University of Arizona 147th Commencement to Bring Thousands to Tucson

Photo by Bill Morrow, Flickr

In the next month, roughly 6,000 undergrads, 200 Ph.D. students, 900 master degree students, will graduate among 29 individual ceremonies in Tucson.

With these thousands of soon-to-be graduates comes masses of family and friends coming to Tucson over the course of one short weekend next month for spring commencement ceremonies at the University of Arizona.

Local businesses, hotels, and property owners also prepare for one last busy weekend of business before the long, slow summer months.

Last May, 18,000 people attended the 2012 University of Arizona spring commencement ceremony.  “We had to turn away tons of people,” said Mary Venezia, assistant director of strategic initiatives at the University of Arizona.

Venezia works along with a committee on the yearlong process of planning a graduation for thousands of students and families.

Plans for this year’s commencement took a big turn when the planning committee changed the school’s usual venue from the McKale Center to Arizona Stadium.

With a bigger venue comes bigger expenses.  “We have a lot of first time costs this year, like paying someone to build a stage,” said Venezia about the customized stage needed for the ceremony held in the stadium for the first time since 1972.


Extra expenses like renting flooring for the stadium’s new and unfinished field adds another cost to the long list of expenses this year.

She explained that the commencement budget is allocated depending on the school’s available resources, and this year’s anticipated crowd is no match for the McKale Center.

Venezia recalled last year’s series of graduation events at the U of A as somewhat underprepared.  More than 10,000 seats in the McKale Center filled before the ceremony, leaving the rest of the crowd to fill in over-flow rooms throughout campus with projector screens showing their graduate walk across stage.

“We had one family all the way here from Brazil, and we had to turn them away.  They didn’t get to see the graduation,” said Venezia.

Next month Tucson should expect to see more than last spring’s 18,000 visitors for the University of Arizona’s 147th commencement ceremony, said Venezia.  To understand the magnitude of this year’s commencement, nearly 6,000 undergrads are anticipated to graduate compared to last year’s 4,206 undergrads.

That’s nearly 2,000 more families and friends to include.

Just 50 volunteers worked to set up graduation and facilitate the day’s events, but this year, Venezia says, 200 volunteers are signed up to keep up with the thousands of visitors and ensure events run smoothly.

So, where do all of these visitors stay?

In any one of Tucson’s expansive selection of hotels.  That is, if you’ve booked one a year out in advance.

“We tell most people if you want a room, you need to book a year ahead,” said Mark Letcher, a manager at Tucson Marriot University Park.

Letcher added that it is usually University events like parents weekend and football games that tend to fill the hotel.  But nothing, he says, is comparable to the crowd that comes in May.

“We have to move people to waiting lists, there’s rarely any cancellations,” said Letcher.  Good for the Marriott, bad for last minute travelers.

Letcher says graduation weekend is the last time the hotel fills before business dies down for the summer months.

If you missed your chance at booking a hotel room near campus, think bigger.  How does a private home sound?

For many families traveling to Tucson for such a momentous occasion, rental properties are not out of the question.

“It just makes sense for my family, there’s so many of us … a hotel wouldn’t have worked for my family,” said Katherine Gelson, a senior at the University of Arizona set to graduate this May.

Gelson’s family is among many of the east coast visitors who will travel to Tucson, and settling right into a Tucson neighborhood was first on their list.

“My dad likes the idea of having privacy, and being able to accommodate so many people coming to visit.  We didn’t have a hard time finding a place … there were a lot of private homes available for weekly rentals,” Gelson said.

For nearly $1,000, rental-property owners are booking their properties during irregular weeks, thanks to the help of special occasions, like the university’s commencement.

Gelson explained other costs her family took into consideration like car rentals, catering from a local Tucson restaurant, and groceries among their top concerns.

According to the Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau, Tucson sees most of its visitors from neighboring California, Midwestern states, and east coast travelers escaping the winter doldrums.

“It’s really the last time during high season for travel in Tucson,” said Michael Varney, President and CEO of the Tucson Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Varney explained that graduation weekend in May is the last time businesses in the surrounding area will see in influx of consumers again before Labor Day weekend.

“Between graduation and move-in during August at the University, there’s a depressing factor for businesses,” he added.  Varney explained that with the extreme heat during the middle of summer, businesses struggle.

For a lot of visitors, this springtime trip to Tucson is an escape from the recent chill of winter and wet springtime weather in other parts of the country.  The month of May wakes this southwest town up for one last busy weekend before scorching temperatures settle over the desert for a tired, quiet few months.

Bill Morrow

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