Having made a fortune in hotels and casinos and dabbled previously in airlines, President Donald Trump has the potential to be the meetings and events industry’s best friend
. On the other hand, his lack of governing experience and occasionally divisive comments could ultimately do more harm than good to the United States and its economy—fears stoked already by the recent immigration ban now tied up in court battles. All that’s known so early into the new administration is the country is entering a great unknown with an unconventional leader. “We have to cheer for him to do a good job because we all depend on him,“ says Michael Dominguez
, chief sales officer at MGM Resorts International. We talked with Dominguez and other industry leaders to present best-case, worst-case and most-likely scenarios for key issues affecting you.
Fact: “The president has been in the meetings and events space for a long time,” notes Michael Massari
, chief sales officer at Caesars Entertainment. That means pitches from the Meetings Mean Business Coalition and other industry lobbyist groups won’t fall on deaf ears. Trump should be willing to implement policies promoting face-to-face meetings, including staying the course with a move from the Office of Management and Budget to free funds for government officials to travel to meetings. Likewise, a pro-business president may also give corporate groups the confidence to expand their budgets to add events. Planners may also take a cue from Trump’s tweets to engage audiences via social media to encourage larger attendance at events. “He realizes face-to-face is so much more powerful than video, direct mail and telephone communication,” says Massari.
Trump’s attempt to “drain the swamp” could force government agencies to look for ways to cut back on the budget. As we all know, conferences and meetings were the first to get the ax when the economy went south in 2008. Also, Trump’s effectiveness at reaching the masses through Twitter could push some organizations to push out messaging via social media and email instead of at company events.
There is more than enough reason to be optimistic meetings will benefit from Trump because of his familiarity with the industry. “We’re not starting at square one; we’re halfway through the movie,” says Dominguez, a co-chair of the Meetings Mean Business Coalition. “That’s a good position to be in.” Whether Trump’s previous experience translates into actionable policy remains to be seen, but his presence in the Oval Office should benefit meetings in some fashion.
Arguably a top deterrent for potential attendees to register for meetings is the hassle associated with travel. “Our roads and airports are antiquated,” laments Dominguez. President Trump won’t eliminate the long lines at big-city airports, but his stated goal to pour billions, if not trillions, into infrastructure should help. Given the bipartisan agreement about Dominguez’s assessment (recall former Vice President Joe Biden said New York’s LaGuardia Airport feels like it’s “in some third-world country,”) legislation to encourage improvements may gain traction in Congress. It’s generally agreed that improvements to airports and roads would increase tourism, both on the leisure and meetings sides.
Trump’s practical ideas about infrastructure improvements may be drowned out by rhetoric targeting certain groups that may no longer feel welcome in this country. Trump has already issued executive orders to build a wall at the Mexico border and to bar refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries. The courts and government budgets will determine the ultimate outcome for both, but the actions raised fears held prior to the election. “If he goes down the path of tightening our borders and getting more restrictive, it undermines a lot of the great work done by the Obama administration,” Paul Van Deventer, president and CEO of MPI and co-chair of Meetings Mean Business Coalition, warned before Trump’s inauguration. Van Deventer points to an emotional—and intangible—side of tourism that could be swayed elsewhere depending on how the administration plays out. Adds Dominguez on Trump: “The worst case is he can’t get anything done and he offends everyone.”
Even the best ideas are vulnerable to Washington gridlock. It goes without saying that Trump and the Republican-led House and Senate must find a way to work with Democrats to accomplish anything over the next four years. And when you tack on the major money needed to make necessary infrastructure improvements, this may be an uphill battle. “I don’t know if he can put together a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure plan, but if he does, that clearly benefits all of us,” says Van Deventer. As for the border situation, it’s hard to predict at this point.
Whether you agree with him or not, President Trump’s criticism of business arrangements with China, as well as Canada and Mexico through the North American Free Trade Agreement, are founded in striking a fairer deal for the U.S. “He’s bordering on obsession with trade balance,” says Massari. “Travel is one of the best ways to balance an imbalance, [as it’s] one of the country’s biggest exports.” How that translates to events: The more international meetings, conventions and conferences are held in the U.S., the more leverage Trump and his team have in other economic discussions. Massari is confident Trump will visibly support initiatives for increasing international travel, which will assist airlines, hotels and destinations alike.
If the tough talk and early executive orders isolate the United States, the country’s economy will suffer. Van Deventer says he fielded many questions from concerned peers when traveling to Europe and Asia in the weeks following Trump’s election. Some of the fears, notes Van Deventer, stem from other countries’ misperceptions of how the U.S. government works. “They have an understanding the U.S. is a monarchy,” he says. “I think things will move much slower than my international colleagues are going to expect.” Courts blocking the refugee ban are an example of the country’s checks and balances.
As we’ve already seen, any shift in trade policy—as with most government interactions—will face close scrutiny in the courts. In other words, it will be business as usual in Washington, says John Russell, a D.C.-based attorney in the Public Policy and Regulation practice at Dentons. “You’ll see what happened in the Obama administration happen here, except the plaintiffs will change,” says Russell, who’s given talks on the new administration at industry events like last year’s Holiday Showcase in Chicago. Litigation may tie up changes, but Russell predicts one visible shift will be where foreign dignitaries rest their heads during U.S. visits. “I think foreign governments will look to do something at a Trump property to curry favor,” he says, comparing the concept to international leaders donating to the Clinton Global Initiative while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state.
Though LGBTQ and Muslim groups—not to mention celebrities like Meryl Streep and the cast of “Hamilton”—have made little secret of their concerns over Trump’s talk, Dominguez says one thing to keep in mind is most legislation affecting most groups comes on a state level, not a federal one. Congress has already indicated it does not plan to act on immigration policy until court battles play out, and the administration has added LGBT federal workers’ rights will be preserved. “I don’t think he has the ability or intent to try anything radical,” says Van Deventer.
Anecdotal evidence suggests hate groups feel more brazen since Trump was elected. For example, videos showed a white supremacist group using Nazi expressions and gestures saluting Trump at an event in Washington, D.C., in November 2016. Even though the president has condemned such organizations, LGBTQ and other groups may feel unwelcomed at certain destinations and venues. Related, the political climate seems to be opening the door for similar legislation to North Carolina’s HB2 Law (aka the “bathroom bill”) in states like Virginia and Texas. Several high-profile events, including the NBA All-Star Game, relocated out of North Carolina over the law. Other states could take a financial hit going down the same path.
While it may not seem this way to everyone, the country is not more divided than it’s ever been, says Russell. “The country is pretty much 48-48 and everyone is fighting over that 4 percent,” he says, noting the civil rights movement and post-Vietnam era are examples of more contentious times than now. “It’s been that way since Reagan’s second term.” Dominguez adds national politics typically don’t enter the equation much with meetings, at least compared to the business climate. So whether certain groups view the president unfavorably or not, events will go on as usual. “You’re not going to boycott the whole country,” he says. Dominguez also notes hotels will have to continue to monitor what groups are booking event space by doing due diligence. “That is Sales 101. When [hate groups] slip in, we are not doing a good job at doing our job,” he says.