Ann Arbor businesses hit hard by no in-person commencement

Sunday, May 3, 2020 - 4:08pm

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Maggie Wiebe

Every year in May, thousands of families pour into Ann Arbor to celebrate the University of Michigan’s yearly spring commencement. Although this year’s spring commencement was virtual, there are plans to have an in-person commencement next spring. For Ann Arbor businesses, spring commencement is just as important for their livelihood as it is for the graduating class.

Popular restaurants tend to be fully booked months out from spring commencement, hotels are packed with the arriving families and the streets become full with visitors, who stop into local businesses to browse, eat or drink. 

Andy Labarre, the executive vice president and director of government relations for the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Regional Chamber of Commerce, remarked on spring commencement’s impact on local businesses.

“It’s a big weekend,” Labarre said. “You tend to have big parties, you tend to have all your spots filled and folks tend to be celebratory — so, frankly, they’re buying and drinking a lot more.”

Slurping Turtle, an Ann Arbor restaurant on East Liberty Street, usually books its first tables for spring commencement as early as the start of the school year, with a more constant stream of calls starting in January. Michael Persa, Slurping Turtle’s director of operations, commented on the early preparation most families make.

“We’re fairly new, we’re only five or six years here,” Persa said. “But last year, I think by March, we were 90 percent booked.”

2020 Public Policy graduate Ethan Ramer is from Livingston, New Jersey, and made reservations for his twelve expected guests well before the University’s announcement that spring commencement would be canceled. He said making reservations was difficult even a year in advance due to the high demand with spring commencement. 

“My family and I booked six hotel rooms one year in advance (in May 2019) and had five restaurant reservations booked when restaurants started taking reservations,” Ramer said. “When we called a lot of the restaurants were already full.”

His family was planning on staying for multiple days, so they booked tables or got on the waitlist at popular spots like Zingerman’s Roadhouse and The Gandy Dancer, among others, most of which took deposits or noted their credit card information. Ramer said the restaurants refunded all deposits made. 

Spring commencement weekend is crucial for most businesses. For some, it may even dictate whether they stay open or not – even without a global pandemic. Labarre compared what this weekend means to the summer time, when large labor conventions in the area draw a significant amount of revenue for Ann Arbor restaurants.

“There are some restaurants on Main Street in Ann Arbor where, if they have a bad week during convention season … that can be make-or-break for the year,” Labarre said. “You look at it like the equivalent of half a week gone, and not just any standard half-week, but rather one in which they’re going to make a significant amount of their budget.”

Labarre said while spring commencement weekend doesn’t bring in quite the same amount of revenue as the conventions, it’s close. 

“Those convention weeks might be a little bit more important, but it’s on that level,” Labarre said.

Spring commencement also serves as a final surge in foot traffic before a mostly slow summer, according to Persa. 

“In financial ways, it’s a huge weekend,” Persa said. “There’s a lot of big weekends, football weekend(s) and stuff like that, but (spring commencement) is usually the one that starts the summer for us, and summer obviously slows down most businesses in the area.”

Norton's Flowers and Gifts is closed during what would have been one of its busiest times of the year.

Norton's Flowers and Gifts is closed during what would have been one of its busiest times of the year. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Tim Galea

Norton's Flowers and Gifts would usually have flowers to prepare for commencement, but the store has been empty for weeks.

Norton's Flowers and Gifts would usually have flowers to prepare for commencement, but the store has been empty for weeks. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Tim Galea

Norton’s Flowers & Gifts, a florist with locations in both Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, cites events like the University’s spring commencement as bringing in some of the highest volume orders. Norton’s Flowers & Gifts, Tom Thompson Flowers and University Flower Shop are the only three flower shops who have a procurement contract with the University, which allows the University to track and manage purchases at participating suppliers.

For Norton’s Flowers & Gifts, this means a lot more orders with University-related events. Tim Galea, President of Norton’s Flowers & Gifts, stressed how much they value the University’s spring commencement ceremony. Galea said an estimated spring commencement brings in tens of thousands of dollars in revenue.

“(This weekend) represents an appreciable amount of money,” Galea said. “We don’t rely on it … but it’s critical. It’s very, very important to us.”

The shop has been closed for the last six weeks in compliance with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order, and is set to reopen this Monday, May 4, for curbside pickup and touchless delivery. Galea said while they are looking forward to being open for the upcoming Mother’s Day celebration, which provides one of their greatest surges in revenue, the loss of an in-person commencement stings deeply.

“It hurts a lot that it went away,” Galea said. 

Since Whitmer’s first stay-at-home order on March 23, local businesses ranging from coffee shops to yoga studios worry they won’t be able to survive until the state is back to normal. Losing out on typical business is hard enough, but losing out on a weekend like spring commencement can be fatal to smaller, more niche local businesses.

“For some businesses, this will be a hardship,” Labarre said. “For probably a relatively small (number of businesses), it could be stay open or close.” 

Contributor Magdalena Mihaylova can be reached at mmihaylo@umich.edu

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated information from Andy Labarre and has changed wording to reflect the correct information.