Think a little vacation would get your mind off politics for awhile? (AP Photo/Alex Menendez)
By: Sara Swann
The Trump International Hotel in Washington may have raked in the profits during the inauguration festivities -- and ever since, come to think of it. But for most in the lodging and tourism industry, high season is just gearing up.
It's a set of interests that was exceptionally involved in politics during the past two years, investing more in political candidates, parties and outside spending groups during the 2016 election cycle than ever before. The industry broke spending records with its contributions of nearly $24 million. Its lobbying outlays, too, topped previous levels in 2016 at about $12.4 million.
Not only that, but these hotels, resorts and travel companies shifted to the left in the last cycle: 62 percent of the funds it gave to politicians and parties went to Democrats. The last time the industry was this partisan was in 2002 when it gave 64 percent of its candidate and party donations to Republicans. Most of the contributions were from individuals, rather than company or trade group PACs.
A couple of new donors emerged to become top contributors. The Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau gave the most with about $4.8 million -- all of which went to the Democratic Party, which held its presidential nominating convention in that city last year. And American Pacific International Capital, an international holding company that owns boutique hotels in the U.S. and large luxury hotels in China, came in third with $1.3 million; it had never before made the industry's top 20.
Others in the 2016 top five -- Diamond Resorts, which specializes in timeshares ($2.1 million), the American Hotel & Lodging Association ($965,000) and TRT Holdings, which owns Omni Hotels ($890,000) -- were more familiar contributors from the industry. While Diamond Resorts kept with the group’s overall liberal leanings, AHLA and TRT Holdings both favored Republicans.
Vanessa Sinders, senior vice president for government affairs at the AHLA, said the organization has become more proactive in telling the tourism industry's narrative by communicating with politicians and advocating on the issues it cares about.
"We have been and continue to be a very bipartisan organization," Sinders said. "We work with both sides of the aisle to get things done."
Marriott International, one of the lodging and tourism industry’s top five contributors for the past two decades, was pushed down to No. 6 on the list with $811,000. Historically, Marriott has been among the industry’s biggest GOP supporters, but in 2016 both its PAC and its employees favored Democrats, following the industry-wide trend.
Marriott also sat in the industry's No. 6 spot in spending to lobby the government last year, with outlays of $670,000. Ahead of it in the rankings was the Dorchester Group, an offshoot of a company owned by the government of Brunei, which spent $1.1 million. Dorchester Group is relatively new to the lobbying scene and reported record expenditures for this activity in 2016.
The other top lobbying clients for the lodging and tourism industry in 2016 were the AHLA ($2.4million), the U.S. Travel Association ($2.3 million), the International Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions ($1.2 million) and Blackstone Group , which has big investments in Hilton Hotels, La Quinta Inns & Suites, Motel 6 and Wyndham.
What do hotels and similar companies care about in D.C.? Many issues, it turns out. A few from last year included:
- Opposing any cut in the per diem for government employees (or how much they're allowed to spend on lodging, meals and the like when they travel for government business)
- Stopping online booking scams, where customers book hotels through third-party websites that often are not legitimate
- Supporting free travel to Cuba (the Trump administration is reportedly considering reinstating travel restrictions that were liberalized by former President Barack Obama)
- Encouraging more rules and regulations to be applied to Airbnb rentals, a chief source of competition for hotels in recent years
For issues like online booking scams, Sinders said the tourism industry has seen an drastic increase in the number of people concerned about them. In 2015, about 6 percent of hotel-goers were were worried about online booking scams. But, Sinders said, this number jumped up to 22 percent in 2016, which is partly why AHLA has more actively lobbied on the subject.
"We are working with Congress and the Federal Trade Commission on ways to fix this issue," Sinders said. She added that legislation with bipartisan support has been introduced to Congress that would require third-party websites to explicitly state they are not affiliated with a hotel.
Other ways to get out of town
Much like the lodging and tourism industry, the cruise industry also topped its personal best in contributions to candidates, parties and outside spending groups in the 2016 election. Its nearly $2 million in contributions almost doubled its previous record of about $1 million.
Cruise lines tend to have a more conservative bend than hotel companies, though: The industry gave 57 percent of its donations to candidates and party committees to Republicans. Its top contributors were Carnival Corp. and Norwegian Cruise Line with $940,000 and $320,000, respectively.
The 2016 lobbying total for cruise ships and lines was consistent with the past few years, although not the highest in its history. Last year the industry spent about $3.2 million on lobbying, with fully half of that coming from the Cruise Lines International Association with $1.6 million. Its top issues were taxes and a measure having to do with payments to stewards on the industry's ships.
Airlines -- that increasingly unpopular element of tourism -- pumped big money into the 2016 election: $7.5 million in contributions, its largest sum since 1990. About 52 percent of the funds these companies gave to candidates and party committees went to Democrats this time around, up from their average of 45 percent. The airlines industry’s turn to the left parallels that of the lodging and tourism industry, although the switch is not as sharp.
The top contributors in the industry were American Airlines Group with $2.4 million; Delta Air Lines with $1.8 million; and United Continental Holdings (which owns United Airlines) with about $1 million. American Airlines Group and Delta Air Lines both favored Democrats with their contributions, while United gave slightly more to Republicans.
All three top contributors were big in the lobbying arena as well. American Airlines Group topped the list with $7.9 million spent, edging out No. 2 Airlines for America's $6.4 million and more than double the $3.5 million spent by United Continental Holdings, which came in at No. 3. Delta Air Lines followed, spending $2.5 million. Issues? You name it, but the long laundry list includes such things as transportation security, passengers' rights and aircraft noise and emissions.
And to circle back to Donald Trump's hotels: Astonishingly, the Trump Organization contributed only $51,463 in the 2016 cycle -- less than it has given in any election cycle since 1992. Not as surprisingly, more than 95 percent of that went to Republicans.
The sum doesn't include donations Trump made to his own presidential campaign, though, totaling almost $66 million, or close to 20 percent of the funds he raised.
And you thought a nice vacation would be a break from nasty partisan politics...