Politics & Government

Business is lagging at Trump Doral. Could a summit with world leaders turn it around?

President Donald Trump is considering his own Trump National Doral resort to host the Group of Seven summit in 2020, according to numerous media reports. It wouldn’t be the first time Miami has served as the backdrop for a U.S. president’s meeting with foreign leaders. But it would be the first time the host president stands to gain financially from the venue.

It raises questions about whether the event is being used as a way to get his Miami property out of a financial rut.

Hosting foreign dignitaries has been a financial boon for Trump’s private Palm Beach Mar-a-Lago Club, providing some insight into what financial gains might be expected from hosting the G7 Summit at Trump Doral.

Like many Trump-branded properties, Trump National Doral and Mar-a-Lago are both administered by the Trump Organization — a private group of companies run by the president’s adult sons while Trump is serving in the Oval Office. Per the agreement with his sons, Trump can pull any amount of money from the organization’s coffers at any time, according to statements by the Trump Organization’s attorney to ProPublica.

Beyond the money paid directly to the club to cover the costs of hosting an international event, iconic visits to Mar-a-Lago, like the 2017 summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, helped increase international tourism to the property, bringing in a steady, albeit small, stream of revenue to the then-struggling property.

Hosting the G7 Summit — consisting of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States — at any of his properties would exacerbate claims that Trump is profiting from the presidency in violation of the so-called Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Trump is already facing lawsuits over similar allegations, primarily about his hotel in Washington, D.C.

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Charles Lee used photos of himself in Mar-a-Lago that included references to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2017 visit to promote his business diplomacy tour packages. WeChat

Trump’s presidency so far seems to have harmed Trump Doral’s bottom line. In a meeting with a magistrate for the Miami-Dade Value Adjustment Board in December 2018, a consultant hired by the Trump Organization said the hotel is “severely under-performing.” The consultant cited lower occupancy and room rates at the Doral hotel compared to its competitors and an 18 percent slump in revenue from 2015 to 2017 as reasons to lower the property’s value.

“There’s clearly been factors that have influenced the hotel,” said consultant Jessica Vachiratevanurak in the meeting with the magistrate. “There is some negative connotation that is associated with the brand.”

The PGA Tour, which served as the resort’s major event for more than half a century, left in 2016 amid Trump’s highly polarizing presidential campaign and after Cadillac reduced its sponsorship. The Miami Heat pulled its golf tournament from the Trump Doral in 2017 after four straight years there.

In the end the magistrate agreed to reduce the resort’s assessed value for 2018 from $110.3 million to $105.6 million. Trump reported that he made $76 million from the Doral resort and golf club in 2018, down from $116 million in 2016.

If the financial impact of hosting foreign leaders at Mar-a-Lago is any indication, an international event like the G7 could be just the thing Trump needs to turn the 643-room Doral hotel around.

The event itself will generate significant revenue for whatever venue hosts it, including catering fees, as well as room and equipment rentals. A spokesperson for Trump Doral did not respond to requests for comment about the G7 event.

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In this January 2015 file photo, Donald Trump tees off on the Red Tiger golf course at Trump National Doral Miami. He soon would be running a successful presidential campaign, and his time in the White House has coincided with a sales slump for the resort. He made his first visit as president on June 18, 2019. CARL JUSTE MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife stayed at Mar-a-Lago during their February 2017 visit, and played a round of golf at Trump’s nearby resort. Former spokesman Sean Spicer said at the time that Trump gifted the room at Mar-a-Lago to Abe and his wife, and the rest of the Japanese delegation stayed off site, suggesting the president didn’t personally profit from the housing arrangements, but also raising questions about rules regarding gift giving from the U.S. president to foreign leaders.

While Xi and his entourage did not stay at Mar-a-Lago, they did attend a working lunch, and a dinner in the club’s iconic Gold and White Ballroom that featured a dry aged prime New York Strip Steak. (Later, taxpayers also quietly picked up a thousand dollar Mar-a-Lago bar bill rung up by government staff the night of Xi’s visit, according to a ProPublica investigation.)

Trump’s visits to his own clubs, whether alone or with foreign leaders, have brought $1.6 million in revenue to his private companies, according to a Washington Post analysis. The nonprofit watchdog group Property of the People has documented more than $138,000 in Department of Defense payments directly to Mar-a-Lago and other Trump properties, as well as thousands in payments from other governmental departments.

Hosting informal international summits at Mar-a-Lago was more than a one-off revenue generator for the club, however. Chinese President Xi’s visit also boosted the property’s appeal to Chinese tourists, bringing in a crucial revenue stream during a period of financial instability for the club in the first year of Trump’s presidency.

