Last week marked a historical moment for the travel industry: For the first time, one of its own was nominated as the candidate of a major party for president of the United States.
In an unprecedented scenario, Donald Trump, the sitting chairman and president of a hotel company, is one of two people who could be elected president on Nov. 8.
But instead of the travel industry openly celebrating this possibility, the Republican candidate's fiery brand of protectionism and anti-immigration stances have put him at odds with many members of the industry as well as other hotel executives who have distanced themselves from his rhetoric.
For many travel agents and tour operators who sell Trump Hotels, however, it has been business as usual with a company that they commend for being family-oriented and easy to work with.
For these people, doing their job means not mixing business with politics. And with the head of an important luxury hotel brand this close to the Oval Office, the main question they have is what that could mean for their business.
"You have to separate Trump the organization from Trump the politician," said Alan Hale, CEO of Birmingham, Ala.-based golf tour operator GolfThere. "In the golf business, he truly has built a world-class golf resort brand."
Hale said he has always enjoyed working with Trump and that the company understands the role of the travel trade.
"He has a good organization," Hale said. "He has a reputation for running a good business. They are a privately held, entrepreneurial company. They see travel agents as a sales force out there selling their properties."
Suzanne Hall, senior director of supplier partnerships at the Ensemble Group, said that members of the Ensemble Hotel & Resort Collection are chosen "regardless of any political affiliation."
"If a property has the right assets, we welcome them into our hotel program," she said. "The Trump properties are absolutely luxury and fit the profile. They are lovely hotels."
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Travel agencies that sell a lot of Trump say they have been assured during the campaign that business would continue as usual because the candidate's children, Ivanka, Eric and Donald Jr., who are increasingly the faces of the organization, are in charge of its overall hotel operations, a move travel professionals praise, especially when it comes to a commitment to quality.
"The children are the ones really running the business," said Stacy Weigant, a luxury specialist at Forest Travel in North Miami Beach, Fla., and a member of the Trump Hotels travel advisory board. "They are extremely hands-on. That's the feeling that came across to all of us on the board: that they really care about every detail, that they're not passing it off to someone else. They are very, very involved with all of their properties."
The three Trump children have been working together at the company since 2007. According to Eric Trump, this has allowed for a very "natural transition."
"We've run the company for a long time, so it was actually very, very seamless," he said. "[My father] has implicit trust in the three of us and what we do and the teams we develop. He was always there to guide the process, but he's 100% devoted to the campaign right now, and nothing's missed a beat."
From left, Eric Trump, Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. (with his daughter Kai) took part in the recent reopening of the Trump Turnberry golf resort in Scotland, which underwent a renovation that cost around $265 million.
Each of the kids has the title of executive vice president of development and acquisitions, and each, according to Eric, serves as a point person for various projects. For example, he oversees Scotland's Turnberry Resort and other golf courses, while Ivanka is the point person at the upcoming Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C. But they each step in to take on certain elements of other projects.
"We have a great tag team," he said of their relationship. "Ivanka took a lot of interior-design elements of Turnberry. I took many elements of [Washington], and we all work very, very closely with one another."
Travel agents agree that Trump's run for president has not impacted how the company operates.
"I really have not seen any changes," Weigant said. "I think they try to really separate the fact that he's running for president and what the business is doing."
The fact that Trump Hotels is a family business has helped make the transition easy without having to make any changes to the corporate structure. It is also something travel agents describe as an upside to working with Trump.
Ivanka and Eric Trump spoke at the Trump SoHo hotel in New York at an event showcasing the upcoming Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill
"I've served on advisory boards where they'll listen to what you have to say, but whether they take action or are responsive might be another story," Weigant said. "With Trump, we did feel that they were really hands-on. They were the decision-makers. They are not going to go back to their board and ask to do it or not. They have the power to really make the decision up front."
Cheri Rice of ProTravel in New York agreed.
"It's not a corporation; it's more of a family," Rice said. "You're not shot down. With a family business, you're brought to the table. They can be more flexible."
According to several employees at Trump's newest hotel, the upcoming D.C. property, the Trump Hotels management is appreciated by the staff, many of whom moved over from more structured companies.
"There is significant difference from other hotels," said Gabriel Constantin, hotel manager at the Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C., who has previously worked for both Ritz-Carlton and InterContinental Hotels Group. "[Other hotels] are very structured. You have a manual with a checklist. [Trump is] able to use our talent and creativity, with the freedom to make the right choices that will be best for the guest."
Continued strong performance
As a private company, Trump Hotels does not have to disclose whether its bookings have been impacted due to the controversy surrounding his presidential campaign.
According to the Trump organization, any impact has been positive. When asked last month if she thought her father's candidacy helped or hurt the Washington hotel's opening, Ivanka Trump told Travel Weekly that company performance overall was "incredibly strong."
"All I know is that the performance of our existing assets, which is incredibly strong, and the interest in this asset, even in its advance opening, is the strongest that our general manager says he's experienced in his entire career," she said.
And when metasearch operator Hipmunk in May said that Trump bookings had fallen 59% from a year earlier, Trump Hotels CEO Eric Danziger disputed that claim, saying each hotel mentioned in the Hipmunk report was up from a year earlier and that the sample size of Trump Hotels bookings on Hipmunk was too small to accurately estimate business trends.
The Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C., during its construction in October 2015.
