Behind the Big Commencement Weekend

For the Washington Duke Inn, commencement is the payoff for months of preparation

When commencement weekend arrives, the staff of the Washington Duke Inn wants the award-winning facility to look its best.
When commencement weekend arrives, the staff of the Washington Duke Inn wants the award-winning facility to look its best.

When he was hired as a busser at the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club in the spring of 1989, Bobby Gorham was told by co-workers to get ready for the exhilarating challenge that is commencement weekend.

“I was told this is the busiest weekend of the year,” Gorham said. “Basically, the hotel was built for this weekend. Everything we do leads up to this.”

Fast forward and Gorham, who is now the food & beverage manager for the hotel and conference center on West Campus, is well-versed in what goes into the biggest weekend of the hotel’s year.

“You know it’s going to be very busy, you’re going to be very active, but it’s a great feeling,” Gorham said.

The Washington Duke Inn, which is owned by Duke and operated by WDI Hospitality LLC, has received the AAA Four Diamond Award for 16 consecutive years. And the weekend of commencement is the high point of the inn’s calendar.  From the time the first guests trickle in on Thursday, May 10, until after breakfast on Monday, May 14, when most check out, the Washington Duke Inn staff is in high gear, serving customers who have likely been guests many times before.

“It’s all hands on deck,” said Director of Operations for Food & Beverage Don Ball. “That weekend, many of the managers who may work in sales or non-operational positions might be rolling silverware or working a lobby shift as a greeter.”From left, Don Ball, Bobby Gorham, Carla Elliott and Daniel Lotz and the rest of the Washington Duke Inn team stays busy commencement weekend.

The high point of the weekend comes on Sunday, when Duke hosts the commencement ceremony. And most years, it falls on Mother’s Day. 

Sunday’s most beloved event at the Washington Duke Inn is the four-course Champagne Celebration honoring graduates and mothers from noon-8 p.m. in the Fairview Dining Room. Ball estimates that 800 guests will attend.

The timeline for commencement weekend prep begins in January of the previous year, when the lottery for reservations for the 271 rooms at the Washington Duke Inn and the 198 rooms at the J.B. Duke Hotel open. In March, those whose names are pulled have the chance to reserve rooms for the commencement weekend that’s still 14 months away.

Five months before graduation, the menus for the weekend are developed so, when the dining room begins taking reservations in 12 weeks before commencement, guests know what to expect.

After the commencement weekend is complete, the staff meets and pulls together notes on what worked and what didn’t, all with an eye toward improving the next weekend.

Ordering begins for items such as extra silverware, extra china, extra linens and other, less obvious, things that the Washington Duke Inn staff has found to be essential several months in advance. The hotel orders around 150 cases of water bottles that feature the hotel’s logo and a message congratulating graduates. With most guests’ plans featuring multiple events, rooms are stocked with extra hangers. And with North Carolina weather being unpredictable, around 1,000 ponchos and 750 umbrellas are at the ready.

“I remember one year when it rained, guests got back from commencement and joked that the stadium was a sea of Washington Duke umbrellas,” said Daniel Lotz, Washington Duke Inn’s director of operations in the rooms division.

In the spring of each year, attention turns to the Washington Duke Inn itself. Landscaping projects are completed and the building’s windows and awnings are washed.

“Graduation is the time of year when we want to look our absolute best,” Lotz said.

In the weeks leading up to the event, a constant stream of deliveries begins. First come the linens and tableware. Then the food begins arriving. The supply of food needed is so great that a refrigerated semi-trailer is brought in to help hold provisions such as 37 cases of champagne, 1,500 pounds of fruit, 300 pounds of beef tenderloin, 200 pounds of cheese and 720 dozen eggs.

The week before graduation, rooms are prepped. This is an involved process since, with so many returning guests coming for the weekend, many rooms are set up in accordance to guest requests the hotel keeps on file.

“Our guests become family, we want to make them feel like they’re at home,” said Housekeeping Supervisor Carla Elliott, who’s worked at the Washington Duke Inn for nearly 30 years.

Once the weekend arrives, it can become a whirlwind. But with plenty of co-workers pitching in and experience gained from past weekends providing a helpful template, it’s a manageable whirlwind.

Nearly three decades after navigating his first commencement weekend, Bobby Gorham said knowing what to expect has made the work easier. But the thrill of pulling everything off is still just as great.

“When it’s done, it’s like ‘We did this,’” Gorham said. “There are high-fives around the whole building. We’re all one big team and we work well together.”