NORMAL — As Central Illinois colleges and universities prepare for commencement ceremonies this weekend, the hospitality industry is also getting ready for waves of visiting families and friends.
Eureka College, Lincoln College and Lincoln Christian College will hold their ceremonies Saturday. Illinois State University plans to have six ceremonies spread between Friday and Saturday. Heartland Community College will hold its ceremony next Friday, May 13. High school graduations also will follow in the coming weeks.
“We’re elated that there’s the opportunity to be incredibly busy, and along with that comes a little bit of patience for the lines and a little understanding that there’s a lot of people doing that same activity this weekend and the next coming weekend,” said Charlie Moore, president of the McLean County Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a great opportunity to let our local restaurant and hospitality industry shine.”
As the year sees some return to normalcy with in-person ceremonies, local hotels and restaurants are excited for visitors to return after two years of pandemic-related uncertainty.
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Anwar Martin, general manager at the Double Tree by Hilton Hotel, 10 Brickyard Drive in Bloomington, said business during the past two years’ graduation seasons was horrible due to lack of customers. Now, with most mandates lifted, visitor traffic has returned, and workers from places like Rivian Automotive and State Farm are traveling again.
“We’re already booked up for the weekend, but as of right now, leading into the weekend, it’s about an average amount of guests and pretty much what we do on a regular basis,” Martin said Wednesday. “It’s exciting to see that sense of normalcy that we’ve been missing the last couple of years.”
Other Bloomington hotels, like the Parke Regency, 1413 Leslie Drive, and Eastland Suites, 1801 Eastland Drive, are booked up this weekend, with availability limited only to canceled reservations.
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Although the Eastland Suites were designed for longer stays, general manager Morgan Lurkins said business has been solid, and weekends like these ensure that they are sold out of reservations.
“In regards to the last couple of years, that booking window is a lot shorter … because people are still COVID-shy or they’re concerned about a family member,” Lurkins said. “You’re still seeing a hesitance in booking until you get closer to that event, and people are getting an idea of how they’re going to feel, how things are in the community and then they are confident in making those travel plans.”
Krishna Balakrishnan, owner of the Parke Regency, said in an email that he believes businesses have not fully returned to normal operations due to companies still not asking employees to travel, as well as labor shortages affecting his own staffing.
“Graduation weekend is different as this was a constant busy time over the past several years and was missed in the last two years,” Balakrishnan said in the email. “We were able to retain some of the staff from pre-COVID, and we do have regular guests who stay with us over the years, so it will be great to see the regulars coming back and meeting new parents.”
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Laura Lackore, general manager at Baxter’s American Grille, 3212 E. Empire St. in Bloomington, said staff have been able to shift back to normal operations and allow for more reservations to be booked each weekend.
“Honestly, during COVID, there was a lot of love for the restaurant community, and I mean, graduation weekends and huge holidays are notoriously busy … but honestly, people have been a lot nicer since then,” Lackore said. “Everyone coming in with a bigger appreciation for what we do and … I’m liking this year. I’m not sure what next year is gonna look like, but it’s been a good year as far as that goes.”
Bob Dobski, owner of Rob Dob’s Restaurant & Bar, 801 N. Hershey Road in Bloomington, said this is the first time his business has booked reservations for graduation weekends since they opened in October 2019, before the pandemic hit in March 2020.
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“We’re putting extra servers on and scheduling more people to come work this weekend. We’re ready for it,” Dobski said. “We missed out for two years, so this is our big year to make an impression on the community.”
Top 10 restaurants in Bloomington-Normal, according to Yelp reviews
No. 1: Pop-Up Chicken Shop
No. 2: Fort Jesse Café
No. 3: Epiphany Farms Restaurant
No. 4: The Mystic Kitchen & Tasting Room
No. 5: Veracruz Restaurant
No. 6: Anju Above
No. 7: The Rock Restaurant
No. 8: Flingers Pizza Pub
No. 9: Bloom Bawarchi
No. 10: Seoul Mama
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