Each year, the natural beauty of North Carolina’s Outer Banks attracts more than a million visitors. The tourism industry is by far the region’s largest employer, with an annual economic impact of well over a billion dollars. As 2020 began, Twiddy & Company, the area’s leading property management and vacation rental firm, was looking forward to another successful year.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Clark Twiddy, the company’s president, was a student in the Executive MBA program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business when the virus began spreading rapidly throughout the U.S. in spring 2020. Twiddy made the difficult decision to take a leave of absence from the program to focus on steering his family business, which employs a full-time staff of more than 125 people, through a time of uncertainty.
Kelly Hewett, associate professor of marketing at Haslam, from whom Twiddy had taken a class, reached out to ask how the college could help. The company needed assistance with figuring out which of its features would be likely to generate revenue, how to influence clients’ decisions to create an account with the firm and how to improve the overall customer experience.
Hewett enlisted the aid of the students in her Marketing Insights (MKT 538) class. An elective for full-time MBA candidates, it regularly attracts students from disciplines ranging from business analytics to engineering. Hewett partners with firms when teaching the class, but in the case of Twiddy & Company, she saw a unique opportunity for her students to assist a business in need.
“In addition to a fantastic learning experience for the students, the company was set to gain a lot from the collaboration,” she said. “There would be implications for communications, customer service, pricing, promotions and even potentially website design.”
After each student signed necessary legal documents, the firm provided the class with access to data pertaining to customer web searches, transactions and surveys, as well as client-company interaction data such as phone calls and text messages.
Haslam MBA candidate Elizabeth Shaver said this broad access gave the class the opportunity to explore and interpret the data from multiple angles.
“The scope and openness of the data allowed us to be creative with the business problems we wanted to solve and customer habits we wanted to discover,” she said. “Being able to read data and tell its story is a vital skill for the modern marketer.”
Ashley Chen, a master’s candidate in industrial engineering who took the class to explore career opportunities in marketing, said she felt fulfilled to know that her coursework could have practical implications for a real company.
“During this time of crisis, I've noticed so much giving from the university and from my community,” Chen said. “Through this class, I was able to give back to a family-owned business so they can keep their business afloat.”
Twiddy, who made a donation to the Haslam Family Scholars Program in honor of the class, feels a deep appreciation for the students’ work.
“The ability to look at both challenges and opportunities through a new lens and with new approaches to data was a critical differentiator for us,” Twiddy said. “The Haslam team has helped us glean insights that transcended simply data to become something altogether human — confidence. When the future was so uncertain, I can’t tell you how much that mattered to us.”
Stacy Estep, writer/publicist, firstname.lastname@example.org