Writer: Felipe Rivas
2 min read June 2021 — Thinking outside the box, the University of Tampa’s Executive MBA program, faculty and students found a way to exercise a normal part of the curriculum that became difficult due to the pandemic: traveling to gain consulting experience. With the usual international destinations out of the question, the school’s Sykes College of Business turned to the domestic market – and the wine industry.
The Sykes College of Business program was one of the few nationwide that was able to maintain the travel experience during the pandemic landscape, Director of Graduate Business Programs Amy Harris told Invest:. Balancing safety and academic applicability was challenging, especially with borders worldwide shut down as a result of COVID-19. After careful consideration, this year’s Executive MBA cohort traveled to Sonoma County, California, to consult with wineries and a cork company in all business aspects, from marketing and packaging to developing growth strategies.
“We normally travel internationally, like most Executive MBA programs, but this year, instead of going virtual for the international ‘experience,’ like most programs did, we tried to figure out a way that our students could have the travel and consulting project experience and still stay safe,” Harris said. The travel experience for the college’s Executive MBA program aligns a location with consulting projects that “allow students to actively apply what they have learned in the program to address client needs,” Harris said. With border closures rampant worldwide, Harris and faculty looked to the beautiful, open landscapes of Sonoma County and its wine industry to put program lessons into practice despite the ongoing pandemic.
“The fact that we traveled – internationally or domestically – was quite unique,” Harris said. “Getting support entailed identifying a location that was not in a high-risk COVID area where we could work on projects with most of the meetings in an outdoor setting.”
To get things done, Sykes College of Business consulted with Prague-based International Study Programs, the company that Harris works with to identify travel projects. Out of 46 programs that International Study Programs worked with this year, the Sykes College of Business Executive MBA was the only one to retain the traveling experience. The other schools opted for virtual projects or otherwise were not able to travel during the spring semester.
The experience took place from January to May, with students working in teams to partner with two small wineries and a growing wine-packaging business in Sonoma County. The projects required students to analyze the industry environment, evaluate the company’s position and make recommendations on how to address current issues as well as maximize opportunities for growth, Harris said.
“Students worked in teams and completely immersed themselves in learning about a new industry and how to help a company competitively position itself to successfully compete in the future. In this case, the future was today as COVID was creating pressures to rapidly pivot and change business models from a face-to-face business to one that had a vibrant online presence to maintain current customers and develop new business. This was not a theoretical academic exercise; this was about rapid adaptation to survive. The outcomes were real and it made the case that so was their learning.”
As with its students, the experience allowed faculty and staff to adapt, leverage technology further and embrace the uncertainties of constantly changing socioeconomic conditions. “Initially, we worried that this was a second-best option for the students but it quickly evolved into a fantastic learning experience that surpassed all of our expectations,” Harris said. “It was a good opportunity for us to experiment in using technology to deliver client projects that we might not have developed had COVID not forced us to innovate. The lesson was that while we already had a solid travel/consulting experience, change is inevitable and you need to be proactive about embracing it.”
Under typical conditions, the Sykes College of Business Executive MBA program is very much an in-person experience but COVID demonstrated that technology can enhance the learning experience. “Technology can create new ways of teaching and learning and we need to keep exploring and incorporating innovation in our program delivery,” Harris said.
As the pandemic wanes in the United States, the college is also looking forward to being back in the classroom, while keeping an eye on the future. “We are looking forward to having everyone back in the classroom. Our typical Executive MBA student has chosen our program for the high-touch application-based experience. We are planning an international trip for the cohort next year. But we will not forget the lessons we learned this year, namely to be creative in the use of technology to continue to improve that experience as well as the collaboration and engagement process throughout the program,” she said.
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