Leaked documents reveal Trump's prized Doral resort is in steep decline

President's son rejected idea Trump brand is damaged

David A. Fahrenthold,Jonathan O'Connell
Thursday 16 May 2019 12:51 BST
Donald Trump celebrates with Miss Universe contestants as he opens new golf course at Doral resort in 2015

Late last year, in a Miami conference room, a consultant for President Donald Trump's company said business at his prized 643-room Doral resort in Florida was in sharp decline.

At Doral, which Mr Trump has listed in federal disclosures as his biggest moneymaker hotel, room rates, banquets, golf and overall revenue were all down since 2015. In two years, the resort's net operating income - a key figure, representing the amount left over after expenses are paid - had fallen by 69 per cent.

Even in a vigorous economy, the property was missing the Trump Organization's internal business targets; for instance, the club expected to take in $85 million in revenue in 2017 but took in just $75 million.

"They are severely underperforming" other resorts in the area, tax consultant Jessica Vachiratevanurak told a Miami-Dade County official in a bid to lower the property's tax bill. The reason, she said: "There is some negative connotation that is associated with the brand."

Mr Trump has entwined his office with his private company, drawing scrutiny from congressional Democrats interested in whether his company is benefiting from that relationship. At the same time, revenue has declined at some properties dependent on blue-state customers and politics-shy national brands.

The troubles at Trump Doral - detailed here for the first time, based on documents and video obtained under Florida's public-records law - suggest the Trump Organisation's problems are bigger than previously known. This is also the first known case in which a Trump Organisation representative has publicly acknowledged the president's name has hurt business.

The decline at Doral is especially significant because the resort had seemed better insulated from political backlash than other Trump properties, protected by its place in golf's history, by its recent renovations, and by its location in a booming state that Trump won in 2016.

It wasn't.

"Profitability is down across the board," Michael Bellisario, an analyst with Robert W. Baird & Co, said after reviewing at the request of The Washington Post the data that Trump provided Miami-Dade County.

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The documents included detailed breakdowns of the Trump resort's income streams, expenses and projections, as well as comparisons between Trump Doral and its competitors in the area.

"It's clearly underperforming their expectations," Mr Bellisario said, though it remains profitable, in part because it has reduced expenses at the same time.

Eric Trump - the president's son who runs the business day-to-day - rejected the idea that the Trump brand is damaged. "This story is completely senseless," he said in a statement. "Our iconic properties are the best in the world and our portfolio is unrivalled by anyone."

To explain the declines at Doral, the Trump Organisation issued a statement to The Washington Post that implicitly contradicted its own tax consultant and blamed factors that had nothing to do with Trump's name. The company cited fears of the Zika virus in 2016, and hurricanes in 2016 and 2017, for driving tourists away from South Florida.

But the statistics provided by the company's consultants to Miami-Dade County - which are legally required to be accurate - showed competing resorts in the same region of Florida still outperformed the Trump resort in the key metrics of room occupancy and average room rate.

The data provided to the county ends in 2017. In a statement, the Trump Organisation said 2018 "was a remarkable year for [Doral] and 2019 is off to an unbelievable start," but it did not provide figures for revenue, occupancy or room rates in those years.

The Trump Organization is private and declined to provide details about its overall profits and losses. The company is not showing signs of broad financial distress - nothing like in the 1980s and early 1990s, when Mr Trump's real estate empire faltered and he fell deeply in debt.

To assess the Trump Organization's financial health, The Washington Post has gathered data on individual Trump businesses through public records, internal company data and interviews with current and former Trump employees.

In some places, the news is good.

For instance, Mr Trump owns a 30 per ce share of two office buildings - one in New York and one in San Francisco - that earn him tens of millions in rent per year, according to estimates by real estate experts. Their values have shot up since 2015. Neither one bears the Trump name.

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But in many other places, the Trump presidency seems to have brought bad news for the Trump Organisation.

What began with the Macy's department store chain dropping Trump-branded neckties during the campaign and New York City building owners stripping his name from their properties has led to a shrinking of Trump's customer base among a wide swath of businesses, charities, wealthy travellers and golfers to a more narrow pool of clients who are aligned with his politics.

"Being president has cost me a fortune - a tremendous fortune like you've never seen before," Mr Trump told reporters last year, rejecting the idea that he was using the presidency to enrich himself. Mr Trump still owns his business, though he says he has given up day-to-day control.

By the end of 2018, the Trump hotel chain had lost three locations as building owners cut ties with the Trump company. The company's plans for dozens of new low-cost hotels - aimed at turning Trump voters into Trump customers - had fizzled.

