Tucked away in a quiet corner of America’s finest horse country, Salamander Resort & Spa near Middleburg, Virginia, has an illustrious history for a new resort. In the early 60s, the small historic town was the beloved retreat of president John F Kennedy and his First Lady, who would spend 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. Attracted to the rolling countryside just an hour from Washington DC by her daughter Paige’s love of horses, the renowned entrepreneur bought Salamander Farms, a sprawling estate just outside the town and transformed it into a family home-come-equestrian paradise.
Eighteen years later, the move has proved serendipitous. Paige, now an Olympic show-jumper, continues to train at the estate while Johnson uses it 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 last August, is the fourth to open.
In 2001, the sale of BET reportedly made Johnson and her then husband Robert Johnson the country’s first African-American billionaires. Since then, Johnson has divorced, remarried and invested her considerable funds and energy into a diverse range of ventures. As well as her interests in the film industry, she owns a private jet business and three professional sports teams, plus a café and high-end market shop in Middleburg. But it’s the hospitality enterprise – and in particular, the Salamander Resort & Spa – that is the heart of Johnson’s empire.
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. A devoted spa-goer herself, she was acutely aware that despite the abundance of wealth in the Washington DC area, there were no great spa destinations within a reasonable driving distance of the city.
Bringing together a team of designers that included acclaimed interior designer Thomas Pheasant, WATG and Blu Spas, Johnson’s vision was not simply to create a resort with a beautiful spa, but to integrate spa and wellness – a new concept at that time – into the fabric of the resort, with a strong emphasis on indoor-outdoor spaces, the natural setting and a programme of activities and events to pull it all together. “We all felt at the time that this was one of those rare projects,” says Cary Collier, principal of Blu Spas. “It had the location, people and the resources behind it to do something extraordinary.”
While Johnson’s commitment to spa and wellness didn’t change, the scale of the project did. It evolved from a much small inn-style development into a 168-bedroom resort. Inevitably, locals were worried about its impact on the community and the environment.
Then, in 2005, Johnson set up Salamander Hotels & Resorts – both to manage the Middleburg project and to seek out others – and recruited hospitality veteran Prem Devadas as president. Previously managing director of a hotel collection that included the world-renowned Sanctuary Hotel on Kiawah Island, Devadas brought to the table not only his expert knowledge of luxury resorts but also his diplomatic skills. Together, he and Johnson were able to convince community leaders that the development would be an asset to the town and wider area. Since then, 200 of the property’s 340 acres have been placed in a conservation easement and the building has been registered for LEED certification.
The next major obstacle was the global recession, which delayed construction for at least 20 months. Prior to the slowdown, however, the company had already acquired and redeveloped Innisbrook Resort in Tampa Bay, Florida. Two years ago, it then took on management contracts for two more properties: Reunion Resort and Hammock Beach Resort, also in Florida. Finally, the long-awaited Virginian flagship – reported to represent upwards of US$130m (€93m, £78m) of investment, although the company won’t confirm – opened its doors in mid 2013.
From a commercial perspective, Salamander Resort & Spa couldn’t be better positioned. In addition to being the country’s unofficial equestrian capital, Middleburg has the east coast’s largest concentration of wineries. It is also just an hour’s drive from DC and 35 minutes from Dulles International Airport, making it easily accessible to DC residents and foreign travellers. Thanks to a significant investment in conferencing and recreational facilities, the resort is also well set up to cater for both groups and leisure guests.
Despite its size and ambition, however, the property is neither grand nor imposing. Inspired by Johnson’s renovated 19th-century home at Salamander Farms, the architecture is designed to complement the surrounding countryside, while the aged-looking interiors evoke the sense of being in somebody’s home, albeit a very luxurious one. “While there’s no doubt it’s refined and beautiful, it’s not stuffy, it’s very warm and inviting,” says Devadas. “That’s something people are surprised by: how well it fits into this landscape and how comfortable it is.”