Weigant and Hale also said that Trump bookings are neither up nor down as a result of his candidacy.
"It's a nonissue," Hale said. "As far as the golf industry goes, I think people separate that. We haven't seen it with our [tour] business at all."
Even so, in June the PGA Tour pulled its annual World Golf Championships from the Doral course for 2017, relocating it to Mexico City. Doral had hosted the tournament since 2007 under a sponsorship by Cadillac, which opted not to renew after this year. The PGA said the reason for the switch was its inability to secure the necessary sponsorship at the Doral.
And while the travel industry in general has not directly come out against Trump during most of the campaign, his comments about illegal Mexican immigrants on the day he announced his run spurred boycotts of his hotels by major Mexican tour operators last summer, including Pleasant Holidays, Apple Vacations, Travel Impressions, Mark Travel and its Funjet affiliate, which all suspended their promotions and sales of all Trump properties.
Weigant said that groups might be a little more sensitive to booking Trump properties, citing in one case a family that changed a wedding from a Trump resort because "they didn't want what's going on with the presidential campaign to overshadow that they were having a wedding." Overall, however, she said, there has been no real impact.
One of her clients who often stays at the Trump SoHo hotel in New York questioned whether she should go but ultimately decided that she would.
"In the end she is booking the property for what it is, for the people who work there," Weigant said. "The people who work for Trump ... might not be reflective of how Trump comes across. [People] are booking the product, not the name on the outside of the building."
Gabriel Constantin, left, the Washington property’s hotel manager, and Daniel Mahdavian, director of food and beverage. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill
The candidate and his brand
While Trump the candidate might not have much to do with his hotels anymore, it doesn't mean that they are not impacted by his run.
Most hotel company press conferences don't attract paparazzi, CNN trucks or gawking tourists. But that was the scene in June when Trump Hotels held a press conference at New York's Trump Tower during the New York University Hospitality Conference, where Danziger, Ivanka, Eric and Donald Jr. announced that they were launching a lifestyle brand targeting millennials.
And at one of the few recent hotel events Trump did take part in, the reopening of the Trump Turnberry after a 200 million British pound (at the time $265 million) renovation, Trump wore a hat with his campaign slogan and made some very candidate-like statements, mentioning his "employing tens of thousands of people."
He described Turnberry as "not only an iconic property, but it is also an important statement about the financial bonds between America and the United Kingdom and how both our societies together benefit from our strong relations in trade and commerce."
The fact is that Trump could legally be the president of his company and of his country at the same time.
Jessica Lavariega-Monforti, professor and chair of the department of political science at Pace University in New York, said that the ethics rules that cover conflicts of interest faced by executive-branch employees from cabinet-level appointees on down do not apply to elected officials, including the president.
And although many presidents have put their assets in a blind trust, which an independent trustee takes over so that the official cannot direct or advise on investment decisions, Lavariega-Monforti said that tradition was "essentially ceremonial, a tradition but not a requirement."
"Nevertheless, it's been a tradition recent presidents have followed," she said. "Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, both of the Bushes and Bill Clinton used the blind trust."
Even so, she said, a blind trust would be unlikely for Trump for several reasons.
For one, Trump has said several times, including in an answer to a question about his company during a debate on Fox News, that if he were president, he would leave the running of the company to his children.
"If I become president, I couldn't care less about my company. It's peanuts," he said. "I have Ivanka and Eric and Don sitting there. Run the company, kids, have a good time. I'm going to do it for America."
But when asked if he would put his assets in a blind trust, he said, "I would probably have my children run it with my executives, and I wouldn't ever be involved because I wouldn't care about anything but our country, anything."
In addition, Trump's campaign has focused a lot on his claims of business success, which could make him less likely to want to disengage from it completely.
"Trump has already acknowledged that his policy positions are affected by his business interests," Lavariega-Monforti said. "And, in part, his base of supporters in the electorate voted for him as a result of this stance. It has been played up as practical experience."
The Living Room Terrace at the Trump National Doral in Miami. The PGA pulled its annual World Golf Championships from the resort’s course for 2017, relocating it to Mexico City. The PGA said insufficient sponsorship was the reason for the move.
His hotel brand could present a particular conflict of interest, since several laws and policies could be seen to benefit or hurt his businesses, even though federal conflict-of-interest laws would prohibit him from using presidential powers to give an advantage to his businesses, Lavariega-Monforti said.
"It is tough to think of any major global trade deal that would not raise a red flag given the candidate's international presence," she said.
For the U.S. Travel Association, in whose interest it is to win favor with any future occupant of the Oval Office, Trump presents an interesting issue. Its CEO, Roger Dow, is constantly asked about Trump's protectionist policies and whether they could hurt the travel industry were he to win the election.
In an interview, Dow said it is important "to separate rhetoric from reality" when candidates are campaigning versus when they take office. And he did not rule out Trump's background being a possible benefit for the travel industry. "He's building a hotel right in D.C. He understands it."
At that property, even the staff didn't anticipate that a Trump presidency would have much of an impact on the hotel, which is five blocks from the White House.
"I think it'd be business as usual," said Mickael Damelincourt, managing director of the hotel. "We are in Washington, D.C., on Pennsylvania Avenue, so every two weeks we are going to have a head of state coming. For us, it's about running a luxury hotel. And Mr. Trump being president would be, you know ... we're dealing with a president who's passing by every day right now."
Jenny Hart contributed to this report.