The students in Bruce Macdonald’s advertising and marketing class, “Art in Business,” had just gotten back from a field trip to Kroger.
The Washington and Lee students spent the next hour analyzing their experience in the local grocery store, dis-cussing everything from the ease of finding common products to the smell of baked goods that did, or didn’t, greet them at the door.
But on this day last fall the students had more to worry about than groceries — 45 percent of their grade would depend on a marketing plan they would develop for their neighbor to the south, The Natural Bridge of Virginia.
Macdonald, an adjunct professor, said his students were surprised to find out that their class project would be the nearby attraction. And Craig Corwin, the Bridge’s associate director of marketing, said he was thrilled to work with the class.
The students followed a process that Macdonald said is identical to the way a modern ad agency approaches the advertising and design problems for a new client. Macdonald would know; he has 40 years of marketing experience. Prior to coming to Washington and Lee he worked for a major ad agency in New York City before starting his own firm.
Macdonald has been teaching the class for eight years, helping his students create marketing plans for local businesses such as Pumpkinseeds, CornerStone Bank and Rockbridge Vineyard.
The students’ task last semester wasn’t easy, he said, because of the complexity of the attraction. It includes the Bridge itself, a large hotel, dining room, cafe, Monocan Indian Village, caverns and Monster Museum.
To help them craft a meaningful marketing proposal, the students were given season passes and a tour of the grounds by the executives from Cape Leisure, the marketing company that currently represents Natural Bridge. The executives, Corwin, and Thomas Olson, the director of marketing, shared their insights into the unique challenge of marketing the Bridge.
The 23 students split into four groups for the project. They would be competing against one another for the best grade — only one “A” would be doled out for the semester. The groups went out on their own, conducting original research at the Bridge, and even its competition — in this case other nearby tourist attractions such as Monticello, The Greenbrier and Montpelier. Macdonald said they looked into the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various attractions. Students also studied the age, socio-economic bracket, gender and spending habits of their target audience.
The students identified a number of selling points unique to Natural Bridge. Among them, that the site was special insofar as it offered natural beauty combined with a sense of history.
When they completed their research, the groups set out to create a marketing strategy, answering questions such as how to reach their audience and through what kind of media.
When all was said and done, each team gave a 20-minute presentation to the class and the two marketing executives. Macdonald said that giving a presentation in front of a group was an important component of the learning experience.
The class displayed mockups of print ads and billboards touting special events such as fireworks displays, holiday activities and alumni weekend promotions. The students were especially adamant about increasing the Bridge’s marketing efforts to students and parents from W&L, Virginia Military Institute and Southern Virginia University.
Macdonald said that, among the more pragmatic ideas that came from the students, were to improve the Bridge’s Web site, modernize the gift shop, and add excitement to the Indian village.
Corwin and Olson were pleased by the results. The marketing executives told the students last fall they were planning to address many of the points made by students, and were taking note of the many fresh ideas presented.
Macdonald noted recently that Natural Bridge of Virginia has already implemented some of the students’ ideas, and with the oncoming spring tourist season, more will be seen.
— Reprinted by permission from the Lexington News Gazette