Before Charlottesville, the number of high-dollar events at Trump’s club was as much as 22 in a single season of galas.
Trump seems to have self-disrupted the banquet business at Mar-a-Lago, a part of his company that once seemed undisruptable. After all, he owned one of two major party venues on a small island whose super-rich residents love to party and hate to leave. How could that go wrong?
“It may have been crippled, temporarily,” said Shannon Donnelly, the society editor for the Palm Beach Daily News, talking about the banquet business at Mar-a-Lago.
Trump’s problem is not that he’s lost the support of Palm Beach’s wealthy winter snowbirds: Donnelly said they still like him, by and large. The problem, as the past two years have shown, is that many of the island’s biggest banquets are linked to national charities, who must schedule their galas months in advance.
If they went back to Mar-a-Lago, they would be linking their national reputations — again — to the words of an unpredictable president. Donnelly said she thought Trump could still win back their business: “Depends on what Donald says next.”
The Trump Organization did not respond to questions about the special-events business at Mar-a-Lago.
Special events and ballroom rentals are not Mar-a-Lago’s only source of income. It reported $25 million in revenue last year, which also includes members’ dues and income from restaurants, guest rooms and wedding rentals.
But the ballroom rentals were previously a key part of the club’s value. They didn’t just bring in money. They brought in Palm Beach itself — allowing Trump to play host to the old-money crowd that once regarded him as a garish outsider.
That has changed.
To measure Mar-a-Lago’s reduction in business, The Post examined public calendars of Palm Beach society events and interviews with Mar-a-Lago’s current or former customers.
That tally found about 20 events planned between Halloween and Mother’s Day, where outside groups had paid Trump’s club to rent space, including the six galas.
Those totals appeared lower than the figures for the same period in 2016 to 2017, when Trump was elected. That year, The Post counted 40 events, including 22 high-dollar galas.
This year, many of Trump’s old customers are holding their events at his longtime rival, a Palm Beach resort called the Breakers. Its charity business increased 50 percent last year. And this year, Trump’s loss is still their gain.
“Almost all [the charities] are returning to The Breakers next year and we are very happy to have them back,” said Paul Leone, CEO of Trump’s rival, in a written statement.
The groups holding events at Mar-a-Lago include two charities that left last year and are now returning. One, an eye institute at the University of Miami, said they came back to Mar-a-Lago only when the Breakers — its first choice — didn’t have availability.
The other, a group that helps adults with disabilities, said they came back for a simple reason: money.
“Our job is to raise money for the clients we serve,” Glen Torcivia, a board member at the Palm Beach Habilitation Center, told the Palm Beach Post. When they moved their luncheon away from Mar-a-Lago last year, they raised less money.
So: “We’re going back to Mar-a-Lago,” Torcivia told the Palm Beach Post.
Another set of Mar-a-Lago customers this season are longtime clients who never left, even after Charlottesville.
The Palm Beach Police Foundation — which once gave Trump an award after he donated $150,000 he had gotten from another family’s charity — is coming back for a gala. The World Affairs Council of Palm Beach, which has hosted speakers at the club, is holding a talk by foreign-affairs expert Gordon Chang called “Trump, China and North Korea: War or Peace?”
“I certainly did not choose the venue. They just invited me to speak,” Chang said in a phone interview. He said that, if Trump were to drop by during Chang’s remarks, the president may not like what he hears: Chang believes that Trump has allowed North Korea too much leeway to violate and evade sanctions this year, as Trump says he “fell in love” with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“It would be extremely unlikely that the president would like what I’ve said about his policies on North Korea,” Chang said.
Other events at the club will include two dinners put on by the Marriott Vacation Club, a timeshare business. The dinners, which Marriott owners can buy with “points” earned in Marriott’s system, could mark the first time that dinner at a sitting president’s home has been offered as a perk to timeshare owners.
There will be two car shows, which will use Mar-a-Lago’s huge lawn to show off classic automobiles. One of them, the Palm Event, is coming back to Mar-a-Lago after a couple of years at another site.
The risk of political blowback “scared the heck out of me. It really did. And I was trying as best I could not to take politics into consideration. And it’s hard when it’s at the president’s house,” said Scott Shrader, the Palm Event’s president. But he said that, among his customers, there has been a lot of interest.
“It’s actually surprised me. So far it’s been a net positive,” Shrader said.
Then there are Trump’s allies, the groups that rushed in when others rushed out.
One conservative group has already held an event at Mar-a-Lago this season: On Nov. 13, the state-focused organization GOPAC held a reception there for Republican state legislators.
Next month, Turning Point USA — a group aimed at college Republicans and young conservatives — will hold its “first annual Winter Gala” at the club on Dec. 20. The tickets start at $2,500 each.
And early next year, the club will host another gala put on by the Trumpettes USA. One of its leaders, Toni Holt Kramer, is a Mar-a-Lago member who decided to have a party to show Trump that his real supporters had not left him.
“The message that I’m sending to the president — that all of us, myself and everybody who’s attending [is sending] — is how grateful, how absolutely grateful, how humbled we are to have him as the president,” Kramer said. “He is our only, our only, only chance to keep this country. To keep this country the way it should be.”
Her group, which held a raucous celebration at the club in January, will be back in February, at a party featuring singer Lee Greenwood, Fox News personality Jeanine Pirro and former game-show host Wink Martindale.
She expects 700 people, Trump fans from all over the country and the world. The main difference this time is that the ticket price has been raised, from $300 to $550.
Kramer said Trump’s club wouldn’t give them the same discount as before. “We can’t do it again,” she said they told her.