Trump Hotels and the Reputation Problem

By Daniel E. Craig, Reknown

Given that so many people have a stake in the Trump brand, was it responsible or prudent for Trump to run for the presidency on such a contentious platform?

Early last year, when a recruiter asked if I was interested in putting my name forward for a soon-to-open position as general manager of Trump Hotel in Toronto, I was conflicted. Donald J. Trump hadn’t yet announced his presidential bid; he was merely an outspoken, controversial character. And his hotel company was fast gaining a reputation for exceptional hospitality.

The year prior, I had lunch at Trump New York with a friend who was an executive with Trump Hotels, and he had nothing but praise for Trump and his family. After lunch, he took me on a tour, and the property wasn’t over-the-top and garish, as I expected, but tastefully designed and relatively understated.

Nevertheless, I had enough distaste for Trump’s politics to know that I couldn’t work for him. But before I could decline the opportunity, the company decided I wasn’t “the right fit.”

It was no sweat for me. I didn’t want or need the job. But what about the thousands of employees who depend on the Trump brand for their livelihood and now find themselves caught in the cross hairs of an ugly presidential campaign?

Trump has lent his name to a range of products, including wines, clothing and golf resorts, but it’s perhaps the hotels that stand to suffer the most. Why? Because Trump’s campaign rhetoric contravenes the spirit of hospitality. 

Recently, the New York Times reported that people are canceling reservations at Trump hotels across the U.S. Meanwhile, the Trump Organization claims that business is stronger than ever and accuses the media of bias against the company. It’s impossible to know the true impact because Trump’s holdings are privately controlled. According to the Times, Trump “has a well-documented history of exaggerating his financial performance.” Although Trump doesn’t own most of the hotels that carry his name, he profits from licensing his name and from contracts to manage the hotels.

Hospitality is about making people from all cultures and walks of life feel welcome, comfortable and secure while they’re away from home. Trump’s politics have made many people feel the opposite. Imagine the outrage if a Marriott hotel manager called for a ban on Muslim guests and was accused of sexually assaulting female employees. He would lose his job and face charges for discrimination and harassment.

True hoteliers are humble; they put guests and employees at the center of everything they do. They lead by example, and inspire staff to uphold values like teamwork, respect and integrity. Has Trump earned a place in the annals of venerated hoteliers whose names adorn hotels around the world, like César Ritz, J.W. Marriott and Conrad Hilton?

“I’ve always tried to maintain complete separation between [my brand] and the campaign,” Ivanka Trump said at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women conference last Wednesday. She founded Trump Hotels in 2007 with her father and brothers Donald Jr. and Eric, and she also runs a fashion line and a lifestyle blog. But can you separate Donald J. Trump the politician from the hotel magnate? That’s difficult when Trump brags about his hotels in debates, and when “Make America Great Again” baseball caps are for sale in Trump hotel gift shops.

It’s even more difficult when consumers aren’t making that distinction. The hotel business is highly competitive, offering so many diverse brands that people can choose to stay in hotels that reflect their tastes and lifestyle. While Trump’s notoriety is sure to attract new guests, including supporters, the curious and people who may not agree with his politics but don’t have qualms about frequenting his hotels, it will also deter many people. This includes groups, events and corporate business that hotels desperately need. Even Trump supporters might not be comfortable with the optics of holding a conference or event at a Trump property.

One of the ironies of Trump’s campaign is that a huge part of his support group is working class Americans who can’t afford to stay in his hotels, whereas he has alienated many of the wealthy citizens and international travelers who can. He has also put off hotel employees, some of whom vow to never set foot in a Trump hotel, much less work for one.

Moreover, property owners will be more reluctant than ever to affiliate with such a controversial name. In Vancouver, where the Trump Hotel has recruited some of the industry’s best and brightest in preparation for its January opening, more than 56,000 people, including the city’s mayor, have signed a petition calling for Trump’s name to be removed from the building.

Holborn Group, the company that owns the property, has refused to comment on Trump’s political agenda. Even if the company wanted to get out of the management contract, as other owners of Trump properties must be contemplating, it would be extremely costly. Trump is notoriously litigious. He is currently suing the chefs José Andrés and Geoffrey Zakarian after they canceled plans to open restaurants in the new Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Of course, the future of Trump Hotels will depend in part on what Trump chooses to do after the election. If he loses, which seems highly likely, he may decide to leave politics and return to real estate development. People tend to forgive and forget quickly, and the maelstrom would probably die down soon.

If he continues to pursue his political interests, perhaps the best prospects for his hotel company will be to cede it to his children. Ivanka in particular is poised, articulate and elegant—qualities that lend well to the role of the hotelier. Perhaps the company’s new lifestyle hotel brand is a sign of things to come. Rather than carry the Trump name, it will be called Scion, which, according to a company news release, means “descendant of a notable family.”

Reputation management is about creating a compelling brand story, delivering on promises and leveraging guest reviews and referrals to attract business. When a hotel’s reputation comes under attack, it typically comes from an outside source—a mistreated guest, a disgruntled former employee or a competitor. In the case of Trump Hotels, the threat comes from within and at the highest level.

Trump’s dual roles as political firebrand and hotel magnate run at cross purposes. Until he gives up one of them, employees of Trump Hotels can only keep their heads down and focus on what they do best: hospitality.


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5 Responses to “Trump Hotels and the Reputation Problem”

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  1. Susan Gomez says:

    As usual, an excellent and insightful post.

  2. Bill Baker says:

    I have stayed at several Trump hotels in the past and was always impressed and (like you Dan) pleasantly surprised by how elegant and understated they were, both in their appearance and in their service. Those experiences made me think differently, dare I say more positively, about Donald Trump himself (prior to his running for president). As I would often exclaim, “Say what you will about the man, he runs a fine hotel.”

    But that cloth cuts both ways, and the exponentially increasing negative opinions I have of Donald Trump have now reversed the tide, tainting my impression of the resorts and hotels that bear his name, ruining them for good in my mind. It’s a shame. You know what else it is? It’s just bad business on his part. Ironic, isn’t it? @StorytellerBill

  3. Margaret says:

    I used to drill into the Hotel Management students at RRU this exact point: “Hospitality is about making people from all cultures and walks of life feel welcome.” We prided ourselves on our global perspective on the world and a customer-centric view of hospitality without exceptions. Thanks for pointing this out Daniel, such an important point to make.

  4. David Curell says:

    Well done….I know many who won’t step foot inside a business with Trump’s name on it. Perhaps this is time to re-brand? Or perhaps not….people do tend to forgive and forget quickly…Most people are counting the days until the election is over…just ten more days…..and when Trump loses..I’m sure he’ll go back into his development corner and I think the rumors of a Trump media network surfacing may be very true… we could be stuck with him as long as people support his network.

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