Mar-a-Lago was looking at a massive revenue shortfall during its 2017-2018 events season after two-thirds of regularly scheduled charity events pulled out following Trump’s comments that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the deadly white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The financial impact of the exodus could have easily tallied several million dollars. While the revenue generated depends on the event, according to various reports, in 2018, event-related payments to the club ranged from $40,000, for an event hosted by Trump’s sister Elizabeth Trump Grau, to just over $200,000 paid to the venue by the Palm Beach Republican Party for its annual Lincoln Day dinner.

Haphazard, second-tier events filled the vacuum following Charlottesville as the Trump Organization looked to mitigate the economic impact. Chinese tourists, encouraged by Xi’s visit, became the new gala guests.

New event promoters took over, finding creative marketing strategies for selling tables at the events. One of them, South Florida massage parlor magnate Li “Cindy” Yang, began selling the events over Chinese social media as opportunities for Chinese business people to gain face time with the American president.

The events were picked up by travel package bundlers like Charles Lee, who used the 2017 U.S.-China bilateral summit held at Mar-a-Lago in his promotional material. In one photo, posted to his ad on Chinese social media site WeChat, Lee poses in front of the couches in Mar-a-Lago’s entryway. The Chinese caption references “President Xi Jinping’s VIP room.”

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Chinese tourism driven by a political summit is not unique to the Trump presidency. In 2013, President Barack Obama met with Xi at the Sunnylands resort in California. That caused a spike in tourism.

“We have seen a significant increase in visitation by Chinese visitors since the Obama-Xi Sunnylands summit,” Janice Lyle, the resort’s director, told the Desert Sun the next year. “We estimate that 15 percent to 20 percent of our visitation is now Chinese.”

But Trump offers a new kind of access, said Jeffrey Prescott, a former National Security Council aide under Obama and a senior fellow at the Penn Biden Center.

“I’m sure there have been unsavory individuals who have misrepresented their access in prior administrations,” Prescott said. “What’s different here is that the president and his family have a direct financial interest in putting on these events. There’s a personal financial interest we’ve never seen before.”

A Mar-a-Lago staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the Herald about a sold-out event held at Mar-a-Lago in spring 2018, booked in an act of solidarity with Trump after other bigger events pulled out. A large number of Chinese-speaking tourists paid to attend a gala, promoted by Yang and Lee, under the impression that they were going to meet Trump or members of his family. Trump wasn’t there, and the result, according to the staff member, was an event featuring impassioned speakers yelling pro-Israel slogans into a crowd of largely Chinese tourists, who understood little of what was being said, and spent their time inquiring about Trump and taking selfies.

Other private events like New Year’s Eve 2018 and Safari Night 2018 were attended by large contingents of Chinese tourists as well. China is not part of the G7, although non-member nations sometimes send dignitaries to observe the summits.

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Chinese tour companies used photos of Xi Jinping’s summit to promote tourism to President Donald Trump’s South Florida club. WeChat

The Washington Post first reported that Trump had floated the idea of using Trump Doral as a venue for the G7 to his aides in June. There has been no formal announcement. A spokesperson for the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau said the Miami-Dade tourism agency is not aware of any plans to host the G7 Summit. The agency often helps coordinate hotel blocks for events like political conventions and the Super Bowl.

It wouldn’t be the first time Miami has hosted a major international summit.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton entertained 33 heads of state at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables for the Summit of the Americas. In 2003, trade representatives from the same countries gathered at the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Miami to discuss creating a free trade zone throughout the Americas under President George W. Bush.

Neither of those presidents benefited financially from the meetings.

The potential profits the G7 Summit could bring to Trump Doral would likely never compare to those that the presidency has brought to Mar-a-Lago due to the Palm Beach club doubling as the president’s South Florida residence. The State Department initially advertised Trump’s private property on its website, describing the iconic location as the “Winter White House.” Amid harsh criticism, the post was later removed.

During his presidency, Trump has visited Mar-a-Lago two dozen times. Membership has skyrocketed, prompting the Trump Organization to raise the starting membership fee to $200,000. Tables in the main dining room and patio — where Trump usually dines when he is in town — are booked months in advance, according to several staff members who spoke to the Miami Herald on the condition of anonymity.

Conversely, Trump has visited his Doral property only once during his presidency.

Miami Herald investigative reporter Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this report.
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Taylor Dolven covers the tourism industry at the Miami Herald, where she aims to tell stories about the people who work in tourism and the people who enjoy it. Previously, she worked at Vice News in Brooklyn, NY, where she won a Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of NY for a national investigation of police shootings.
Sarah Blaskey is an investigative and data reporter at the Miami Herald. She holds a master’s degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism and is a recent recipient of a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grant for her work on shark fishing and human trafficking in Central America.
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