But then Trump became president.
And, at this year’s gala, his security put a damper on the silent auction.
“We allow for a cocktail hour — an hour and a half, really [during the silent auction]. And we want people to have time to have a couple of glasses of wine, obviously, and try to raise the bids,” said Peter Brock, a real estate developer who is chairman of the charity’s board.
But this year — as guests waited on security checks at a club that also serves as the president’s part-time home — many arrived with just 20 minutes to drink and bid.
“People didn’t have the appropriate amount of time,” Brock said.
So, next year, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society will move its gala to a rival Palm Beach, Fla., venue, the Breakers resort.
The Trump presidency has, by some measures, been good for the Trump Organization. Foreign governments, special interest groups and tourists have flocked to the Trump International Hotel in Washington since his election. Mar-a-Lago doubled its initiation fee to $200,000 after the election. Recent financial disclosures seemed to show that Mar-a-Lago’s overall revenue and profits are climbing.
But a Washington Post review reveals an unforeseen trend emerging in Trump’s business during his presidency — that he is losing banquet customers from his cherished Mar-a-Lago Club.
In recent weeks, seven nonprofit organizations — all repeat customers of the president’s club — have announced their decisions to avoid Mar-a-Lago next winter during the social season, when Palm Beach life revolves around lavish parties for charity.
The departing charities gave a variety of reasons for leaving Mar-a-Lago. But, in interviews with charity officials, it was clear that each organization faced unexpected ripple effects from doing business with a company owned by the president of the United States — at a venue that sometimes doubles as his house.
“It was not a decision based on politics,” Brock said. “The decision was based on the disruption on getting into Mar-a-Lago, because of all the security and hassle.”
Officials from the Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Because of that lost business, Trump’s club is facing what could be its slowest season for charity rentals in at least nine years, according to the Post’s analysis. The cost could be hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue — although Trump’s business could make up for that by admitting new members.
That decline in banquet revenue echoes reports from two other Trump properties, both in New York City: the Trump SoHo hotel and a golf course in the Bronx, both of which reported dips in conference business.
Mar-a-Lago is one of the jewels of Trump’s business empire — a Palm Beach mega-mansion that he turned into a social club, generating multiple streams of revenue at once. There is the $200,000 initiation fee and annual dues. The Thursday night prime-rib buffet is $55, according to a recent brochure sent to members. Croquet lessons are $70 per hour ($60 if you’ll settle for the assistant croquet pro). There are guest rooms, as well as weddings in the two ballrooms.
But charity events are also a key part of the club’s identity — in a financial sense and a social one.
If a charity holds a luncheon at Trump’s club, the club can take in $40,000 or more, according to charity tax filings. For nighttime galas, the tent-pole events of a Palm Beach winter, the club can take in $250,000 or more.
In recent years, those events appear to have boosted the share of the club’s income that comes from food and beverages. Income from those items accounted for nearly half of Mar-a-Lago’s $21 million in total income in the 2015-2016 social season, according to internal documents the Trump Organization recently provided to Palm Beach County as part of a lawsuit and first reported by the Palm Beach Post.
In a social sense, charity events make Mar-a-Lago — and Trump himself — the center of Palm Beach life for a night. Trump loved to play that role, Palm Beach veterans say, describing how he table-hopped, gave toasts and posed for photos with anyone wanting one.
“People used to gawk at [Trump and his wife, Melania] and very often approach ‘him’ with a tap on his shoulder, as he was about to bite into that filet mignon (not chicken at Mar-A-Lago) and he/they would get up and take a photo op/selfie with whomever then smile and bid good luck,” James Borynack, chief executive of a Palm Beach art gallery and veteran of the charity scene, said in an email.
“Why not? He wanted the place BOOKED,” Borynack wrote.
After the election, Trump gave up day-to-day management of Mar-a-Lago and his other businesses. But he continues to own them, drawing criticism from Democrats and ethics experts that he stands to use the power and prestige of his office to generate personal profit.
And he has continued to visit. Trump has made seven well-publicized visits to Mar-a-Lago since he took office. He is, in effect, trying to make the club a business and what his staff have called a “Winter White House” at the same time.
And, according to Trump, this has been a lucrative time for the estate.
Last week, Trump reported in a federal financial disclosure that Mar-a-Lago took in $37.2 million in income between January 1, 2016, and mid-April 2017 — a 15½-month period that covered the final year of the campaign, the transition and about three months of Trump’s presidency.
That appeared to be a significant increase from the period before Trump entered the presidential race. In July 2015, Trump had reported earning less money — $15.6 million — from Mar-a-Lago during a longer time window, 18½ months.
The Trump Organization, a privately held company, does not provide additional financial figures.
