With Cornell announcing a limited, in-person commencement for the Class of 2021, Ithaca’s hotels and restaurants are optimistic about what this means for the local economy.
Typically, thousands of friends and family members come to see the graduating seniors walk across the stage at Schoellkopf field, then pack downtown bars and restaurants afterwards to celebrate — fueling the city’s biggest tourism weekend. According to Thomas Knipe, Deputy Director for Economic Development of the City of Ithaca, the weekend of Cornell’s commencement has historically been the biggest for local tourism.
Tim Mooney, a manager at Moosewood, a local vegan favorite, agreed.
“Graduations, specifically the Cornell one, are pretty huge for us… [it] blows any other weekend out of the water,” Mooney said.
According to Gary Ferguson, executive director of Downtown Ithaca Alliance, a non-profit that supports the Ithaca Business district, the local economy depends on revenue from Cornell students during graduations as well as throughout the year.
Normally, the graduation period affects a large region, with hotels as far South as Pennsylvania being sold out, explained Muhammed Abdelrahim, the general manager of the Homewood Suites. Just one month after the graduation ceremony, most hotels in Ithaca will be fully booked for graduation the following year.
In most cities, vendors see business rise dramatically from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, as families visit from out of town. In Ithaca the calendar is flipped because students, who drive a significant portion of local spending, leave town to be with their families over winter break.
“Commencement weekends are the equivalent of the Christmas holiday shopping season for many of our businesses,” Ferguson said.
This period is so important that restaurants and hotels incorporate it into their annual business model. According to Mooney, Mooseword prepares for Ithaca’s graduation events by training and hiring more staff, to ensure that enough people will be on hand for the big event.
Moosewood and other popular restaurants find themselves fully reserved months in advance of the actual graduation. The graduation revenue is critical for recovering the costs of training, financing restaurant improvements and expenses each year.
Ithaca College, which typically holds its graduation a week or two before Cornell, also creates increased traffic to local business but still pales in comparison with Cornell.
“We do see a lot of demand from Ithaca college but not as much as Cornell,” Abdelrahim said.
Mooney said that business at his restaurant is much higher than an average weekend but Cornell’s graduation represents “a more significant chunk of revenue.”
Neither Mooney nor Abdelrahim were concerned that Cornell’s commencement would lead to a spike in local COVID cases, stating that they believe that the local health department and the University are well equipped to handle visitors.
“With the track record Cornell has had so far with COVID, I’m trusting them,” Mooney said.
Even before the announcement by President Martha Pollack to allow guests to commencement, Abdelrahim noticed more student families coming to town this semester, compared to the spring and fall of 2020. He attributes this to the relaxed testing requirements for travelers coming into New York State, and the University’s policy against off-campus travel. Specifically, he said that move-in and Easter weekend, normally busy weeks for the hotel, were closer to normal than last year.
Mooney agreed with Abdelrahiim, saying that he has also received numerous calls from parents hoping to make reservations for graduation weekend.
Although visitors are coming back, businesses are still required to respect limited capacity restrictions. Parents may find themselves disappointed when they come to see their child graduate, but cannot take them out to dinner.
“We ask that you enjoy our community in a spirit of flexibility,” Ferguson wrote to the Sun. “Bask in our beauty and hospitality. But remember we are nonetheless still emerging from this global pandemic and we are still operating at less than 100 percent.”