ITHACA — 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.
The crucial difference, however, is that at a barber college, you are at the students' mercy, perhaps with a razor to your throat; whereas, at a "teaching hotel" (as Cornell faculty refer to the Statler) it's the students who are at guests' mercy.
Now, imagine the hotel guest from hell--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? And might not such a guest gain a glimpse at what travelers can expect from this nation's next generation of hoteliers? After all, hotel school dean David A. Dittman has said that one of the best things the campus hotel can do for aspiring managers is hone their people skills in face-to-face dealings with co-workers and guests in challenging circumstances.
About now, my wife, Mary Frances, who possesses no mean bones in her body, would step in to stress that there were other factors in favor of this expedition (visiting our good friends Chuck and Kim, who live just outside Ithaca, being JUST one). But the bottom line is that I saw a chance to be cruel, and I took it.
Ithaca lies in the middle of the Finger Lakes region and is reachable by commuter plane, but we wanted to see the countryside, so we rented a car at New York's Kennedy airport and drove in, a six-hour exercise punctuated first by multiple expressway exits, then by cow sightings, barn admiration and diner food.
Eventually, Ithaca was in view, a place generally given over to studying, hiking, fishing, boating, antiquing and wine-tasting (there are nearly 50 wineries in the region). Also, umbrella opening. There's snow in winter and plenty of rain all year, thus explaining the bumper stickers announcing the "Ithaca Rain Festival, Jan. 1-Dec. 31."
The city's population is about 30,000--which means that Cornell, a part-public, part-private university with undergraduate and graduate enrollment of about 19,000 and a 745-acre campus, dominates the place.
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 nightly for double rooms and disdains discounting for weekend and leisure travelers. (Cornell employees and groups do get special rates.)
My troublemaking had begun modestly, with an evening call to make a reservation using a relatively obscure discount card: Impulse, which promised 50% 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 view room for $77.50 a night, and ready to bring our spying campaign onto the premises.