Strategic Meetings Summit London, 26 September,
September 29 2022, Kimpton Fitzroy London
Friday 30 September 2022, JW Marriott Grosvenor
ABTN speaks to Suzie Mills, general manager of Trump International Hotel and Tower, about the New York property's $30 million renovation and the brand's expansion.
There's obviously a certain amount of fame attached to the name Trump. Is the public attracted by the celebrity aspect?
It depends who's there. Obviously, sometimes you get celebrities who want people to know that they're there, and their publicists tip off the press. But then you have other people that come and go and the public has no idea. They can be as visible as they want, or as invisible as they want. The majority of celebrities that we have are all very low key, and really just want a home away from home.
The hotel has recently undergone a $30 million renovation. How did it go?
Very well. We left the lobby pretty much as it was because we felt it should stay the same. But many of the rooms have been updated, with new technology such as large flat screen TVs and blu-ray DVD players. It took three months all in all - we started January 1 this year. We did 96 rooms, on the tenth floor to the 17th.
The guestrooms are on floors three to 17, and then floors 23 to 52 are private condominiums. These apartments can all use the hotel services, for an additional cost. Quite a lot of people do use our housekeeping team, just purely because they know they've gone through the hotel training and background checks, and they feel very safe using them.
You've been with Trump Hotels since the very beginning, 13 years ago. Has it changedmuch in that time?
It's not really changed as such, but we've definitely evolved. We were the first luxury hotel associated with the Trump name, but at the time we had a very different look and feel to Mr Trump's casinos. I think people were expecting to walk in and get that same feel of the casinos, but were surprised at how understated the hotel actually was, and that's especially so now following the renovations. The new look of the rooms really was very much the vision of Mr Trump's children, being of that younger generation.
What with the global downturn and its effect on the hospitality industry, what's your occupancy been like this year?
It has been growing, thank goodness. We were very fortunate, even last year when everyone was suffering, that we actually maintained our occupancy and grew it a little. We're starting to see steady come back. Let's hope it continues. Average occupancy last year was just under 80%, and it's about the same this year. Our average rate is growing about 15-20% year over year. That's pretty good when you think about how the past 18 months have been, and obviously hotels have been hit badly.
Did you have to downsize your operation at all?
No, but we were very lucky. I think there's a very fine line because if you're a luxury hotel and you start cutting staff, obviously the level of service will change with that. You can't suddenly take people away when things start to look bad. If you start taking amenities away, or start cutting people at the front desk, our guests are going to notice that. It's important that our guests see that things haven't changed.
What is your business-leisure mix like?
It's pretty proportionately mixed, because of our lack of meeting space and the fact we're a 90% suite hotel. With so few guestrooms compared to suites, it means we're not taking that group component. This means we're 50/50 business versus leisure.
Has your celebrity attachment helped you weather the recession?
Right from the beginning, we've always been very successful in the entertainment market and obviously that business doesn't change, recession doesn't seem to hit them. Music groups are still travelling, people are still filming movies.
Those kinds of people are only booking top suites, and they'll continue to always book them. Also, the weekend leisure guest that watches Celebrity Apprentice and follows Mr Trump, absolutely they want to see the hotel, that's where they think it's all filmed. They think that if they stay there they'll see it all happening.
People are attracted by the name. It just makes the public more aware that he actually has luxury hotels, a fact that they maybe they wouldn't haven been aware of before. It definitely brings a brand awareness to the hotel collection.
Ivanka Trump is quoted as being the driving force behind the recent renovation. What was it like working with her?
She has a different vision from her father, of style and taste, and it was very much a case of bringing the hotel in line with what's happening in the market at the moment. She can keep an eye on what the other hotels are doing. Even before the renovation it wasn't as if everything was all glitzy and gold, it was very understated, but we definitely have a more updated look now.
Ivanka has also incorporated new technology into the rooms, with flat screen TVs, blu-ray DVD players, without getting too hi-tech at the same time. Sometimes guests don't like it and get frustrated, you don't always want to get into your room and be faced with a remote control that does every thing.
Do the Trumps do the rounds and speak to the guests? What's the feeling from the staff when they're about?
Yes, but it really depends on their schedules. Some times we might not see them for months, and at other times we might see them two to four times a week. Obviously during the renovation they were about a lot more. The staff love it when Mr Trump is about, because he acknowledges everybody, he always says what a great job everyone's doing.
There are not that many people that are able to have that interaction, and he is a rock star after all. He has this unbelievable following, and it's as if Mick Jagger just walked through the door. For a business man to have that kind of following is incredible.
There's a great staff orientation video that features Mr Trump and all three of the children, so the staff know from the start that they're going to see him at some point during their work.
What does the future hold for the Trump hotel brand?
At the moment we have five hotels open. There's us, Chicago, Las Vegas, Waikiki and Soho. Toronto and Panama are opening next year, then the infamous Scotland. As for New York, we're not going to be growing. We're at 52 floors which is about as high as we can go. We're always looking to expand business and hope that it continues to grow, but it's really about building the hotel's brand.
What are the other hotels bearing the Trump brand like?
They're all new builds. They all employ amazing architecture, they're not old properties that have been bought and given a new coat of paint. If you look at these buildings, Chicago for example, it's one of the tallest buildings in the city. I can't see Mr Trump going for anything less. They're skyline changing buildings. Toronto will be the tallest residential building in Canada, and the Las Vegas property is the tallest there.
We've had one hotel stand alone for ten years, and then in two years we've had another four pop up. And the great part about it is that they're all independent hotels, which means they can changes more easily than being part of a huge chain. New ideas can be brought in quickly.
Does the Trump name overshadow the hotel brand?
I think originally yes, absolutely, but now that five hotels have opened people see that we are luxury five-star hotels in our own right. People are now starting to say that Trump is a hotel brand, it's not the business mogul that you see on TV, so that perception really is changing as people start to see the product.
So with all the growth over the past two years, going from one property to five with three more in the pipeline, have you any plans for London?
I hope so. Mr Trump has looked at a few places, but I think London is a little more challenging because the kinds of new build opportunities that he wants to do would be harder to find. There just isn't the space right now. But I think eventually, if the right opportunity presents itself he definitely will. And especially when the Olympics have been here, and things start to spread out a bit more, there'll be a bit more space to play with in areas that once were not desirable.
The hotel industry has been hugely affected by the global economic downturn. Have your rates suffered?
In 2009 rates absolutely dropped. We lost almost 20 per cent in rate year over year in 2009, and now for 2010, just judging by the first 5 months, we're up 15 per cent, so by the end of the year we should have regained what we lost and then built on that. Rates should be back by the end of 2010, but they definitely did drop last year. But compared to our competitors, we haven't lost much. They really lost year over year, where as we only saw one bad year.
The trouble was that the rates had reached such a high point, there was just no way they could ever be sustained. Even if it wasn't as bad a recession as it was, I just can't imagine how people could keep paying those high rates. It got to a point where it was really quite scary.
How important is the UK market to you?
The UK is our number one international source market. One of our two largest corporate accounts is UK-based.
Finally, is there much pressure working for the Trump family?
Pressure? No, it's a breeze.