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Hospitality Design Magazine > Hospitality Design People > Interview: The Trump Organization

Interview: The Trump Organization

By Michael Adams and Stacy Shoemaker Rauen
Photo of Trump family by Douglas Gorenstein

It’s no secret how they ended up in hospitality. But what many may not realize is how deeply and personally involved they are in evolving the family business. In just 10 years, the second generation of Trumps helped grow the Trump Organization from one hotel to nine, with three more planned for 2016: the brand’s first in South America, the 171-room Trump Hotel Rio de Janeiro; the Trump International Hotel, Washington, DC—a renovation of the much-coveted Old Post Office Pavilion; and the Trump International Hotel & Tower Vancouver, which, at 63 stories, will be the second-largest building on the city’s skyline. HD sat down with the three executive vice presidents of development and acquisitions in their offices overlooking Central Park at Trump Tower in Midtown New York, where they candidly discussed their hands-on approach, family values, and their love—and impressive knowledge—of machinery.

How important is design to the Trump brand?
Donald Trump Jr.: It’s been very important all along. It's been what my father has done architecturally throughout his career. He probably influenced skylines as much as any developer in the last 50 years. If you think about it, even this building [Trump Tower] from the early ’80s, it's just been something very important to him, whether it be the façade or the interiors. The design element has always been critical but also having an understanding of context, location, and where you really are. If you look at our hotel collection, you’ll see opulence, luxury, and incredible service. But there's a very distinct feeling in the hotels from a design perspective. [Trump] SoHo is very different from Trump International; [Trump International] Chicago is very contemporary. We just purchased Doonbeg Golf Club in Ireland, and while it's a relatively new development, it feels like you’re walking into a classic Irish-Scottish building.

It seems like you have been very busy lately.
Eric Trump: We purchased the Doral [in Miami] a year and a half ago and are undergoing a $250-million renovation. We went in and rebuilt every inch of the place—we brought it down to the structural steel. We completely changed the style of the buildings.

We knew we wanted the building to be big. We wanted it to be grand. We added ballrooms to the top of the buildings. One of the things that is really amazing about our company is, as developers, we don’t always just go to architects. I can tell you that the vast majority of our layouts literally come from myself, or my father, or Don, or Ivanka taking a can and spray-painting a bathroom layout on the floor. People laugh when we say that, but it's really the level of detail that we get down into in our projects. I can't tell you how many walls that we’ll tweak over four inches because it will make a vestibule or will make something a little more symmetrical. We're always playing with [layouts]. We've got great teams of people: the best stonemasons in the world, the best concrete guys, plumbers, electricians, the best custom chandelier makers. That's really what gives us that over-the-top opulence.

DT: When we're talking about design, oftentimes a lot of the great decisions are things we've come up with, or my father has come up with, that we implement. Because sometimes designers are so focused on design, they miss elements of usability or the ultimate consumer experience.

Ivanka Trump:
For DC, we are seeking LEED Gold certification, which would be incredibly unusual, particularly for a historic building. There's one other LEED Gold certified hotel in the country [the Omni Dallas Hotel].    

                                                          Rendering Courtesy of Trump National Doral Miami

Are people surprised to know how hands-on all of you are with these projects?

ET: You wouldn't believe it. From the golf courses to the hotels to the residential buildings to everything in between, we know every speck of every building. At the end of the day, we're a family company. The two things that matter are the quality of the asset, and the quality of the actual operation. When you put those together, you’re unstoppable.

IT: I would also say that we're developers. Most hotel operators are not. It’s not in the developer’s nature to be hands-off. We're a family company with our name on the door, so it's imperative to us that the quality exceeds even our own expectations. But also we're builders; we do sweat the details.

If you take a project like Doral, and we had given that to an interior designer or an architect and said, “Here you go, build this space,” it’s not to say they don’t get in the weeds, but they do a model room and then try to apply that to 70 different conditions, all of which are different because it's an existing asset. You would have the type of product that existed prior to the renovation, which is where you have a molding that hits the doorframe because nobody figured out a design solution around that type of detail. We work with some of the most talented out there, but nobody has the bandwidth to go room to room to room, to manage every corner. It's more conceptual.

ET: We actually own the dirt at the end of the day, right?

IT: We speak the same language as our partners do. So when we are managing for third parties who are building, we are adding value, and we're understanding what it is like to be in their shoes.

ET: We’re also accessible. It's a word that we use a lot. There's not a partner that we have anywhere around the world who can't call myself, Donald, or Ivanka at 11 at night on a Saturday and get a decision immediately. There's no nonsense; there's no bureaucracy.

Talk about what’s going on in Rio.

DT: We're very excited about that project. We're not only big believers in the future of that market, despite the normal ebb and flow of what's going on in Latin America, but it's exciting to have a product like this that's new, in a market that's so vibrant and yet so underserved from the high end. It hasn’t been touched in 40 years. So to be able to go in there with modern sensibilities as it relates to a hotel, in terms of meeting space, in terms of design aesthetic, in terms of the comforts that people expect, it's a great expansion and a great foothold for us into Latin America [following Panama].

