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(Bloomberg) -- Eric Danziger wears a pin on his suit lapel that sends a subtle message to the U.S. Secret Service: he’s a Trump man.
The 10-sided bauble lets Danziger bypass security inside Trump Tower, a privilege granted to perhaps a dozen people.
Danziger, it’s safe to say, is no longer an ordinary executive. As head of the Trump hotel business, he occupies one of the most exclusive perches in corporate America. And one of the oddest.
Since Donald Trump entered the White House, Danziger has worked to expand the first family’s hotel business, while rebutting suggestions that he, along with the president’s sons Donald Jr. and Eric are, in effect, trying to monetize the U.S. presidency.
Danziger, 63, scoffs at the suggestion. “There is zero conflict,” he says. “Zero.”
It’s been a remarkable run for Danziger, who passed through Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide and Wyndham Worldwide Corp. before joining the Trump Organization 22 months ago, when a Trump victory seemed like a long shot.
Questions about how the Trump Organization is navigating conflicts, real or perceived, aren’t going away. Last week, Danziger unveiled his latest effort to take the gold-plated Trump brand down-market with a chain that projects an all-American image. The plan: to open hotels under the name American Idea in, of all places, Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the nation.
“He’s got a crazy hard job now with a lot of opportunities because of the high profile of Trump, but a lot of challenges too,” said David Loeb, founder of Dirigo Consulting LLC and a veteran lodging analyst.
Foreign investors are now taboo. Trump Hotels in April cut ties with a partner who touted his plans for a Scion hotel in Dallas to be financed by investors in Turkey, Qatar, and Kazakhstan. Scion is Trump’s new four-star chain.
With a silver beard, Danziger says, half-jokingly, that people tell him he resembles the debonair Dos Equis beer pitchman, “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” originally portrayed by actor Jonathan Goldsmith.
He certainly has an interesting job. He is a Trump insider who, in some ways, will always be an outsider, because he isn’t family. Inside Trump Tower, he is known as Ed, rather than Eric. Another Eric -- one with the Trump name -- works there too, after all.
“I’m not a politician,” Danziger says. “I’m a lowly little hotel guy, and all I do is run hotels.”
In contrast to the privileged upbringing of his Trump-brother bosses, whom he calls “mentors,” even though one is three decades younger, Danziger started as a bellman at age 17 at a Fairmont hotel.
“I did this,” he says, “half because I had no interest in college and half because my parents couldn’t afford it.”
Danziger joined Trump Hotels in August 2015, two months after then-candidate Trump alienated chefs Jose Andres and Geoffrey Zakarian -- and millions of voters -- with his anti-Mexican campaign comments, causing the chefs to bolt from planned restaurants at Trump’s luxury Washington hotel.
If Danziger is stressed out, he doesn’t show it, except for the black vape pen he turns on before being interviewed. He comes across as amiable and unpretentious. “What’s up, dude?” he says to an acquaintance who stops to say hello at a conference. For years, he smoked three packs a day. His smile today reveals perfect white teeth.
The post-election Trump Hotels is relying on other people’s money to proliferate its two new chains throughout the country -- the same strategy used these days by most big hotel operators, which are focusing on franchise and management revenue and letting others take the development risk.
With American Idea, Trump Hotels is selling the name and marketing services to franchisees and Danziger envisions 90 percent of those hotels to be conversions of existing properties. With the Scion brand announced last year, Trump Hotels will manage the hotels in addition to licensing the name. Scion will likely be half conversions and half new development, he said.
Before the election, Trump Hotels was busy expanding its boutique luxury brand internationally. The Trump family owns fewer than half of the 14 hotels it manages, including golf resorts in Scotland and Ireland, the Trump National Doral Miami, and a winery in Charlottesville, Virginia. Construction continues on two resorts in Indonesia.
Going down-market successfully with American Idea may prove challenging for Danziger. The strategy of bringing innovation and quality to cheaper hotels is sound -- and already an established trend -- but “branding requires more than dreaming up a generic name, slapping a new sign on the door and installing a Coke machine,” said Piers Schmidt, founder of London-based consulting firm Luxury Branding.
“I suspect they’ll get a few of these going -- rebadging some tired Holiday Inns and other franchised operations who fancy a bit of access to the presidential orbit,” he said. “But I seriously doubt it will make any great inroads as a brand.”
Danziger sees it differently. He compares American Idea to long-successful companies that capitalized on their country of origin, including American Airlines and American Express.
Performance at Trump hotels, meanwhile, is “mixed,” Danziger said, declining to provide numbers. Several hotels are having record years while others face operating challenges, including Trump SoHo. SoHo owner CIM Group, a Los Angeles investment firm, bought the hotel out of foreclosure from the original owner three years ago. “The hotel hasn’t had a dollar spent on it by its owners for seven years,” Danziger said. CIM and Trump Hotels have moved to replace the food and beverage manager, among other changes.
One thing is certain, Danziger said: Trump Hotels won’t be taking offers for any of its properties, regardless of exhortations by ethics experts.
“They’re not for sale,” he said. “This is a family business.”
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