Student life, Game Day crowds, conferences, parents and prospective students visiting from statewide and across the country — college towns are tourism epicenters for Michigan.
Both small-town schools and powerhouse Big Ten universities attract guests who are guaranteed to return year after year, which means they represent predictable, stable markets for the hospitality industry, regardless of the economic cycle. Sweetening the deal is college football and Game Days — a boon to local tourism that pours millions of dollars into college-town economies.
For business owners and operators, university markets deliver some of hospitality’s greatest triumphs and trials, and, if played right, the near-sure promise of success and steadiness for businesses of all types and sizes.
In this article, the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association dives into ways your business can capitalize on college towns as year-round destinations by building operational excellence and workforce solutions to meet the demand.
Scoring Big With Football Crowds Consider this: College football attendance rose in 2022 with the most significant year-over-year increase since 1982, attracting 37,237,555 visitors to campuses nationwide. Millions of those visitors poured into Michigan for games at The Big House and Spartan Stadium alone.
Jason Nelson, general manager of Graduate Hotels, says the influx of guests and revenue at its Ann Arbor and East Lansing locations is dramatic once football season commences — sometimes two to three times more than any other season. He notes that it’s high time for a rise in rates at most local hotels, and guests are willing to pay.
“The majority of our guests are alumni or have a special connection to these [universities]. So we find that the sense of nostalgia is so high that most of our guests are extremely happy to be here, and they’re okay paying the higher rates because it is such a special moment for them to be at one of these games,” Nelson says.
“Because of the rates that we charge, we offer a lot of amenities for our guests on those big weekends,” he says, like a special game-branded Yeti to take away “as a piece of memory when they go back home.”
The Graduate also hosts lobby tailgates, where guests can catch the game if they aren’t attending in person. They offer Bloody Mary and mimosa bars and keep the cocktail lounges open throughout and after all games.
While the revenue numbers are not quite as big, the boost of football season is specifically helpful in non-Division I college towns like Mount Pleasant, Kalamazoo, and Grand Rapids.
Anna’s House, a Michigan-favorite spot for breakfast and brunch, boasts 10 locations across the state. Its Okemos location is just down the road from MSU’s campus, while its Ann Arbor store is just two miles from The Big House. Meanwhile, its east-side locations attract foot traffic from universities of all sizes, like Western Michigan University, Grand Valley State University, Calvin University, and Hope College.
Tim Fatum, business practices director for Anna's House, says the locations close to universities — even smaller ones — see higher business volume in the fall season, specifically during Game Day weekends.
“It's kind of interesting because, at some of the locations that are not in a college town, we'll often see a little bit of a fall-off on business after Labor Day and the busy summer season,” he says. “At our locations close to colleges, especially where there's a game day, we benefit from that because we're able to tap into those guests coming from out of town, and there's often a big bump in the number of guests we serve and sales generated.” While the boost in traffic and revenue is always welcome, there can still be challenges. Fatum and Nelson conclude that being prepared is vital for maintaining a well-oiled revolving door of service and providing top-tier service despite the sheer number of guests.
“You have to look into your crystal ball and forecast pretty well,” Fatum says. This means mapping out the dates of home game days and scheduling staff accordingly. In another sense, he’s quite literal about forecasting — the weather also impacts the number of guests.
“Frankly, if the weather isn't good, it might even be better for us because all these people come to town, and they want to get out of the weather, so they come in to eat,” he says. “In any case, I think forecasting and trying to predict what sales volume will be is critical. You don't want to be understaffed on a day when you're going to be slammed because there's a game in town.”
Nelson says that while the driving force of nostalgia is what brings an influx of excited customers to The Graduate, it also brings frustrated ones. “A lot of people come into the city expecting that same nostalgia, being able to go to their favorite spot, and then they find that there's a huge line or there are no reservations,” he says.
The secret to assuaging their woes and appeasing their demand is delivering an experience that reminds them why they chose this destination and establishment in the first place: the university experience.
“We build our hotels to reflect and connect to the community and the university,” Nelson explains.
While The Graduate Ann Arbor is a “direct connection” to the University of Michigan, right in the heart of the historic Central Campus, just a mile from The Big House, it has a much different atmosphere than the rooftop bar and the “up-north feel” of The Graduate East Lansing. There’s a reason for that.
“Something like 80% of the student body for Michigan State University comes from within two hours, and 60% of the student body for the University of Michigan comes from outside the state. So it is definitely a different market, and it’s about tailoring that experience for that exact market,” Nelson says.
“We do that at all of our hotels. We make them very, very unique. We don't want to be a cookie-cutter hotel company. Every hotel is different. They're all different sizes. They all have different ‘feels’ because they are tied directly to the university.”
