About 150 conferencegoers arrived at the Trump International Hotel Washington, District of Columbia, on Tuesday, the day after it opened, for an annual meeting of the National Confectioners Association.
But nobody wanted to talk about it.
“Nope,” said three representatives at the CandyPAC table when approached by a reporter. “Not interested,” added two women sitting outside the hotel’s presidential ballroom.
More than a dozen attendees turned down requests for an interview. The only one who agreed, a man from Montana, declined to give his name.
“It’s beautiful,” he said of the $212 million luxury hotel, before adding that he was staying with friends outside of town. The Trump name “didn’t matter one way or another.”
But, meeting planners and industry insiders say, the name — and the property’s association with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump — is likely to be the largest sticking point for the 263-room hotel, which opened to the public Monday.
“This hotel is the new shiny penny in Washington — the only problem is that Donald Trump has his name on it,” said Chryssa Zizos, president and chief executive of Live Wire Media Relations, whose clients include the Carlyle Group and Raytheon. “People are really, really nervous about utilizing the hotel’s bigger spaces because it’s so polarizing. There’s a lot of stigma attached to it.”
Zizos said none of her clients have yet booked events at the hotel, even though the months leading up to an opening are often the best time to snag low rates and coveted dates. Instead, she said, corporations, educational institutions and financial firmsare opting for other high-end haunts in the District: the Hay-Adams, Jefferson and Ritz-Carlton.
“Is someone going to spend $100,000 on an event that could potentially upset half of their attendees?” she said. “In six months, maybe. But right now, with tensions so high and the election so close, there’s no way any of our clients are going to do that.”
Representatives for the Trump hotel would not disclose how many meetings and events the property has on the books.
“With 10 years of experience with Trump hotels, I can easily say the opening of Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C., has been the most successful in terms of opening bookings, interest from groups and large events,” said Mickael Damelincourt, the property’s general manager, who last week told The Washington Post that he has booked more business at the new hotel than he had during the first six months of the Trump hotel in Chicago.
Trump hotels across the country appear to have taken a hit since Trump launched his presidential campaign last summer. Bookings at his hotels were down 59 percent during the first half of 2016, according to the travel site Hipmunk. Among the hardest hit was the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas, which is offering nightly rates of $159 on the discount site Groupon.
“Any group that’s concerned that attendees would be offended by the Trump name is not going to take the risk,” said David Loeb, a lodging analyst at investment firm Robert W. Baird & Co. “Trump has made himself into a polarizing figure and polarization is never something you want to be associated with if you’re a business that caters to the public – even to the very, very elite public, as this hotel would.”
Hotels like the Trump International, which boasts 38,000 square feet of meeting space and a ballroom that seats 1,200, are built around attracting high-profile events and other large group bookings, Loeb said.
“It’s a city center hotel, it’s got a lot of meeting space, so they’ll want to have as many groups as they can,” he said.
Nationally, business travelers — whether part of a meeting or traveling on their own — typically make up about two-thirds of hotel bookings, Loeb said. That figure, however, can be much higher at big-city hotels with abundant meeting spaces. (He estimates that the New York Marriott Marquis, for example, relies on business travelers for about 80 percent of its revenue.)
The National Confectioners Association, for its part, booked its annual legislative fly-in at the hotel over a year ago. A spokesman said he wasn’t sure whether the group had booked the hotel before or after Trump announced his bid for the presidency in June 2015, but said the man behind the hotel had little bearing on his group’s decision.
“We booked the hotel based on the same criteria we always use: proximity to Capitol Hill and the availability of space to hold meetings,” said Christopher Gindlesperger, vice president of public affairs for the association.
The aim of this year’s meeting, according to the group’s site, is to “protect your business from burdensome regulation and to promote a favorable confectionery business environment.” Among the featured speakers: Conservative pundit Tucker Carlson and Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina.
The group has already snagged the Trump for similar events in 2017 and 2018. In previous years, it held its annual fly-in at the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill.
Robert DeSando, a meeting planner in Warrenton, has booked one event at the Trump: a 200-person annual meeting for a financial organization he declined to name.
He said the property’s lavish rooms and central location are its biggest selling points. (The group typically hosts its event at the Four Seasons in Georgetown.)
But first, well before booking the hotel, he had to ask a question he’d never before had to consider in his career: Would the Trump name be a deal-breaker for attendees?
“I made sure that the executives reached out to key people because it is an international meeting. I asked if they could please run that by their people, with a specific question: Is a hotel property with the name Trump [on it] going to be an issue? Would you not attend a program at that hotel?” he recalled.
It turned out attendees didn’t care, DeSando said. He went ahead with negotiations and booked a block of 150 rooms for March 2018.