavonia contended, is not cookie-cutter luxury and that’s what makes it distinct from other brands across the luxury landscape. “When you look at our belief system, we believe in creating a sense of belonging; we believe in the power of embracing the local community; and in the concept of universal acceptance,” she said. “We hold that the smallest of details make the biggest of differences and that both colleagues and guests should be treated with genuine respect.”

From Slavonia’s mouth, but the words are ascribed to an excellent model. “Honesty, respect, authenticity and passion,” she said. “That comes right from Sheila herself.”