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Marketing students help Tampa International Airport with website launch

Students working on a tablet

Marketing senior Ashlee Heirman put off taking the required marketing research course until her last semester, thinking it would be boring. But a semester-long project with Tampa International Airport changed her mind about marketing research -- even to the point where she is now interested in a career in the field.

"We got a glimpse into how the airport runs things, and it being such a prestigious airport, it was a great example for us," she said.

Two sections of Assistant Professor Rob Hooker's market research class spent several weeks working with Tampa International Airport on the launch of its new website. Students surveyed airport customers to gain insight into usability and design characteristics -- of both the existing website and the one in development -- using laptops, mobile devices, and tablets. The students also participated in running focus groups at an offsite location. At the end of the semester, students pulled together their findings and strategic recommendations for a report and presentation to airport management.

"A lot of faculty here at the Muma College of Business work on real-world projects with their students, but the fact that this had such a positive impact on Tampa International and the Tampa brand, I thought it was such a great win for all involved," Hooker said. "The students loved the hands-on aspect of it and being able to work with an organization on a real-world project that had real impact on the area."

"I think it was a great idea to not only have a lecture, but to have this interaction with the subjects that we were learning about in class," student Paola Arenas said. "Marketing research, I thought it would be a boring class -- all this reading and analyzing data. But through this project, we made it very fun."

Professor Hooker and students working with Strickland

Hooker said he was thrilled when airport management was impressed with the students' work. Kenneth Strickland, the airport's manager of research and evaluations, originally reached out to the Muma College of Business to create a collaboration that could help students gain a sense of what market research actually looks like.

"The whole time, it was important to me that this be a learning tool for the students," Strickland said. "But the benefits of this were certainly two-way. We made substantial changes to our website as a result of the students' observations."

Hooker noted that Strickland was committed to the students' success, getting to the airport at 7 a.m. to help them with surveys, and hosting a dinner for the top students in the class. Hooker said he hopes to continue collaborating with the airport in the future based on the overwhelmingly positive experience of his students this semester.

"My reward comes from the students' reward, when they're able to take away from it more than book learning, more than theory," he said.

For student Jonathan Jean, that was certainly the case.

"I got a taste of what the future would hold being in such a position and what it requires of us. It was an opportunity to see how hard work paid off," Jean said. "I was surprised at how welcoming the airport executives were. They didn't treat us as students, but as workers. I felt like I was a part of the airport experience."