Revenue fell at other Trump hotels, in Chicago and New York, after Mr Trump entered the presidential race, according to internal documents.

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In a statement about its Chicago property, the Trump Organisation said the name was not the reason. "It's sad to say, but the perceived threat of gun violence has harmed visitation to the destination," the statement said.

But the company's own figures - submitted to Cook County, Illinois, for tax purposes, and also given to Mr Trump's investors - show his competitors in Chicago have not experienced the same decline. The company said its New York hotel rebounded last year, charging record-high room rates.

"Among the hotel community in Chicago, everyone is aware of the relative underperformance of the Trump hotel over the last two to three years," said Bellisario, the hotel-industry analyst, who is based in Chicago.

In some of Mr Trump's properties, his political allies have rushed in as others rushed out.

Republican groups have spent $4.5 million at Trump properties to hold fundraisers and retreats, according to campaign finance reports. Other right-leaning groups have become consistent customers at Mr Trump's D.C. hotel and Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida.

But until now, Doral's condition remained largely unknown outside the Trump Organisation.

Last year, Eric Trump said it was succeeding.

"The Doral is on fire," he told a reporter in June.

The 57-year-old, 650-acre resort is set among business parks and homes in an inland area near the Miami airport. Mr Trump bought it in 2012 for a reported $150 million. He borrowed $125 million from Deutsche Bank and planned $250 million in renovations. He vowed on Twitter that "within two years it will be the best resort in the country."

Its appeal was grounded in Florida weather and golf history: The legendary "Blue Monster" course had hosted a prominent PGA Tour event for more than 50 years running.

In 2013, Mr Trump caught a huge break: Tiger Woods won the Doral tournament on national television. Now, Mr Trump would welcome tourists who wanted to play where Tiger did.

Around the same time, the renovations were finished. The completely revamped resort would feature cuisine and events designed to attract visitors from Latin America - a key clientele in the summer months, when it was winter in the Southern Hemisphere.

"The amount of Brazilians and Colombians and Venezuelans and Argentines that are coming into the United States to play great golf courses, it's amazing," Eric Trump told Golf TV in February 2014. "And you really capitalise on this."

Then, in 2015, Mr Trump launched his presidential campaign, calling Mexican immigrants drug dealers and rapists.

In 2016, Cadillac - the main sponsor of Doral's big tournament - pulled out.

"The problem that the tour had was that we couldn't find a replacement for Cadillac. So we had to move the tournament," Butch Buchholz, who served as chairman of the golf tournament, called the World Golf Championships, said in an interview this year. "If they could have found a sponsor, they would - I believe - still be playing there."

They didn't find another sponsor. The tournament moved to Mexico.

One former employee at Doral familiar with the club's marketing said the loss of the tournament brought the club's appeal down a notch.

"Now, you've lost a little bit of that luster off the Blue Monster," said the employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve relationships in the resort business.

On one recent weekday in Miami, the JW Marriott Miami Turnberry Resort and Spa - a top competitor of Doral's - was bustling with families eating dinner and children playing in the pool.

A few miles away, Mr Trump's Doral was shining, spotless and heavily branded. The Trump name was on chocolate bars ($5) and shot glasses ($10), and even on the paper inserts at the bottom of the bathroom wastebaskets.

But it was also much quieter.

Carl Goldstein - a retired butcher, visiting as part of a Passover tour group - had the lobby almost to himself.

"He has a few good policies, but I don't like the things he says. I don't like the way he talks," Mr Goldstein said of Mr Trump. Still, he said, he didn't mind staying at Mr Trump's hotel.

According to the financial data Mr Trump's company submitted to Miami-Dade County, the resort's decline in customers began in 2016.

Overall, from 2015 to 2017, the club's revenue fell from $92 million to $75 million - an 18 per cent drop.

Vachiratevanurak, the Trump Organisation representative, showed the magistrate how the resort's occupancy rate was 53 per cent in 2017, compared with 77 per cent for competing resorts in the area, even though the company had reduced rates dramatically to encourage guests to book rooms. Doral was getting an average of $200 a room per night, while competitors were getting $249.

Reached by phone, Ms Vachiratevanurak declined to comment for this story.

Though the resort is still profitable, its net operating income shrank from $13.8 million to $4.3 million during that period, the documents show.

The effort worked: After Ms Vachiratevanurak's presentation, the magistrate lowered the assessed value from $110.3 million to $105.6 million. The change lowered Mr Trump's annual tax bills by about $80,000.

The Washington Post

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