Central to the resort’s recreational offering is its full-service equestrian centre, with a 22-stall stable, riding arena and nine paddocks, plus miles of trails, riding instruction and clinics held by the area’s world-class riders. The passion for all things horse does not stop there, however: it’s a design accent throughout the resort, from the horse cut-outs in the ironwork of every balcony to the renovation of a 150-year-old stallion barn. In another quirky touch, the 17 suites are grouped into equestrian categories (Dressage, Blue Ribbon and Grand Prix) and individually named for Paige Johnson’s favourite horses.
Given the collegiate approach to the resort’s design, it’s no surprise that the same principles are also in evidence in the spa, which consequently puts a strong emphasis on stone, wood and water. “We wanted it to be luxurious but not stuffy, not glitzy,” says Devadas. “And we wanted something that would really sit within this equestrian vernacular.”
Describing it as “the Ralph Lauren approach to spa”, Collier cites the 2003 film Seabiscuit as an influence: “The movie showed these incredible olde-worlde horse barns from around the country and when I saw them, I just thought, this is it, this feels right.”
One example of how this has been realised is the entrances to the male and female locker rooms: octagonal openings that immediately evoke a barn’s frame. The other defining characteristic of the spa is its abundance of outdoor spaces. Half of the 14 treatment rooms have private stone terraces and all of them open onto a spa courtyard, with a 70ft (21m) infinity edge pool overlooking the woods, as well as a heated whirlpool, stone fire-pit, dining area and private cabanas. “We’ve tried to capture the special beauty of the surrounding landscape in the spa experience,” explains Devadas.
According to spa director Penny Kriel: “The core objective for Blu Spas was to create the definitive American classic spa, reflecting the traditions and history of the Virginia area and we all think this goal was achieved. It captures the genteel elegance of southern hospitality, rife with romance and grace.”
In addition to a wide range of massage and beauty treatments – with skincare supplied by Alchimie Forever and Natura Bissé as well as homemade products using ingredients grown on-site – the spa boasts beautiful wet areas constructed by Bradford Products in locker rooms, comprising whirlpools with waterfall features, steamrooms and experience showers. Separately, there’s a relaxation area and rasul beyond that, plus a well-equipped fitness centre, sauna and an indoor swimming pool.
But in line with Johnson’s original vision, the wellness offering at the resort extends far beyond the walls of the spa. At its heart is the equestrian centre, which alongside traditional riding classes and clinics offers a range of wellness-oriented programmes. Such programmes include The Equi-Spective Experience – which aims to help participants discover their authentic communication, leadership and relationship style by connecting with horses – and Yoga on Horseback. Non-riders, meanwhile, are well catered for with other outdoor programmes ranging from hiking to birdwatching, while golfers can take advantage of a one-day membership of nearby Creighton Farms golf club, which boasts a Jack Nicklaus signature course.
To all appearances (the company won’t divulge occupancy rates) the resort is a great success. Press coverage has been extensive and business is currently equally split between groups and leisure guests/ The political community in DC is also proving to be a particularly important market – the resort has already hosted 20 fundraisers and welcomed numerous high-profile guests.
As for the spa, it has an impressive capture rate of 48 per cent and is equally popular with the local community, who account for 50 per cent of business. Independently profitable, it is a driver of room rate and length of stay (currently around two days and rising) and also appears to have currency among Washington’s political elite. According to Devadas, not only do visiting politicians use the facility but one of last year’s fundraisers, which has traditionally been a golf event, was for the first time centred around the spa.
Next on the agenda in terms of wellness is the opening of a treetop canopy walkway and an open-air treatment room, located in the Stallion Barn, both of which will launch in the next few months. But Johnson and Devadas have bigger plans. These include not only the introduction of medi-spa services and ‘executive physicals’ at the resort, but also a dedicated healthcare facility delivered in partnership with a leading medical provider – a second phase of development that’s been on the cards since early on in the planning process and which aims to cement the resort’s reputation as a wellness destination. Scheduled to open towards the end of the year, the purpose-built facility will be located at the resort and will offer a range of services targeting both business executives on corporate retreats and residents from the north Virginia and greater Washington DC areas.
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 spa and 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 or hotel experience and we are perfectly positioned to help owners create that environment.”