COVID-19 impact on tourism with cancellation of Purdue Commencement

Commencement brings thousands of people to Tippecanoe County, and millions of dollars to the local tourism industry. With no commencement due to COVID-19, that is having an impact on those businesses.

Posted: May 4, 2020 7:50 PM
Updated: May 5, 2020 10:12 AM

TIPPECANOE COUNTY, Ind. (WLFI) - Local tourism businesses are taking a big hit right now due to the coronavirus. Especially without Purdue's Commencement festivities, which is now happening virtually on May 15th.

"We're a new business and a small business," said Elizabeth Whittaker. She and her husband wanted to create a special get-away in West Lafayette, so they opened The Whittaker Inn.

"Each room takes you to a different place around the globe," she said. "We like to say you can travel around the globe at The Whittaker without a passport."

Each continent is represented in their 15 room inn, which sits on 25 beautiful acres of land. Each room has a little flag next to the door so you know if you are staying in Italy, Japan or Australia.

The Whittaker Inn celebrated a special anniversary on May 2nd: one year of operation. Instead of celebrating that important milestone with a full inn and lots of people to entertain, the waiting room and dining room were silent. Furniture was moved so it could be six feet apart, and there was a bottle of hand sanitizer on the table when you walked in.

Businesses had been ramping up for them until the coronavirus put everything to a halt. Losing Purdue's commencement weekend is especially hard.

"We opened right before commencement last year and we had sold out for this year, so it was obviously a big hit," she said.

From hotels to restaurants to retail, every part of the tourism and hospitality industry is taking the same hit.

"Nobody has been left untouched by this," she said.

Jo Wade is the president of Visit Lafayette-West Lafayette. It's her team's job to help promote the area to travelers. She said they have shifted their focus to promoting the entertainment options where guests can be spread out, like golf trips and hiking.

"Tourism generates $240 million plus in Tippecanoe County in a year," said Wade.

And a weekend like commencement?

"Commencement is much like a football game, several million dollars for the weekend," she said

Data from 2018 shows that there are more than 6,000 jobs in Tippecanoe County connected to tourism and more than $142 million in wages paid to those workers. She said that money is important because it goes right back into the local economy.

Whittaker said they had no idea they would be going up against a global pandemic during their first year open, but she's confident they will bounce back from this.

"We've worked in this business our entire careers and there are always things that come up," she said. "So you are always forced to look at how you are doing things and adjust, adjust and adapt."

The Whittaker Inn is still open for business but is taking limited amounts of overnight guests to ensure social distancing. With so many vacations being canceled, Elizabeth hopes people in the community might consider coming to them for a little stay-cation.

They are also currently providing carryout dinners from their kitchen. Whittaker said they have a rotating menu featuring popular items like crab cakes and fish and chips. Click here to see their menu and call your order ahead.

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