NEW YORK -- The Republican Party's longtime symbol of the elephant seemed especially appropriate at the 38th Annual New York University Hospitality Conference last week, where the proverbial elephant in the room was hotelier and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Top executives of Loews Hotels and Marriott International appeared to take aim at many of the protectionist and anti-immigration policies Trump has proposed during his campaign.
Meanwhile, although Trump Hotels continued to take issue with a report that business at its luxury hotels is down sharply this year, it seemed to be tacitly acknowledging the candidate's polarizing effect on travelers, particularly younger ones, by announcing last week a new lifestyle hotel brand that will not include the Trump name.
It is thought to be the first time any of Trump's sprawling enterprises, which range from hotels and casinos to the now-defunct Trump University and even Trump Steaks, have introduced a product that was not branded with the reality TV star's name.
With Trump vowing among other things to prevent Muslims from entering the U.S. and forcing Mexico to pay for the construction of a wall along the U.S./Mexico border, Loews Hotels & Resorts chairman Jonathan Tisch, in his conference keynote, decried what he called "fear-filled rhetoric" in politics, while Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson criticized "demonizing foreigners" and "overstating risks."
Additionally, Blackstone's global head of real estate, Jonathan Gray, pushed for immigration reform, while American Hotels & Lodging Association CEO Katherine Lugar described the "political vitriol" in this year's presidential race as "unprecedented."
NYU's Kristin Lamoureux moderates a panel with, from left, Choice Hotels' Stephen Joyce, Hilton's Christopher Nassetta, IHG's Richard Solomons and Marriott International's Arne Sorenson at the NYU hospitality conference. Photo Credit: Danny King
No speaker mentioned Trump by name, but the identity of their target was clear to everyone in the audience.
Tisch appeared to be the most impassioned, warning that taking what he called the "Fortress America" approach by making it harder for overseas travelers to enter the U.S. would put the domestic hospitality industry at risk by potentially repeating the damage caused by policies taken in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Tisch estimated that such policies during what's known in the industry as "the Lost Decade" cut inbound travel visits by 68 million and cost the domestic travel industry more than $500 billion.
He also pushed for broadening the Visa Waiver Program, though he said that particular moniker had engendered political opposition; he proposed renaming it the "Secure Travel Partnership."
"America can continue to be both welcoming and secure," Tisch said. "Pulling back from the rest of the world simply is not an option."
Sorenson, in a clear allusion to Trump's candidacy, said, "This rise in nationalism ... threatens the ability for people to move freely around the world."
Gray spoke in favor of "comprehensive immigration reform," implying support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants while also appearing to rebuke Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign mantra.
"It's easy to get negative," he said. "We have an amazing country. I don't think America's best days are behind us."
Conference panelists critically addressed many of the issues that have become Trump talking points even as one of their own has clinched the Republican Party nomination.
Jonathan Tisch, left, talks with the American Hotels & Lodging Association’s Katherine Lugar and the U.S. Travel Association’s Roger Dow. Photo Credit: Danny King
Moreover, in a presentation at New York's Trump Tower last week, Trump Hotels executives, including Trump's children Donald Jr., Eric and Ivanka, unveiled a hotel brand featuring a look that is more modern and less ornate than Trump's namesake brand and appears to target a younger demographic.
And while the company did not disclose the name of the brand -- Trump Hotels CEO Eric Danziger said the company is ironing out some trademark issues -- Danziger confirmed that the brand would not include the Trump name.
Just what impact Trump's controversial comments have had on business at his hotels and resorts remains a source of debate.
Earlier this month, the PGA Tour said it would pull its annual World Golf Championships from the Trump National Doral course in Florida and, ironically, relocate it to Mexico City.
Doral had hosted the tournament since 2007 under a sponsorship by Cadillac. But Cadillac pulled out, and PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, in a June 1 statement, cited as the reason for the switch the PGA's inability "to secure sponsorship at levels that would sustain the event and help it grow at Trump National Doral."
Trump, in a statement reported by the Associated Press, accused the PGA of putting "profit ahead of thousands of American jobs" and said its decision "only further embodies the very reason I am running for president of the United States."
Meanwhile, Trump Hotels took issue with a May report from metasearch operator Hipmunk that the company's share of Hipmunk bookings in their specific locales had fallen 59% from a year earlier. Danziger, in an interview with Travel Weekly at last week's event at Trump Tower, disputed those findings, saying that business at 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.
"It's not a factual report," he said.
Hipmunk vice president of marketing Roxy Young said the metasearch company did not disclose its raw data but questioned Danziger's assertions about the booking numbers.
"As a comparison-search site, we refer clicks to many different travel-booking sites, helping our customers find the option," Young said. "Trump Hotels doesn't have insight into the clicks that we send to various sites."
As for an NYU conference panel question about the possibility of Trump being elected president, Hilton Worldwide CFO Kevin Jacobs approached the topic with humor.
"Why wouldn't we want a hotelier in the best seat in the land?" he asked rhetorically. "Now, I don't know about that hotelier."