News & Politics

CPAC’s Troubled History With Marriott

After the conservative conference left the hotelier, the legal documents flew.

The Marriott Wardman Park. Photograph by Flickr user Justin Ennis.

Today, activists will flock to the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor for this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference. Those who make the annual pilgrimage will witness lively speeches by conservative firebrands like Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, and Sean Hannity. But they won’t hear anything about the petty mudslinging–allegations of unpaid hotel bills, overflowing trash bins, and malfunctioning key cards–that took place after CPAC moved from a DC hotel to its current location.

Those details are contained in a three-year-old lawsuit, Marriott Hotel Services, Inc. vs. American Conservative Union, which was recently obtained by Washingtonian.

The roots of the kerfuffle stretch back to September of 2008, when the American Conservative Union (ACU), the group that organizes CPAC, signed a sales agreement in which it committed to hold the conference at the Marriott Wardman Park in Woodley Park each February from 2010 to 2014, according to documents filed in DC Superior Court by Marriott’s attorneys. The agreement, according to Marriott’s lawyers, also included a cancellation provision: should the ACU change its mind and hold the event elsewhere during this five-year period, the ACU would pay Marriott a portion of the revenue that the hotel would have received had the event taken place at the Wardman Park.

The ACU held CPAC at the Marriott Wardman Park in 2010, 2011, and 2012. But in March of 2012, CPAC sent a letter to Marriott ending the arrangement, according to court documents. Instead, the ACU moved the conference to Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center for 2013, 2014, and 2015.

Marriott’s lawyers cried foul: “The termination of the Group Sales Agreement, and resulting cancellations of the 2013 and 2014 conferences by CPAC, was improper and constitutes a breach of the Group Sales Agreement,” Marriott’s lawyers said in court documents.

The agreement’s cancellation provision, Marriott’s lawyers insisted, required the ACU to pay Marriott $606,430 in lost revenue for the 2013 conference and $272,715 for the 2014 conference. In its letter to the Marriott terminating the agreement, CPAC insisted it wouldn’t pay these damages.

In addition, Marriott alleged that ACU hadn’t paid $685,565 in bills from the 2012 conference, which took place at the Marriott Wardman Park.

Marriott demanded that ACU fork over all of this money, which totaled nearly $1.6 million.

The records of Marriott’s complaint, which is dated April 5, 2012, are incomplete. DC Superior Court’s civil records division has on file only seven of the complaint’s eight pages; page five is missing.

In its legal filings, however, the ACU tells an entirely different version of the story. The organization insisted in a response that Marriott breached the contract by providing awful service during the 2012 convention, and that the harm ACU sustained during this event was greater than the $1.6 million that Marriott demanded.

The ACU’s lawyers enumerated what they said were the hotel’s failures during the 2012 convention. The Marriott Wardman Park’s internet connectivity was “completely unavailable or substantially unavailable” during parts of the conference, which delayed registration and made it difficult to live-stream the event. Hotel staff set up the media room late and didn’t provide wiring for news cameras in the conference area. The Wardman Park’s power sources were shoddy and created “brown outs and tripped circuit breakers in several meeting rooms.”

The ACU’s lawyers insisted that the Marriott didn’t provide enough retail food options, argued that the food delivery was slow, and said hotel employees “continually fail[ed] to refresh beverage stations.” The staff also neglected to “provide adequate trash receptacles and/or empty trash receptacles in a timely manner, which resulted in trash overflowing in meeting rooms.”

Finally, the organization complained about poor security at the hotel. Marriott staff left “‘secure’ ACU staff rooms unlocked on multiple occasions and Marriott’s key card swipe system for secure areas requir[ed] multiple swipes of the key card provided,” the ACU’s lawyers alleged in court documents.

ACU claimed Marriott’s failings during CPAC 2012 damaged its relationships with supporters and donors and triggered negative media attention for the event. “[M]any donors, supporters, and media personnel will not return to ACU’s 2013 conference because of their negative experiences at the 2012 Conference,” ACU’s lawyers said in court documents.

The group initially demanded the disagreement be resolved during a jury trial, but within six months both sides agreed to settle the case.

The terms of the settlement aren’t public. “I understand this matter closed and was settled in 2013, and there are no further details,” Marriott spokesperson Elizabeth F. McGlasson wrote in an email. An ACU spokesperson left me a voice message saying he would look into the matter, but I was unable to reach him again.

Despite the legal skirmish, CPAC hasn’t been able to escape Marriott’s reach. In October of 2012–ten days before the lawsuit was settled–Marriott bought the brand and management rights to a Washington-area resort: The Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, where CPAC is currently held.


2012 Marriott suit against the American Conservative Union by Andrew Beaujon

ACU countercomplaint against Marriott

Senior Writer

Luke Mullins is a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine focusing on the people and institutions that control the city’s levers of power. He has written about the Koch Brothers’ attempt to take over The Cato Institute, David Gregory’s ouster as moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, the collapse of Washington’s Metro system, and the conflict that split apart the founders of Politico.