Luxury Hoteliers Share Industry Insight, Trends and Advice

Entertainment mogul, concert violinist and humanitarian Sheila Johnson '14 Hon., found her "happy place" in the hospitality industry while creating Salamander Hotels & Resorts. Johnson and Prem Devadas '99 Hon., president of Salamander, spoke to JWU students and faculty about their shared business and leadership philosophies — the cornerstone of their success.

CEO and Founder Sheila Johnson, Salamander Hotels & Resorts

Johnson, CEO of Salamander, founded the company in 2005, the same year that Devadas joined her. They have been collaborating and growing the high-end luxury brand — that spreads out over Florida, South Carolina, Virginia and Jamaica, with more locations in the works — ever since.

"Sheila and I connected at the very beginning on what luxury meant to us and still means today. It's not pomp and circumstance, it's not opulence, it's comfortable luxury, it's truly authentic experiences, it is kindness … that's really what it is about to us and that sets us apart," says Devadas. A 25-year veteran of the hospitality industry, Devadas has held high-level management positions for companies including the Potomac Hospitality Group.

Salamander Hotels & Resorts President Prem Devadas discusses hospitality industry with students and faculty

Before her foray into hospitality, Johnson had two other "acts" as she likes to call the various stages of her impressive career. The first was as an accomplished concert violinist and the second was as founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET). "Each of those acts has built the foundation for where I am right now — my happy place — the hospitality industry."

The compelling pair spoke to a packed house of students and faculty in the Delaware North SEEM Lab, delving into their shared ideals that have helped shape their guest experiences, customer service and unique brand of properties. They also touched on some interesting industry trends and career advice.

“I love to encourage students coming out of school to join us, not because they should be with us forever, but because it is an important part of their path.”

Career Paths
Luxury and Resort Industry
Devadas: "From a resort standpoint, there’s resort and there’s luxury ... what is typically the case with both is that they are narrower fields, but there is a wider array of positions — management positions that ultimately you can move into. Compensation is at the highest level in the industry in those two segments. We like to tell people coming in that getting into resorts at the entry level is your best path to achieving the highest positions in resorts and luxury."

Millennials' Impact on Hotel Industry
Devadas: "I think the future is about creating a level of quality because millennials will continue to want to elevate their experience. If you want to keep that loyalty, then, in our opinion, you have to be classic, you have to do it at a quality level. And, most important, service is king. If you can keep driving the service experience to the highest level, you will keep that customer because they can't get that level of service somewhere else. To us, that is the future."

Students have round table discussion with Sheila Johnson (far left) and Dean Paul McVety, College of Hospitality Management

Leadership and Corporate Culture
Johnson: "I hold every one of my employees accountable for their standards, their character … and I think that is what has kept us all as a family unit. We work so well together, and we have so much respect for one another. I equate this to sports. If you have one bad apple in the locker room, it can disrupt the entire team."

Devadas: "It has all to do with leadership at the top … philosophically we both felt the same about hospitality, that from a luxury standpoint, it is built more on authenticity, friendliness, true warmth and caring than it is by what I would call an opulent luxury — whether that's from a design standpoint or a service standpoint. When we made that connection, we knew that it would be the kind of company that we would have."

“I've idolized Ms. Johnson for years … she's an African American woman entrepreneur and I want to follow in her footsteps. ”

Prophecy Collier (far right) meets Sheila Johnson and passes her a copy of her resume

JWU Student Connects with Her Idol
After Johnson and Devadas finished their presentation, Prophecy Collier ’21 had the opportunity of her lifetime. Collier, who holds  Johnson in high regard, had the opportunity to talk with her face-to-face and pass along her resume. “I wanted to meet Ms. Johnson because I've idolized her for years … not only is she an entrepreneur but she's an African American woman entrepreneur, and I want to follow in her footsteps," said Collier. "Performing an internship with Salamander Hotels & Resorts would be phenomenal, but just being able to keep in contact with her or just be a mentee of hers would be more than I could ask for.”