Rio is going to be a perfect example of the melding of business and leisure. You have a beachfront property, which is also unheard of there. But again, in talking with the developers, we were able to solve so many of the issues that they had with everyone else by my going down there on a whim [based] on a two-minute phone call to say, ‘Hey, we just need someone down here to make a decision.’   

IT: I was just down there two weeks ago, and Rio is a spectacular place. There's so much life, there's so much energy, there's so much culture, there's such tremendous warmth. Yet, it's incredibly formidable from a business and commerce perspective. And from a tourism perspective, certainly the major events that are culminating this year [including the 2014 FIFA World Cup], and then with the Olympics in 2016, it's going to be great for the market.

                                                                       Trump Hotel Rio de Janeiro

Do you have a timeline on the project?

DT: This will be Olympics ready.

IT: It's interesting, we introduced our development partner to David Rockwell because he really wanted to work with the Rockwell Group. We went through all of our plans, designed the building with him. We did everything in advance of definitive documents because we had a handshake, and we knew we were going to get this. It was just slow, as these things always are. So we had the teams fully engaged and collaborating on the design process long in advance of having a deal. Most companies don’t do that.

DT: Obviously we had a great relationship with David through our dealings with him at SoHo Trump. It seemed like a natural fit for this market as well. We have relationships with lots of other guys who are the same way. But again, so much of it is the feel and the relationship, and understanding. You can have great teams that just can't work together. It is really also about assembling personalities as much as it is their skill sets as it relates to design or anything else.

Clearly you are incredibly close to each other and to your parents. What’s the secret? Not every family gets along as well as you seemingly do. Because not only do you work together, you’re also on The Celebrity Apprentice together.

DT: We just got back from vacation together. We went for a week, all of us, including Ivanka and my children. I don't know what it is, I don't know if it was something in the water when we grew up. I don't know whether it’s our parents having a part of it, or perhaps some of the adversity that they faced, going through their divorce, that allowed us to form a very tight bond. But we work together day in and day out. I don't know that there's a secret. It's not effortless. There is a lot of work, but we're very fortunate to have that.

ET: It's pretty effortless.

DT: There are always times when you have three alpha personalities. But in family business, it can go well or it can go horribly, horribly wrong. And I think we have as good a system as anyone right now. My biggest goal for the whole business is to be able to maintain that. Because we recognize that any infighting there would really be the downfall of something special and unique that we're able to harness.

ET: What goes wrong in some of these family businesses, and we've seen it time and time again, you always have the one person who wants to come in at 10:30 in the morning and leave at 3 in the afternoon, and they want to go out to lunch for four hours. And that just doesn't happen here. We're the first people in the office every day, and we're the last people to leave.

IT: The secret is we like each other. We're all hardworking, and without being immodest, we’re all good at what we do. We're doing this because we love it. And that's why we care so much.

You talked about your love of the industry and love of what you do. Is that something that you got from your father and mother, Ivanka?
IT: I would say both. It can't have hurt that our parents came home each night incredibly energized, excited by what they were doing during the day. If my father came home each evening and was miserable, and wanted to tune out in front of the television, I would feel very different about the industry than I do now. They came home with vigor and energy. They were showing us photos, and they loved real estate. There's sort of an environment side and there may be a genetic side, too. It certainly does seem to be in our blood for more generations than coincidence would statistically argue is credible.

ET: As kids, we were walking these buildings as they were being built; watching them pour concrete, driving backhoes and machinery. We love machinery. It's kind of a funny thing. So that must be in your genes, right?

IT: I don't know too many people that could name every form of tractor.

DT: And actually drive them and operate them.

So there was never an inkling in any of your lives, ‘Maybe I’ll be a chef,’ or ‘Maybe I’ll be a doctor.’
IT: I had a moment of panic when I was in college. All of my peers were experiencing tremendous anxiety because they had reached the end of school and they had no idea what they wanted to do. I had known for so long that I started to question, “What if I was closed-minded?” I had anxiety about the fact that I didn't have anxiety. It lasted for about two months, until I started working and realized I did in fact love this.

ET: Our parents also did a great job putting us to work pretty early. … Don and I literally spent the summers cutting rebar with acetylene torches. We would take backhoes, and we’d dig ditches. We would go out with chainsaws and cut down trees, and clear those trees. I mean, hard manual labor.

So much of that is the building blocks of what we do every day. When you’re walking around job sites, when you’re talking to contractors, when you understand what a home run is, when you understand how mechanical systems work, how HVAC systems work. When you’ve installed marble yourself, you get it. And when we've worked for many of the people who now work for us, it's amazingly powerful stuff.

hdtalks: the interviews

During HD Expo 2014, Hospitality Design’s Michael Adams sat down with HBA’s Michael Bedner to talk about his half-century in the hospitality design industry. View the video.



Produced by: Emerald Expositions
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