The University of Virginia’s decision to hold in-person graduation ceremonies is giving local businesses a financial boost as students, friends and family come to town for the events.
The university spread out graduation ceremonies for the Class of 2021 over three days with two commencements held at Scott Stadium on Friday, two Saturday and one on Sunday. Monday is being held open as a rain date.
The school also held ceremonies last weekend for the Class of 2020, which did not have a chance for in-person graduation gatherings a year ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down the school.
“Reservations are blowing up this year, as well as general foot traffic,” said Hunter Smith, chief executive officer of Champion Brewing Company and Champion Hospitality Group, which owns Brasserie Saison, Champion Grill, Passiflora and Champion Ice House. “After losing last year, it stands to bring a major boon for the hospitality industry overall.”
This year sees the return of a grand procession for graduates. At each ceremony, students will do the traditional walk down the Lawn toward Homer’s statue but then proceed to Scott Stadium.
Walking onto the David A. Harrison III Field, they will be seated with proper social distancing as those guidelines remain in place across the state for another week. The one-hour ceremonies are being livestreamed.
“With graduates and their families in town, we’ve seen a surge at our lodging properties and restaurants,” said Courtney Cacatian, executive director of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Visitors and Convention Bureau. “Last weekend, our lodging properties were 81% full with an average daily rate of $212. One could infer that those visitors all ate last weekend at dining establishments throughout Charlottesville and Albemarle County.”
UVa officials originally had decided to hold ceremonies online again this year before COVID case numbers fell and Gov. Ralph Northam made changes to social restrictions to allow graduations to take place in person.
The decision to hold the events live was made by UVa officials in early April. Although it included restrictions on the number of people each student could invite, limiting students to only two guests, the decision was made early enough for families to make plans and businesses to gear up.
“The announcements were made soon enough that many of our reservations had not been canceled yet,” said Russ Cronberg, general manager of the Boar’s Head Resort. He said many guests arrived on Thursday and stayed through Sunday.
“Due to the restricted attendance, we still did have some cancellations as families prioritized who could attend and therefore didn’t need the five rooms they originally booked,” he said.
Cronberg said the open ceremonies will help make up for a rough 2020, when students were sent home just after spring break and many UVa employees began working from home.
“Overall, our revenues will likely be down some from 2019, but we are still delighted to have graduation and provide a wonderful experience for the families of those graduates,” he said.
Many business people contacted said they were happy that Northam loosened restrictions on the number of people who could gather and that COVID-19 numbers continue to drop.
The success of vaccination programs in thwarting COVID’s spread led UVa on Thursday to require all students coming to Grounds in the fall to get their shots. The school plans to bring students back for a return-to-normal school year, including spectators at sports events.
“As colleges and universities commit to bringing students and families back to campus, it indicates a level of confidence that living and gathering can be done safely,” said John Schultzel, chief growth officer of Olympia Hotel Management, which manages the Residence Inn by Marriott Charlottesville Downtown. “With students and parents starting to come back to campus, I believe there will be an expanding sense that we are marching towards recovery.”
Cacatian noted that many restaurants and businesses are still requiring customers to wear masks even though Northam lifted the mask requirement. Limits on how many customers can be seated in restaurants, bars and other venues remain in place until May 28.
“Many hospitality businesses continue to have mask requirements in place for staff and customers as a safety measure and to limit COVID exposure, which can be costly when businesses have to close,” Cacatian said. “Limitations on capacity are still in place and hiring is a challenge, so the boost to local restaurants, and to some extent in this case, lodging, is stunted.”
But even a stunted boost is better than what businesses faced over the past 14 months.
“Since UVa made their announcement, we have had a steady flow of phone requests,” said Charles Roumeliotes, who owns Orzo Kitchen and Wine Bar with Ken Wooten. “We were full last weekend and we are full this weekend. Last year was a complete bust since ceremonies were canceled.”
“We could take more guests, but we are still at 50% capacity [limit] and finding staff continues to be a problem,” Roumeliotes said. “In fact, when the governor allows for more tables on May 28, we will hold back until more people start looking for work.”
Owners and managers of hospitality businesses said they are glad UVa switched to in-person Final Exercises this year.
“Our industry is grateful to the University of Virginia for holding in-person graduation ceremonies for the Classes of 2020 and 2021 as a much-needed boost for local economic recovery,” Cacatian said.
“Like many hospitality businesses, we are grateful that our nationwide and especially local COVID numbers were to a point where the governor allowed for graduations to happen,” said Cronberg. “We appreciate [what UVa did] with that information, but we are just as happy for those graduates and their families.”