Date May 24, 2023
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An economic boom for many local businesses during Brown’s Commencement and Reunion Weekend

From University spending on goods and services to help make events happen, to travel spending by the tens of thousands who visit Providence to stay, dine and shop, the weekend energizes many Rhode Island businesses.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] —Brown’s three-day Commencement and Reunion Weekend is a joyous and memorable occasion for graduates, families, friends, alumni and the entire Brown community. And the celebrations can be monumental for others, too — including many business owners in Providence and other Rhode Island cities and towns.

Business leaders in the state’s tourism industry — from restaurants, hotels, car rental companies, gift shops, sightseeing tours and other local attractions — attribute peak sales in the spring to Rhode Island's Commencement season. Brown’s annual Memorial Day weekend celebration brings about 15,000 visitors from across the world to Providence. And with 10 other colleges and universities hosting graduation ceremonies in May and June, that number quickly escalates.

Every spring, restaurant owners like John Moubayed, who owns CAV in Providence’s Jewelry District, count on a steady influx of families eager to book reservations to commemorate milestone moments. Many say the spring months are as gainful as the bustling holiday season. 

“May is our second-best month after December, and it's clearly related to the graduations,” Moubayed said. “May also comes right before the summer slowdown, so that extra profitable month helps smooth out our revenue for the year.”

Kristen Adamo, president and CEO of the Providence Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau, sees Brown's Commencement and Reunion as a banner weekend that guarantees a rush of travelers to the state regardless of the weather, which can be a crucial factor for many destinations. Some businesses in the hospitality sector, including beach or ski resorts, are vulnerable to weather fluctuations and can suffer reduced visitor numbers depending on conditions.

“Brown's Commencement Weekend is one of the most lucrative times of the year for Providence’s tourism industry,” Adamo said. “Hotels in and around the city sell out months in advance. One of the great things about Brown’s Commencement is that it makes Memorial Day weekend virtually weatherproof. Most destinations see high occupancy only if the weather is good. The weather isn't a factor in Providence because we have Brown.”

Data gathered by the visitor's bureau shows hotel occupancy rates for Memorial Day weekend in Providence averaged 94% in 2022, nearly a third higher than rates in Boston, according to travel technology company Amadeus. The bureau estimates that from staying in hotels to patronizing restaurants and retail shops, overnight hotel guests generate roughly $650 in direct spending per night, a calculation that accounts for an average hotel rate, tax and estimated spending on food, beverage and parking. 

The weekend is an in-demand time for Providence-area food trucks, too, said Eric Weiner, who leads PVD Food Truck Events. He said Brown is pivotal to attracting visitors who want to experience all that Providence offers. 

“Part of what makes these graduation weekends profitable for businesses is that the people in town for Brown are also visiting the city, taking boat tours and eating in restaurants," Weiner said. "They want to walk around and experience Providence, and that's helping to support local businesses." 

To prepare for Commencement and Reunion Weekend, Brown depends on goods and services from many dozens of Rhode Island companies. Vendor needs range from stage and tent setup and audio-visual production to printing programs, catering, photography, security and shuttle service. Some local businesses — including Newport Tent Company, Allegra Printing, World Trophies, Sentinel Limousine and New England Showtime Productions — support Brown’s Commencement weekend but also work with the University throughout the year. In 2022, the University invested $218 million to contract more than 1,000 Rhode Island vendors.

For floral decorations, Brown relies on Studio 539 Flowers in Providence’s Fox Point. Owner Matthew Bellotti started working with the University more than 15 years ago, supplying one or two simple arrangements for speaker events throughout the year. In recent years, he's grown his business with Brown from delivering up to a few dozen orders during the event-packed spring semester, an increase he attributes to word of mouth among different offices and departments on Brown’s campus. In April, he produced arrangements to support more than 15 events on campus. In preparation for Commencement, he has hired several additional freelance floral designers to meet Brown's demand for flowers — a surge in business he compares to other busy floral holidays. 

"In this business, our biggest days are usually holidays like Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, and Brown, for us, has become a third holiday," Bellotti said. "Memorial Day weekend is just as busy as a major holiday because of the massive influx of people for Brown's graduation and all of its associated festivities."

April and May are the two busiest months for chef Mark Garofalo's catering company, Fire Works Catering. Garofalo specifically blocks Memorial Day weekend from his calendar to ensure he can service only Brown — the University is one of his most economically generative clients, and Commencement orders make up roughly 10% of his total sales with the school for the year. He's conducted business with Brown for 20 years, starting with luncheon platters and, over time, expanding to full-service events, including cocktail parties and cookouts.

Rhode Island institutions like Brown, Garofalo said, play a significant role in the state's economic well-being. 

"Brown, along with other colleges and universities, hospitals, arts organizations, and state and local government are the largest employers, land owners, influencers and have some of the largest economic impacts on Providence," Garofalo said. "They are important for our success as a business because their existence and roles impact almost every aspect of life in the capital city, and we are a part of that city."

Monica Hopton, owner of the Christopher Dodge House, a bed and breakfast located in the Smith Hill neighborhood of Providence, said she sells out nearly every weekend during the summer. Still, she appreciates when Brown families frequent the B&B because they book longer stays than the average weekend traveler. 

"Parents want to come into the city earlier and then also plan to stay longer to help their child move off campus," Hopton said. "Brown is big for us because it is guaranteed that families are committed to staying that extra day and often, more than that, too. And the parents are so happy, and it's an exciting time for everyone. It's really a welcomed weekend for all of us."