ITHACA, N.Y. -- It is true that ivy shrouds the handsome old walls of Cornell University. That the city of Ithaca is tucked among rolling hills and plunging gorges of western central New York state. That the Finger Lakes ripple nearby. And that in a former school building in downtown Ithaca, the Moosewood Restaurant offers up its hallowed vegetables. For these reasons, many people visit.
Not me. I came to make trouble for the staff of the Statler Hotel.
The Statler is a 150-room hotel on the Cornell campus. It is run by students of Cornell's School of Hotel Administration, long known as the foremost program of its kind in the country.
In years to come, these students will join the leaders of the lodging industry, managing major properties, settling celebrities into $300-a-night rooms, setting fire to desserts, networking with fellow members of Cornell Society of Hotelmen (whose president last year was a woman), and arching eyebrows when travelers like me arrive in their lobbies in tennis shoes and a blazer that needs pressing. But for now, Cornell's hoteliers are still pups, and checking into the Ithaca Statler is something like taking a seat in a barber's college.
Now, imagine -- a writer traveling undercover who arrives on the day after the busiest weekend of the year, makes repeated, assorted and ambiguous requests and takes notes as he goes. Wouldn't such a guest give a few young hoteliers a chance to show grace (or a lack of it) under pressure?
In the middle of the grassy campus stands the Statler Hotel, rectangular and generic, its interior arranged in the Hyatt/Marriott/Hilton/Sheraton tradition of distinguished, inoffensive furnishings, subdued lighting and dark woods. Commemorative plates acknowledge contributions from various big names in the hotel business, many of them connected with the building's opening in 1989. The adjoining executive education center is named for Marriott, the library for Stouffer, the cocktail lounge for Regent (now known as Four Seasons Regent), the fancy restaurant, Banfi's, for a prominent winemaking family.
The hotel is not, unfortunately, as cheap as a barber's college haircut. The Statler, the costliest hotel in town, sets its rates at $140-$155 for double rooms and disdains discounting for weekend and leisure travelers. (Cornell employees and groups do get reduced rates.)
My troublemaking had begun modestly, with an evening call to make a reservation using a relatively obscure discount card: Impulse, which promised 50 percent on nights of low demand. Sure enough, the student reservationists on that shift were neither briefed on the discount nor empowered to offer it. My reservationist suggested I call back during their business hours.
This, I thought, is going to be interesting.
But a reservationist on the day shift was, in fact, able to help me, and my wife and I were soon booked in a room for $77.50 a night, and ready to bring our spying campaign onto the premises.
Timing is everything
We thought timing would be important. Graduation ceremonies had been held May 27-28, probably the most demanding days of the year for the Statler. We rolled up on May 29 at about 1 p.m. -- two hours before the hotel's specified check-in time. Then we called for a valet to park our car, a bellman to take our bags and a clerk to find us a room immediately.
So they did. The front desk sent us to a fine room (on the seventh floor, with a broad view of Sage Chapel, the McGraw Tower atop Uris Library, and the green hills of Ithaca beyond), and a bellman was soon hanging up our coats (without being asked; very nice) and telling us which restaurants were open.
The restaurants are among the Statler's appealing eccentricities a teaching hotel: Along with Banfi's there is the Statler's 200-seat Terrace Cafe and Bistro, where a weekday diner may find the cuisine and atmosphere Arabian, Israeli, Mexican or Thai, depending upon the student-devised theme of the day. Serving four nights a week, the cafe offers more than 40 different themes and cuisines in the course of a 13-week semester.
Unfortunately, if you arrive on the day after graduation, that restaurant is closed. So we headed downstairs to Banfi's to grab a late lunch and perhaps catch the staff napping. And we did.
The place was almost empty, yet several minutes passed before host spotted us and led us to a table. But the waiter smoothed things over, expertly explained the menu, and promptly brought us a tasty sandwich, mini-pizza and chocolate raspberry cheesecake. He wasn't even a hospitality industry student, it turned out, just an undergraduate who needed a summer job.
Working through school
Among the Statler work force, about 75 are full-time professionals and about 200 are students, identifiable by the name tags that also give their anticipated year of graduation: Chris, '97; Tom, '96. (Hotel-school students are required to put in 800 hours of work in the industry before graduation.) Later, we set to inspecting our quarters, beginning with the bathroom. There was no phone in there (subtract one point), but there was a remote television speaker, so that we could keep up with
Bosnia and DNA testimony while showering (add one point). The rest of the room had the same prosperous, vaguely corporate feel as the lobby. The window opened, the bulbs turned on, the drawers slid.
Cornell's hotel school, founded in 1922, was inspired by the Swiss institutions that for generations have produced top European hoteliers. Cornell's program was the first of its kind in the United States. These days, it counts more than 50 faculty members, and about 800 undergraduate and graduate students whose schedules are built around classes such as Organizational Behavior and Interpersonal Skills, Casino Management, Business and Hospitality Law, and Wine in Culture and History.
But Cornell's on-campus hotel has not always been so nice.
Before 1989, the campus hotel was known as the Statler Inn, and had fewer than 60 rooms in far less impressive facilities -- "an embarrassment," in the words of one graduate. And even in its new quarters, the hotel faltered at first, attempting to deliver five-star service and setting prices so high that a state employee on business trips couldn't afford to stay there.
In 1991, the hotel brought in a new general manager and decided to aim for four-star service instead of five. (The Mobil Travel Guide currently gives it three stars.) Now, it is reported, the hotel turns a profit.
The school, meanwhile, no longer has the field to itself. Scores of U.S. colleges now offer four-year degrees in one aspect or another of hospitality-industry management.
Later that night, I hung out a breakfast order that called for either one continental breakfast or two, depending on how the kitchen staff read it. When a waiter arrived in the morning (exactly on time), I sensed victory: He had brought one continental breakfast instead of two. I pointed to the order and explained that we had had two breakfasts in mind.
The waiter looked as if he had been struck by a nun with a ruler. He apologized for the misunderstanding and backpedaled rapidly out of the room.
A few moments later he was back with another breakfast -- and assurances that we wouldn't be charged for it. In the trade, I learned later, this is known as "service recovery."
In my book, it was clearly a sign to throw in the towel (rather than steal it) and acknowledge my failure as a troublemaker. Two hours later, we checked out.
If you go . . .
* Where to stay: The Statler Hotel, 11 East Ave., Ithaca, N.Y. 14853; telephone (800) 541-2501 or (607) 257-2500. Double rooms with a view: $140-$155.
LTC * Where to eat: At the Statler, there's Banfi's, with continental cuisine (dinner entrees $10-$18), and the Terrace Cafe and Bistro, which offers an ever-changing dinner menu during the academic year, and cuts back to breakfasts and lunches in summer. In town, Moosewood Restaurant (215 N. Cayuga St.; local telephone 273-9610, serves vegetarian fare in creative combinations (dinner entrees $9.50-$11; no reservations taken).
* For information: Tompkins County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 904 E. Shore Drive, Ithaca, N.Y. 14850; telephone (800) 28-ITHACA or (607) 272-1313.