A year ago VBT challenged MiddCORE students to identify a new product or service that VBT should introduce. Students pitched everything from kayaking tours in the Gulf of California to a Facebook app that connected past trip participants to Nordic ski tours in Quebec City and Scandinavia. This week VBT is the first major travel company to launch Nordic Ski tours.
Below you can learn a bit more about the project and hear what VBT CEO Gregg Marston, Middlebury Alumnus and Nordic Trip Designer Garrott Kuzzy ’06, as well as MiddCORE Alumnus Astrid Schanz Garbassi ’12 had to say about the experience!Background:
VBT is a tour company that offers trips for the active traveler. Led by Gregg Martson, who took over in 2005, the company has expanded to include 37 biking and walking tours in 26 countries. After seeing such solid growth, he decided he would like to see what new product or service VBT could develop. The Challenge:
Students had to describe a new service or product that VBT should introduce. Ideally, it would address the lull during the November to April period, increase revenue, improve regularity of work for guides, and set VBT apart from competitors. The service they introduced had to fit with the core operating philosophy of the business, be consistent with the business model, and help deal with the strategic issues that Gregg revealed. The Result:
The students completed field research and did a competitive analysis on the market. At the end of the week, students presented their findings to Gregg, outlining new services they believed VBT should introduce. Students pitched everything from kayaking tours in the Gulf of California to a Facebook app that connected past trip participants to Nordic ski tours in Quebec City and Scandinavia.
What perspective did 16 liberal arts students bring to this VBT challenge?
The MiddCORE students provided an intellectual energy and ambition and an uninhibited, unconstrained, non-technical approach to tackling the VBT challenge I presented. The results produced some excellent and creative ideas; one of which (cross country skiing) we were able to execute for the business immediately, which, I am gratified to say, has since moved the business in a positive direction.
What was the MiddCORE experience like for you as a mentor and business owner?
As a mentor, this MiddCORE experience inspired me. In working with these smart, enthusiastic students, it really challenged me and reminded me to think out of the box and to accept this new and youthful thinking as downright legitimate.
As a business owner, this experience forced me to look at our business even more strategically and at a higher altitude. Also, in doing so, it made me really proud of what we’ve accomplished and reinforced the significant importance of bringing new ideas into the discussion.
What role does intrapreneurship* play in your company?
VBT certainly encourages and embraces the concept that it is every associate’s responsibility to be leaders within the organization. This experience at MiddCORE has demonstrated that we, as a company, should tie this leadership expectation/requirement closer to entrepreneurship. We all win. Everyone has solutions.
*Intrapreneurs develop a new initiative or product within a company
Garrott Kuzzy ’06
VBT Nordic Trip Designer
As an intrapreneur at VBT, what has it been like to launch a new product within a company?
The new ski vacations have been a natural addition to VBT’s time-tested formula for excellence in bicycling and walking vacations. It’s been a lot of fun to connect with all of the departments within VBT: building the tours with the Product Team, promoting the tours with the Marketing Team and launching them with the Operations Team. Everyone within the organization has had a part in developing the ski vacations and their enthusiasm and expertise has made it happen. I’ve learned a lot in the process and can’t imagine launching these tours without everyone at VBT pushing to get this big snowball rolling.
What role did your Middlebury experience play when you designed the trips?
I never would have expected my three majors in college: Geography, German, and (ahem) Skiing, to fall into place like they have building the new ski vacations. The hard working atmosphere at Middlebury has really set the tone for my work habits beyond college.
Astrid Schanz-Garbassi ’12
How was working with Gregg as a mentor?
Unbeatable. From the beginning, Gregg set the tone for the challenge with two crucial moves:
1. He was completely open about his business. He shared detailed financial projections and outlined the strengths and weaknesses of VBT. This full disclosure empowered us, the students, to fully understand the problem we were being asked to solve.
2.Gregg continuously expressed confidence in us. He treated us – and our ideas – with respect, which gave us confidence that we could really add value to his company. It was like being handed a set of car keys for the first time – no longer passengers along for an educational ride, we were really taking ownership of the experience.
What was your biggest take-away from the challenge?
To fight first-idea inertia! One of our mentors warned us early on that it is easy to get attached to one’s “first idea.” But that idea is rarely the best one you’ve got in you. It’s the low-hanging fruit of ideas. Pushing beyond that first idea and challenging yourself to explore your imagination, the really dusty and dark parts, helps to find ideas that are thoughtful and explored. Watching Gregg listen with interest and attention to all of their ideas gave students an amazing sense of empowerment and agency in this real-world challenge. They were delighted that one of their ideas was actually on par with what experts at VBT were developing… One year later, we are so excited to report that VBT is the first major active travel company to offer Nordic Ski trips!