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Leisure Management
2014 issue 3

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Leisure Management - Sheila Johnson

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Sheila Johnson

The US Salamander Resort and Spa, owned by film producer Sheila Johnson, is fuelled by equestrian passion and business ambition, but has wellness at its heart

Sheila Johnson
The resort offers a Yoga on Horseback course

Tucked away in a quiet corner of America’s horse country, Salamander Resort & Spa near Middleburg, Virginia, has an illustrious history. In the early 60s, the small town was the beloved retreat of president John F Kennedy and his First Lady, who spent hours riding on the land where the property now stands.

So when Sheila C Johnson – co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET) and executive producer of recent Hollywood smash-hit The Butler – first moved to Middleburg in 1996, she became just one in a long list of powerful people to be drawn to the area. The entrepreneur bought Salamander Farms, a sprawling estate just outside the town, and transformed it into a family home-come-equestrian paradise.

Eighteen years later, Johnson uses the estate as a base of operations for her own personal passion: Salamander Hotels & Resorts.

Salamander is a chain of luxury properties of which the Middleburg property – unveiled in August 2013 – is the fourth to open.

Iconic retreat
One of the only luxury resorts to open in the US last year, the project has been a long time in the works. It was in 2003 that a 340-acre (138-hectare) tract of land came up for sale just a few miles from Salamander Farms, and Johnson immediately knew what she had to do. “From the moment I stepped foot on this serene land over 10 years ago, I fell in love with it and envisioned creating an iconic retreat,” she said at the grand opening.

From the outset, the property was always going to incorporate a world-class equestrian facility. But unlike many resorts, where the ‘…and spa’ adjunct is exactly that, for Johnson it was the spa that was a driving force.

Bringing together a team of designers that included Thomas Pheasant, WATG and Blu Spas, Johnson’s vision was to integrate spa and wellness into the fabric of the resort.

American classic
From a commercial perspective, the Salamander Resort & Spa couldn't be better positioned. In addition to being the country’s unofficial equestrian capital, Middleburg is also an hour’s drive from DC and 35 minutes from Dulles International Airport, making it accessible to foreign travellers.

The spa offers a wide range of massage and beauty treatments and features wet areas, comprising whirlpools with waterfall features, steamrooms and experience showers. Separately, there’s a relaxation area and rasul, plus a fitness centre, sauna and an indoor swimming pool.

But in line with Johnson’s vision, the wellness offering extends far beyond the walls of the spa. At its heart is the equestrian centre, which alongside riding classes offers a range of wellness-orientated programmes, including The Equi-Spective Experience – which aims to help participants discover their authentic communication style by connecting with horses – and Yoga on Horseback. Next on the agenda is the opening of a treetop canopy walkway and an open-air treatment room, but Johnson also has bigger plans. These include a dedicated healthcare facility – scheduled to open towards the end of the year – delivered in partnership with a leading medical provider.

Nor does it end here. With two brand new Salamander resorts soon to be announced – one in Florida and one in North Carolina – Johnson’s wellness ambitions are only just beginning.

“As Salamander expands, our expertise in the spa industry will be a key part of the company’s growth strategy,” she says. “Never has it been more essential to marry health and wellness to a resort experience. We are perfectly positioned to help owners create that environment.”

This article was first published in Spa Business, Issue 2, 2014

Originally published in Leisure Management 2014 issue 3

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