Capitalizing on College Towns Year-Round University towns are ripe for other high-revenue opportunities outside of football season and the Game Day rush. Throughout the academic year, conferences, campus tours, parent visits, alumni tours, and other university functions can provide an influx of steady business to hotels and restaurants in the area.
While smaller schools may not boast massive stadiums and campuses that draw as many guests as MSU and U-M, they have the promise of consistent crowds. Fatum says moving weeks at the beginning and end of the school year are some of the other biggest for business in university towns.
“You get all the people coming back to school or packing up for the summer. You've got parents coming in. Family members are going out to eat after moving all day long. It’s a little different than 100,000 people showing up for a football game, but it certainly helps,” Fatum says.
And when school is out, other guests fill in the gap throughout the year. Most of Michigan’s college towns are highly accessible by major interstates and nearby airports, providing infrastructure for other visitors. Many universities have medical research facilities and hospitals serving local and regional patients, and regional business activity attracts business travelers from all over.
Nelson adds that mid-size cities like Ann Arbor are destinations in their own right, featuring “so much for guests to want to come in and experience.” Businesses can — and should — capitalize on that.
“Our model for the city of Ann Arbor is ‘Destination Ann Arbor,’ and we are truly a destination for many other things besides the university,” he says. “We have the art fair, we have the plumbers and pipefitters events, we have the great restaurants downtown, and all of our museums.”
The Graduate Ann Arbor has 10,000 square feet of meeting space, where large events like weddings and professional meetings can take place. Nelson says they also make a point to feature downtown and campus attractions, highlighting walkability and the ease of getting around via a quick walk or rentable electric bikes.
Building an A+ Student Workforce Another bonus of college towns is a host of young students eager to gain experience in the hospitality industry. Fatum points out that many of these students are looking for jobs that are flexible around their class schedules and allow them to make a good wage, which is why restaurants and hotels are poised to attract young talent. For those reasons, recruiting has never been much of a challenge for Anna’s House.
“If you're a really good server, you can make some decent money and still take care of your school responsibilities. So there's a fair amount of competition for that kind of role at the restaurant,” he says. He and his team work hard to work around students’ schedules to ensure they can retain consistent staffing, especially throughout football season. “If they go to class Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, they might be able to work Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday or Sunday and still have their nights available. I think most restaurants offer a more variable schedule, and you might be able to work part-time and around your school schedule. That's huge, and that's why we bring out a lot of people.”
Nelson adds that being close to universities with strong hospitality programs — like MSU — offers an advantage when recruiting strong talent. “They want to learn because they're in the program. They're interested in hotels, whether in the operation side of it or the real estate,” he says. “They're eager to learn because they're going to school for it. If they’re that involved, they want to learn more."
Securing the talent is only one part of the strong workforce equation — owners and operators must also invest in fostering and developing the talent they find. At The Graduate, this happens through a summer internship program.
While it’s typical to place students in a local hotel, they can be placed at any of The Graduate’s 33 locations across the country. Each intern spends two weeks in every hotel department — the front desk, housekeeping, sales, food and beverage, admin, and engineering.
“That programming style allows a student to see and understand where they want to work and what areas they want to focus in, whether that’s sales or operations,” Nelson says.
The data from The Graduate’s summer 2023 internship program shows this method is working: nearly all interns reported being “completely satisfied,” and 54 stayed on as employees following the completion of the program.
While Anna’s House doesn't offer a formal internship program, Fatum says the operation is designed to give student employees a well-rounded, internship-like experience.
“Students want to use this as a learning environment to really understand how to serve well, provide hospitality, and work with a leader. They learn how the business operates. It looks great on a resume, and they learn a lot,” he says. Even more, Fatum says that students who host or serve meet hundreds — maybe thousands — of people throughout their tenure, all of which are potential relationships for future careers.
“Maybe you're not even going into the restaurant industry; maybe you're going to be a teacher, and somebody comes in from the school, and you form a connection. So it can lead to other opportunities, whether at a restaurant or outside the restaurant, because you're connecting with other people in the community.”
Mastering the Essentials What's most important for businesses in college towns, however, is ensuring that your establishment remains a place locals want to visit time and time again.
“We love the out-of-town guests when they come in, students at local universities, but you can't forget about the community that lives there 52 weeks out of the year. That's your bread and butter,” Fatum says.
They’re the ones who keep coming back during the downtimes, Fatum explains. “Even when you're really busy, you need to make sure you don't disenfranchise that local person because they're the ones coming back through the ‘off seasons’ and holidays when students go home. It’s a challenge when you don’t.”
At the end of the day, despite the Game Day rush and the college cheer, the heart of business in a college town isn’t much different than it is anywhere else: creating an exceptional experience for the people who walk in the door.
“You have to work hard to ensure that you take good care of them,” Fatum says, “and show them a lot of hospitality.”