A combination of postponed graduation ceremonies, suspended campus events and online classes at the University of Oklahoma has stretched Norman’s hotels and restaurants even thinner as they adjust to doing business under COVID-19 restrictions.
The university announced this week that while this year’s graduates will have a virtual ceremony on May 8, in-person graduation ceremonies have been bumped back three months to August 8 and 9.
While OU had already moved spring classes online for Norman students, the university has also announced that all Norman summer classes are moving online, and campus residence halls will be closed to all but the students with no other living options. All campus events are suspended until at least July 31.
In a college town like Norman, business can revolve around the decisions made at the university. Many restaurants rely on game day weekends, graduation weekends and events like family weekend — not to mention Norman staples like Norman Music Festival and the Medieval Fair — to even turn a profit, said Brady Sexton, owner at Scratch Kitchen and Cocktails.
“Generally speaking, Norman is almost a seasonal restaurant scene in as much as we rely on the six or seven home games, two graduation weekends, Mother’s Day, dads’ weekend,” Sexton said. “Everything else we do in Norman — and I speak for most other fine dining restaurants around that I’m familiar with — everything else is pretty much break even. Those are the only opportunities we have to really make money, because we’re not a town that’s full of people going out to eat seven nights a week.”
For events like graduation, it’s not uncommon for families to book hotels or tables months (or years) in advance. Sexton said customers were calling Scratch for May 2020 reservations last year.
Tarasina Compagni, general manager at Benvenuti’s, said that while some people initially seemed hesitant to cancel their graduation reservations and wanted to hope for the best, many customers are now calling to reschedule for August. Even with the rescheduled reservations, the loss of so many spring events is hard on all local restaurants right now, Compagni said.
“I think for all Norman businesses, it’s been devastating — we all are experiencing the same thing, which is that spring is a very, very busy time in Norman, largely in part because of OU, so we’ve all missed Mom’s Weekend, and graduation, and all of the spring activities, and all of the spring fundraising events and the catering opportunities and the family celebrations — Mother’s Day, Easter — all those things,” Compagni said. “Every restaurant in Norman, we all typically see a busy spring, and that’s gone.”
At the Montford Inn, owner William Murray said he and his staff usually start blocking off graduation dates several months in advance and begin calling interested customers. During a normal spring, the inn would be completely sold out during family weekend and graduation weekend, he said.
Even outside of graduation, the usual OU spring and summer schedule helps boost some business’ summer income after families leave town on vacation and most students go home.
Murray said that late spring and early summer usually provide a steady stream of Norman visitors who are interviewing at the university or who are moving to Norman to house hunt before they start new OU jobs. February through May are some of Murray’s busiest months of the year, he said, since they usually bring interviewees, parents visiting for family weekend and families in coming for graduation.
“We work very closely with the university, and this is what I call recruiting season — they bring people in to interview for next fall to take jobs at different departments,” said Murray, who said that the entire situation has been “devastating” so far. “We have lost almost 300 room nights in existing reservations — those were existing reservations through graduation.”
Dan Schemm, executive director at Visit Norman, said that with all the local events that have been canceled this spring, many businesses are now figuring out how they’ll scrape by through the next few months, and are leaning on the hope that postponed events like graduation and NMF bring a financial boost at summer’s end. But the extra-dry Norman summer may leave some businesses struggling a little extra in the meantime.
“It's going to be a struggle for our bed and breakfasts that have visiting professors throughout the summer, for that campus corner business that relies on some of those summer students,” said Schemm, who emphasized that while city and university measures to protect against COVID-19 are necessary, they will also have significant impact in Norman.
When Norman’s hotel industry loses business, it’s not just the hotels that are affected.
Schemm said that right now, about one-third of Norman’s inventory of hotels have closed. Visitors at hotels and B&Bs provide Norman’s guest tax, the funds from which are split between Visit Norman and city arts and parks.
Without graduation or summer visitors to supplement that guest tax, 2020 could be a lean year for Norman’s arts and parks scene, said Schemm, who noted that 2021 could bring a bit of a turnaround.
Despite the current lean times, local small business owners and managers said they’ll be ready when Norman is ready to start running at full capacity again, whenever that may be and whatever that may look like.
Compagni said that while things may be tough for Norman businesses right now, she’s hoping that Norman residents continue to understand the importance of supporting their local businesses. The summer may not be busy, but Compagni said she’s also hoping that with more year-round residents in town due to canceled vacations, more Normanites will staycation around the city.
“Looking at our colleagues in the restaurant industry, we’re really lucky here in Norman in that there’s a tight-knit group of restaurateurs and everyone’s really supportive of one another,” Compagni said. “When one of us succeeds, all of us do, and the more we can support all of the restaurants in town — especially the locally-owned businesses that do so much in this community — the better off we all will be in the end.”
Murrary said that when his business operations can return to normal, he wants Norman residents to know that his inn is open for staycations. Local businesses will continue to be here for the community in the end, he said.
“We know that we’re going to promote heavy to people that just need a break,” Murray said. “...There are a lot of people that need to invest some time in themselves because they’ve been pent up, stuck at home, doing distance learning and just driving themselves nuts — they need to go do these things, and we’re there. We’re going to continue to be there.”
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