The Post reviewed 10 years’ worth of social calendars kept by the Palm Beach Daily News, the most authoritative source for the island’s gala scene, noting all charity events listed at Mar-a-Lago. The Post then sought to verify those listings by contacting the charities that organized them.
The review showed that Trump’s club had attracted a steadily growing number of charity events, peaking in the winter of 2014-2015. That season, just before Trump entered the presidential race, Mar-a-Lago hosted 52 charity events, including 26 big-money dinner or gala events. The list included old-line Palm Beach charity galas, such as the ones for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and the American Cancer Society.
And, with Trump already a major Republican figure, his club attracted a new paying customer: the Palm Beach County Republican Party. The party paid Trump about $140,000 to hold its annual Lincoln Day dinner at Mar-a-Lago.
In late 2015, even as he was running for president, Trump savored his success in taking galas from his chief rival for big Palm Beach events.
The Breakers, Trump told The Post, “gets the leftovers.”
This year, as Palm Beach charities have reserved venues for next season, Trump’s club has lost 13 separate events that were held at the club last year. Among the seven charities that departed, two held multiple events.
In all, Mar-a-Lago appears to have booked just 25 events, including 15 galas, according to The Post’s review.
Most of the events that left Mar-a-Lago went to the Breakers instead. A spokeswoman for the Breakers declined to say how much their overall business has increased this year, saying only, “I can confirm that we continue to experience high demand.”
Besides the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the Boston-based Dana-Farber Cancer Institute announced it would move its gala to the Breakers. The cancer charity, which had held its ball at Mar-a-Lago for seven straight years, had faced internal pressure from staff and patients who objected to Trump’s proposed travel restrictions.
“In the future we will avoid controversial venues that may distract from our focus on cancer care and research,” the institute’s president, Laurie Glimcher, responded in a statement.
Later, the charity said it would move to the Breakers.
Mar-a-Lago also lost a gala hosted by the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, a part of the University of Miami’s medical school. After three years at Mar-a-Lago, that gala will move to the Breakers.
The Mar-a-Lago space “is too large and above budget for the turn out it historically receives,” wrote Borynack, the gallery owner who is also co-chairman of this year’s Bascom Palmer gala. He said higher-ups in Miami made the final call: “Miami OKs budgets,” he wrote. Those higher-ups declined to say much more. A spokeswoman for the University of Miami’s medical school said, “It is not uncommon to change locations.”
Trump’s club also lost a dinner dance held by the MorseLife Health System, which supports senior care centers in Florida. In the past, the group had spent up to $157,000 on food and beverages for the dinner dance. MorseLife did not offer an explanation for its decision to shift its event to the Breakers after six years at Trump’s club.
Also leaving Mar-a-Lago is the Chamber Music Society of Palm Beach, which is moving six concerts. “We outgrew the facility,” said Michael Finn, the society’s executive and artistic director. In addition, the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs — the Palm Beach chapter of an international group for gourmands — left after holding its holiday dinner at Mar-a-Lago in eight of the past nine years.
And American Humane, an animal-welfare group, moved its Hero Dog luncheon to the Breakers after three years. The group did not respond to requests to explain its move. In past years, the charity paid Trump’s club about $40,000 to rent the ballroom and pay for the catered lunch, according to IRS filings.
Four nonprofit organizations have not said whether they are coming back to Mar-a-Lago for galas next year. They include the Navy SEAL Foundation, Gateway for Cancer Research and American Friends of Magen David Adom, which supports Israel’s equivalent of the Red Cross. The list also includes Curetivity, the charity formerly known as the Eric Trump Foundation. It held a dinner at Mar-a-Lago in March, according to a videographer, John Koterba, who attended to shoot the event. The group’s executive director, Paige Scardigli, did not respond to questions about how much Eric Trump’s former charity paid his father’s club — or whether it would come back.
There has been some good news for Trump’s club, though. It attracted one new gala customer for next year: the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach.
A major customer, the American Cancer Society, which this spring held its 10th straight annual gala at Mar-a-Lago, debated finding a new venue, said Brant Woodward, a regional executive vice president.
After all, this year’s event included security-related delays. And there was a kind of cognitive dissonance. While the American Cancer Society was putting money into Trump’s business, its advocacy arm — the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network — was blasting Trump’s proposed cuts to cancer-research funding and his support for the House GOP’s health-care bill. Woodward declined to say how much his charity paid for the use of Trump’s club.
But the group found few, if any, alternatives for its 280-person event.
“The venues on the island are very, very limited,” Woodward said.
Leaving the island? “It’s really not an option,” Woodward said. Palm Beach people — and their money — rarely leave.
So the group decided: Next year’s gala will be at Mar-a-Lago, security lines and awkward politics notwithstanding.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.