York College Hospitality class helps steam train attraction track down millennials
The chug, chug, chug of the train engine builds a sense of excitement as it pulls out of the station in New Freedom, Pennsylvania.
Passengers hurry to the coaches to watch the rolling York County countryside pass by as they await the added entertainment of a Civil War battle reenactment, or a spot of tea with a beloved American Girl doll, or even a sing-along with Santa Claus.
Steam into History, York County’s historic train attraction, takes thousands of people on rides each year.
The attraction is popular with families and senior citizens, but the nonprofit organization also hopes to attract a younger generation of riders, so it recently turned to York College of Pennsylvania and brought aboard a group of Hospitality Management students to help.
Bringing textbooks to life
Associate professor Fred Becker’s Hospitality Marketing class took on the research, data analysis and creative solutions to assist Steam into History with the task of broadening its reach.
“It was a fantastic opportunity for my class to take a real-world problem and challenge and approach it from the perspective we gain in class,” Professor Becker said. “It was exciting for me, and a great opportunity to make it real and challenge our students.”
It was a new experience for senior Hospitality Management student Kiriaki “Kouli” Tsaganis.
“Unlike most projects in my other courses that use case studies out of books, this was a real company that we could research and actually speak and ask questions to in order to better understand the project,” Kouli said.
Sharon Dorn, Steam into History CEO, frequently worked with students to share a behind-the-scenes look at the train attraction. While that was beneficial for the students, it was also her favorite part of the partnership.
“I enjoyed meeting with them in the classroom, talking with them about our organization, its strengths and opportunities for improvement, and then learning about them and what they are looking for in entertainment venues,” Dorn said. “I was particularly impressed with their candor.”
That honesty was something Professor Becker feared might be difficult for his students’ business partner.
“It wasn’t an easy thing for Steam into History, to be honest,” he said. “To say, ‘Here we are, criticize us, analyze us, tell us what we ought to be doing.’ But they were really open to the process, and to me, that was really, really important. And the students recognized the importance of what they were doing.”
Learning the tough lessons
Kouli, who was tasked with demographic research – analyzing how many millennials live in the area as opposed to other age groups – said one of the class challenges was realizing the data didn’t necessarily show them what they had hoped.
“After trying to come up with ways on how to get younger people on the train, such as theme party nights, wine or beer trails and using coupon sites such as Groupon, we still saw the demographics showed there were fewer millennials than other age groups,” she said. “We came to the decision that the company should focus more on marketing in other ways to their current audience.”
It was a tough lesson, perhaps, but useful.
“This project will help in my career because I will be better able to help my company analyze the trends that markets tend to go for and read the demographics,” Kouli added.
To Professor Becker, the biggest benefit to his students was that lesson of using data to drive solutions.
“I required them to try to be somewhat data-driven and quantitative in this process,” he said. “You start with science, and then inject the art of creativity in terms of solutions. It’s what they’re expected to do in their careers, no matter what industry they’re in.”