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‘Not exactly rolling out the red carpet’: Trump visit to Turnberry resort spotlights challenge facing his brand

Activists from Stand Up to Racism Scotland stage a protest at the Trump Turnberry resort Wednesday ahead of President Trump’s scheduled visit.
Activists from Stand Up to Racism Scotland stage a protest at the Trump Turnberry resort Wednesday ahead of President Trump’s scheduled visit. (David Cheskin/Press Association/Associated Press)

TURNBERRY, Scotland — This weekend, President Trump will take a break from visiting heads of state in Europe and detour to this tiny village in Scotland — so he can visit a luxury golf resort named after himself.

The side trip will allow Trump the president a chance to shine an international spotlight on Trump the brand by staying at Trump Turnberry, a 112-year-old Scottish resort that he bought in 2014.

But the visit will also highlight a challenge facing many Trump properties since his election. They were built on the premise that the Trump name symbolizes lavish hospitality, but are now trying to survive in an era in which it represents the opposite of hospitality to many in the United States and abroad.

Since Trump took office, his name has come down from Trump-branded hotels in New York, Panama and Toronto.

Here, Trump has poured more than $205 million in cash into Turnberry since 2014. But the richly appointed resort had lost millions of dollars as of 2016, according to public records, and it now appears weighed down by its connection to the U.S. president, who is deeply unpopular in Scotland and Great Britain at large, polls show.

The club has so far failed to attract a prize that Trump covets: the British Open, a landmark tournament awarded by the tweedy, risk-averse inner circle of British golf. During one recent visit at the height of the tourist season, the club’s restaurants were one-third full and prime rooms were still available with short notice.

Trump’s foreign policy stances — he supported the “Brexit” vote to split Britain from the European Union, while Scots voted to remain in the E.U. — have contributed to his unpopularity, according to residents.

“The majority of people here don’t like the man. Especially the women. They were appalled about him taking the Mexican children away from their parents at the border,” said Gary Fanning, editor of the Ayrshire Post, the local weekly newspaper in the Turnberry area.

Fanning said he expected protests when Trump visits this weekend. A report in The Scotsman newspaper said they had already begun on Wednesday, with a small group holding a sign reading “Trump Not Welcome” outside the course.

“We’re not exactly rolling out the red carpet,” Fanning said. “There’s no Trump mania.”

Trump is scheduled to arrive at Turnberry on Friday night after meetings with British government officials. He leaves Sunday to meet Russian President Vladi­mir Putin for a summit in Helsinki.

“Whether the president plays golf or not, I’m not sure,” said Robert “Woody” Johnson, the U.S. ambassador to Britain, in a call with reporters. “He’s going to spend a lot of time preparing for Helsinki.”

The Trump Organization did not respond to questions about the resort’s finances and whether it was making a profit, but extolled Turnberry in a brief statement.

“There is truly nothing like Trump Turnberry. It is exceptional in every way,” wrote Amanda Miller, a Trump Organization spokeswoman. “We are incredibly proud of its continued success.”

The Turnberry resort — which is open to both guests and members who can pay $653 for access this summer — was originally built by the railroads to lure city-dwellers on the trains to Scotland’s southwest coast, offering sweeping island views. It has a place in golf history, as the site of four British Opens. It even has ruins: From the ninth hole, golfers can see the remains of a castle where Scottish King Robert the Bruce is believed to have been born in 1274.

“If you don’t focus on the man and the politics,” said John McDowall, a longtime caddie at Turnberry who stayed on to work after Trump took over, “you can’t say a bad word against the course.”

Trump bought the course for $67 million in cash from Dubai-based Leisurecorp, which had lost money for at least four years, according to British government filings.

Trump then spent at least $137 million more in cash to renovate and operate the place, according to the filings.

That makes Turnberry the most expensive example — by far — of Trump’s broader turn toward buying properties without taking out mortgages during the nine years before he ran for president, defying both the practices of the real estate industry and his own history as self-proclaimed “The King of Debt.”

“Mr. Trump took his wallet out,” said Alec Clark, a councilor on the South Ayrshire Council, a local government. “He secured employment for a lot of people. The work is paying a lot of people’s mortgages.”

In 2016, Trump flew back for the club’s grand reopening. “What we’ve done is what everybody’s wanted to do for many, many decades,” Trump told reporters, adding that he felt a kinship with Scotland because his mother was born there.

At times that day, Trump’s message seemed to be tailored to one narrow audience: the R & A, the governing body that decides where the British Open will be held. He mentioned the group or its top executive eight times.

“We did what they wanted us to do,” Trump said of the group. He noted that miles of TV cables had been laid underground on the course, to prepare for a telecast: “It’s all ready to go from that standpoint.”

So far, the R & A has chosen venues for the British Open through 2021. Trump’s course has not been among them.

“It would be very complex having an Open at Turnberry at the moment,” R & A chief Martin Slumbers told reporters earlier this year. He said 2022 wasn’t looking good, either. “You’ve got the ownership issue of the course and the staging there.”

The club has not yet reported making a profit, although Trump’s financial disclosures did offer some good news. Last year, after both of Turnberry’s major courses had reopened, revenue at the club nearly doubled, from $11 million to $20 million. The disclosures did not say if that was enough to make money.

Inside the clubhouse, a 2009 Time magazine cover that once hung in the bar, adorned with Trump’s face, disappeared last summer. It was fake: Time never put Trump’s face on its cover in 2009. But a bartender said that wasn’t why it came down. Rather, she said then, the club was taking down Trump’s photos because American visitors reacted poorly to them.

The one image of Trump displayed prominently at the hotel is a small painting in a corner by the concierge desk, which shows Trump from behind, dressed in khakis and a red cap, hitting his first shot at the course.

During a recent visit to Turnberry, there were signs that the place was still far below capacity, even in high summer. Seafront rooms with breakfast — costing about $450 per night — could be booked at the last minute.

In the clubhouse, though, there was at least one customer who wanted to buy the Trump name. An American golfer who declined to be named, saying he was on vacation, was on his way to purchase a half-dozen hats emblazoned with the Trump Turnberry logo.

He said he was going to give them to his relatives — all Democrats.

Booth reported from Turnberry and Fahrenthold reported from Washington.