Last week, Castleton State College Professor Liz Soroka’s Principles of Marketing class gave a presentation at the Rutland Free Library. Over 90 minutes, five groups presented a variety of business and marketing ideas targeted at college students based on research and surveys the class had conducted over the course of the semester.
The students were excited, enthusiastic and engaged as they shared their ideas with around 25 downtown merchants, community leaders and legislators. The presentation was the culmination of a conversation began earlier this year, which centered on the question of how Rutland can effectively and genuinely engage college students and young professionals in the area.
Let me give you some back-story.
In May, I attended a meeting hosted by Sustainable Rutland (which I co-chair), and discussed the above question. Gathered in the room were the usual suspects – local cultural and economic development organizations like the RRA, DRP and Creative Economy – as well as representatives from area colleges (Castleton, Green Mountain, St. Joe’s and CCV).
At first blush, getting college students to come downtown doesn’t sound like a sustainability project. In Rutland, however, we have chosen to define the term more broadly. We look at projects and initiatives that make the community more economically, culturally, and environmentally sustainable.
We wrestled with some big questions at that initial meeting – questions the rest of Vermont is currently asking itself: How do we get young people involved, and how do we get them to stick around and start their careers here?
To be sure, the career question transcends young people. Creating competitive, well-paying jobs is a matter that has dogged Vermont businesses for some time. The focus on young people, however, brings with it the task of creating more than a job; it’s creating an environment where they want to be – economically and culturally.
To this end, early in the discussion that night someone paradoxically suggested that people want to be where people are – a play on the observation that, given the choice between a busy restaurant and a slow one, a person is more likely to choose the busy one.
In this analogy, Rutland, as it relates to college students and young professionals (the 20- and 30-somethings), is the slow restaurant – the one with the so-so food and the solitary lawyer sitting in the back booth, sipping Manhattans while he reads the “Daily News.”
Our conversation then turned to figuring out how we could authentically bring youthful appeal to Rutland. It’s not like we were starting form scratch. Over the past few years, a lot of work has been done to improve the downtown and overall Rutland experience: Friday Night Live, a bar and restaurant renaissance, new coffee shops, a bustling and eclectic farmers’ market, Spartan Arena, Pine Hill Park. Still, we have yet to reach that critical mass.
The word “authentic” was stressed. The solution required doing more than implementing the rote “if you build it, they will come” strategy practiced by some segments of the cultural and economic development community. We needed to hear from the young people, the college students. While I managed to rally a few 20-somethings to this initial meeting, we knew it was necessary to get input from a larger sampling. Thus, we turned to the colleges.
Prof. Soroka eagerly offered to get involved. A member of the DRP’s marketing committee and a volunteer for Sustainable Rutland, she understood how necessary it was to engage young people.
We decided that adding a classroom component was beneficial for several reasons. First, if we could find a way to build students’ awareness of Rutland into curriculum, they’d pretty much have to pay attention – come into town, look around, see what’s going on. Secondly, charging them with actually contemplating the economic and cultural realities of Rutland gives them an understanding of the real world strengths and weaknesses of their ideas. Lastly, the presentation itself demonstrated to students that the city is indeed interested in what they have to say and what they want in a downtown experience – we are listening.
So back to the present day.
Soroka’s class spent this past semester gathering and analyzing demographic and psychographic data. They also read “Purple Cow” by Seth Godin, which describes how marketing a product today requires standout strategies and outside-the-box-thinking – making your products “remarkable.”
The class – comprised of mostly Vermont residents, ranging in age from 18-23 (a demographic often overlooked in Rutland) – developed five concepts, which they ultimately presented to the Rutland community. Here’s a brief summary of what they came up with:
1) A student perk card program. This idea grew directly out of Sustainable Rutland’s summit last May when it was suggested that Rutland businesses offer discounts to college students when they present their college IDs. The presentation proposed ways to roll out the plan via on campus and in-store advertising as well as social media platforms like Facebook.
2) A BBQ restaurant. While there are some limited BBQ options in the area, the concept of the restaurant was creative. The students presented it as more than just a restaurant; it had a strong commitment to the community built into its business plan – hosting charity events, customer contests and sourcing much of the menu locally.
3) Pine Hill Arena. This plan builds on the growing reputation of Rutland’s Pine Hill Park as a popular recreation destination by adding an entertainment component. As the Rec. Department hammers out its plans for a new facility at Giorgetti, the idea of an outdoor performance space located nearby would dovetail nicely with their vision.
4) Vegas Nites nightclub. In interviews and the class’ online survey on Facebook, students expressed a strong desire for underage nightlife and more entertainment opportunities. This plan aims to provide both with an 18-plus nightclub featuring dance music and ample space for dancing and socializing. Currently, the city prohibits anyone under the age of 21 from entering a bar or nightclub; however, with a responsible plan, it’s possible that city government plan might budge on this.
5)Novel Bakes, used bookstore and café. This plan was presented as a fairly fleshed out concept – a used bookstore housed in a solar-powered, LEED-certified green building that sells local food (some of which would be grown in a rooftop garden). The business would also offer a community gathering space for meetings, performances, etc.
Some definite themes emerged: local, green, later hours, more entertainment and community gathering spaces.
Soroka says she was pleased with the evening.
“As a teacher, I always want to find ways to make my students passionate about the subject,” she said. “This exercise gave them the opportunity to be creative, present a plan, and actually be heard.”
Reinforcing the lesson of “Purple Cow,” Soroka notes that marketing today can’t be separate from the product.
“Products and services go hand-in-hand with marketing.”
Her students made an effort to apply this principle throughout the presentation with their near-universal applications of social media, attention to customer service and awareness of brand identity.
From the city’s point of view, the presentation was viewed as exceedingly helpful.
“The common theme heard in all the presentations was that CSC students did feel like downtown Rutland was ‘their’ downtown,” said Mike Coppinger, executive director of the DRP. “I feel we must find a way to develop this further and make Downtown Rutland more attractive for college students to frequent.”
Indeed, the students did show an interest in DTR. While some may sooner acknowledge the city’s shortcomings, the fact remains that this is “their” downtown. Rutland is the urban center (to use the term loosely) of the county.
While we may not currently have every amenity a college student or other 20-somethings may desire, last week’s presentation proved that Rutland is interested in doing more to make students feel like they are part of the community.
Coppinger echoes this sentiment, stating, “We have seen in many other cities in Vermont and across the county how an influx of collage students can revitalize downtowns. I hope this presentation could be the start of that concept.”