Inside Trump's Washington DC trophy hotel: will it become an Arab favourite?

The Trump International Hotel in Washington DC is anxiously awaiting the return of luxury travelers from the Gulf in the days after Covid-19

The Trump International in Washington is one of a number of hotels established by the Trump Organization around the world in cities including Las Vegas, Chicago, Honolulu, Vancouver and its flagship in New York City. Image: Trumphotels

Just a few minutes’ walk from the White House and nestled on a stretch of Washington DC’s iconic Pennsylvania Avenue across the street from the FBI sits a gorgeous, late 19th century building that serves as the jewel in the crown of the Trump family empire: the Trump International Hotel.

In the period between its opening and the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the hotel became perhaps the most prominent five-star hotel in the city, a favorite of visiting celebrities, some of the world’s top business leaders.

The Trump International’s status as one of DC’s top hotels, however, has not been without controversy. Since opening, the hotel has received criticism – and has been the subject of a number of lawsuits – from opponents that have accused President Trump of illegally profiting from his hotels and restaurants in violation of constitutional anti-corruption clauses.

Notably, a number of Arab governments have also reportedly hosted events at the property. The Kuwaiti embassy in Washington, for example, reportedly hosted multiple national day celebrations there. Following the 2016 election, media reports also indicate that Bahrain hosted a national day celebration there.

Additionally, the Washington Post reported that lobbyists representing the Saudi government paid for an estimated 500 nights at the hotel over the course of three months in late 2016, totaling more than $270,000.

In an interview with Arabian Business, the hotel’s managing director, Mickael Damelincourt, said that in spite of popular opinion in Washington, while the hotel has “done well” since opening, it has been forced to turn away a significant amount of foreign business.

“It would have done a lot better, if we didn’t have the [Trump] presidency. There are many pieces of business we have not been able to touch. Despite what everyone says about foreign dignitaries, it’s inaccurate,” he said. “We, on purpose, have turned away a lot of business. Yet we’ve done well. That’s what’s most encouraging for us. This is where people want to stay.”

While Damelincourt did not address the specific allegations, in a statement last year, Trump Organization EVP Eric Trump said that the family had already addressed questions about conflicts of interest.

“Unlike every other hotel company, while our father is president of the United States, we have imposed voluntary restrictions and have chosen not to market, nor solicit, foreign government business during his time in office,” he said.

The Trump Organisation’s assertions are bolstered by statistics. Documents obtained by the Washington Post last year cite 77 official state visits to Washington that took place since Trump took office, and say that the hotel turned away over 17,000 guests stays in 2019 alone, forgoing over $9 million in revenue.

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic – which Damelincourt said led to “cancellation after cancellation” – the hotel’s current guests are almost completely drawn from the US domestic market.

Looking towards a post-Covid future, however, Damelincourt said that he expects that the hotel will see an influx in visitors from the Arabian Gulf once restrictions ease and international travel gets back into full swing.

“The world is coming to DC from Brazil and Japan to Europe and Dubai, someone, at some point, for business or leisure, is going to come to DC,” he said. “Some cities are pure leisure and vacation. In DC, you also have conventions, corporate groups and foreign delegations.

Already a hit in the GCC?

Just a few years ago, the fate of the property, which was formerly the city’s main General Post Office, was very much in doubt, with uncertainty swirling as to its ultimate fate.

In 2012, however, the Trump Organization, which is currently led by President Donald Trump’s sons, Eric and Donald Jr leased the property. In a city that is overwhelmingly hostile to the Trump family, the firm spent $200 million to refurbish the property before finally opening in September 2016.

Speaking to AB in the hotel’s presidential suite, Damelincourt said that the hotel has already “done very well with the Middle Eastern market” since opening its doors to guests in 2016.

“The Middle Eastern customer loves luxury and is used to it, and I think they were waiting for this hotel,” he said. “Importantly, there’s proximity to shopping and attractions.”

The increase in Gulf Arab guests over the last several years, he added, is largely a result of the emergence of Washington DC as a preferred tourist destination for GCC visitors, who traditionally flocked to nearby New York City or to Los Angeles.

“Nobody [in the Gulf] was talking about DC. But more and more, people from the Gulf are deciding to spend three days in New York, then coming to DC to spend another three days,” he said.

“Before, they’d have spent six days in New York,” he added. “But if you’ve been to New York 10 times and have seen the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty and Central Park, you want to see something a little bit different. The world is coming to Washington. People are tired of New York, LA or Orlando. They want to discover more of what the US has to offer, and DC is more than politics.”

To cater to Arab guests, the hotel has specific amenities packages designed to cater to Middle Eastern travelers, and can cater to halal culinary requirements.

Additionally, Damelincourt said that he believes many GCC visitors flock to the hotel as it is one of very few area properties that comparable size and luxury to properties that they may have seen closer to home.

“The Ritz Carlton in Riyadh has an incredible lobby. This is bigger than that,” he said. “That ‘wow’ factor is key. Money is not an issue [for GCC luxury travelers].”

The Trump International in Washington is one of a number of hotels established by the Trump Organization around the world in cities including Las Vegas, Chicago, Honolulu, Vancouver and its flagship in New York City.

Additionally, the company owns and operates more than a dozen golf courses around the world, including one in Dubai’s Damac Hills area that was opened to much fanfare amid fireworks and speeches from both Donald Jr and Eric Trump.

Plans for a proposed skyscraper hotel and residential property on the Palm Jumeirah that were announced in 2005, however, stalled as a result of the global financial crisis and were officially scrapped in 2011. Al Ittihad Park was opened at the hotel’s proposed location the following year.

The region, however, may yet still see more Trump-branded properties in the years ahead: plans for a second Trump-branded golf course are in the works for Dubai’s Akoya Oxygen community.

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