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South Bend hotels prepare for graduation crunch

Anneliese Woolford | Friday, May 14, 2004

As graduation weekend arrives at both Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s, one coined phrase rings true in the mindset of local hotels surrounding the two campuses: “Location, location, location.”In college towns like South Bend, the hotel industry stands out from others as it capitalizes on the importance of location by marketing the convenience of proximity to campus events. “We’re competitive in the market. You have to be,” said Sue Vohs, director of sales at the Inn at Saint at Saint Mary’s. “Because of our proximity to Saint Mary’s for graduation weekend, we’re the hotel of choice.”Located on the outskirts of Saint Mary’s campus and adjacent to Notre Dame, the Inn typically books rooms for graduation more quickly than other hotels in the area, and the Inn sees the weekend as a crucial opportunity.”If graduation weekend is the first time they’ve stayed with us, the majority of our guests have a great experience and want other reservations for the future,” she said.The Inn gives first priority to parents of either Notre Dame or Saint Mary’s seniors who have stayed at the hotel for three years prior. Those who meet this requirement then receive an application for graduation accommodations, which, if submitted by its required deadline, almost always guarantees a room, Vohs said. The remaining rooms are then available to the public on a first-come, first-serve basis.”With [graduation] being such a high demand, it is [the] one time we don’t compete with any other hotels,” she said. Instead, if rooms at the Inn are unavailable, representatives assist the business of other hotels by referring guests. Another hotel that strives to meet the needs of graduation guests is the Morris Inn, located on Notre Dame Avenue and neighboring the Hammes Bookstore, Eck Center and University Club. Unlike the Inn at Saint Mary’s, the Morris Inn offers Sorin’s, a full service restaurant, and Leahy’s Lounge. “It’s a competitive advantage to have both located in the same building,” said hotel director William Beirne. “People like the fact that it’s a full service hotel.”However, what Beirne said guests are drawn to most at graduation is the convenience of the Morris Inn’s campus positioning.”It’s a tremendous advantage,” he said. “Location is very important especially on weekends such as graduation [for people] to be on campus and part of what is going on.”Although the hotel’s location and consistent past help to ensure a sales boost on graduation weekend, Beirne notes one disadvantage.Of the 92 rooms available, 50 are pre-sold to the University for specified visitors including those with honorary degrees and others recognized at commencement. The remaining 42 rooms are then sold to parents of graduates, many of whom belong to the Parents Club and are eligible for room, food and beverage discounts.The University, however, often holds a block of unoccupied rooms until days before graduation, only then offering them for resale. This obligatory relationship decreases the likelihood that the hotel will meet its maximum sales profit since many guests will have sought accommodations elsewhere at so late a stage. Beirne himself describes the process as “risky.” For those willing to chance their luck, the Morris Inn offers a wait list for guests and fails to restrict a minimum night stay.”We have a lot of opportunities in there to make up the difference, so it is difficult for us to say exactly what our pattern will be,” Beirne said. Looked at in comparison, the Marriott hotel downtown would seem to pose little threat to the business of hotels such as the Inn at Saint Mary’s or the Morris Inn. Located four miles from campus and with graduation rates reaching $299 per night, its competition to others could easily be seen as minimal.Minimal it is not.”The Marriott name is a draw in of itself,” said Gina Schumacher, director of hotel sales. “Brand recognition is significant for us, but most [of our business] is because this hotel has been here for so long.”The hotel offers incentives such as the Marriott Rewards program where guests can collect and redeem points when staying at Marriott or any of its affiliates. “Although we are lucky to get brand loyalty, we do not take it for granted,” she said.The Holiday Inn City Center, located two blocks from the Marriott, is a competitor of the hotel because it too offers a rewards program. However, Schumacher considers the main competition to exist with the Inn at Saint Mary’s and Residence Inn, a Marriott affiliate.”Graduation weekend typically sells out every year,” Schumacher said, specifying that the timeframe spans from the Friday afternoon before graduation to the Monday morning after. “It is probably one of 10 or 12 weekends during the year that are significant income producers.”Having previously coordinated with special events held on both campuses, Schumacher said it is repetitive and “business as usual” each year. While the hotel staff is accustomed to prepare for special events based on past experience, preparations are vastly different from those made on an everyday basis.The hotel focuses on aspects such as arrival patterns, staffing and group prepackaging. Judging from past weekends, Schumacher said the largest influx of guests arrives between 3 and 7 p.m. on Friday. Consequently, more housekeeping staff members work Friday morning to prepare rooms in a timely and efficient manner.”There are different things that are unique to each group that comes into the hotel,” Schumacher said. “We find out what the needs of specific groups are and act accordingly.”