Trio of Eastern Michigan University business students offers solutions to spurring local tourism in British Columbia during the pandemic

Group accepts distinct challenge of competing in prestigious Royal Roads University design thinking competition, earns praise for creative research and proposals

A lake and mountains in British Columbia, Canada

YPSILANTI – They showed true grit and persistence in the face of fierce international competition, an intense experience where the learning was like “drinking from a fire hose.”

That’s the summation of Eastern Michigan University lecturer Kimberly Barker of the experience three of her students in management enjoyed by participating in the 2021 Royal Roads University Design Thinking Case Competition this past semester.

“This is a growth and development story about our amazing students,” Barker said, recalling how, in late 2020, she and management professor Diana Wong were presented with an opportunity, by their department head, Joy Beatty, to participate in the 2021 competition.

Students respond to the challenge

When a call for student participants went out, Stephani Hicks, a senior arts and entertainment major from Dearborn; Paul Katokwe, an MBA student and graduate assistant from the Democratic Republic of Congo; and Taylor Williams, a senior managment major from Detroit, all quickly got on board. 

The three-part competition culminated the weekend of March 5 – 8, all 12-hour days for the students in the rigorous virtual competition.

Barker explains that Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding and empathizing for the consumer.

The research challenge the students posed to themselves was to devise new ways for the Wilderness Tourism Association in British Columbia to serve its local community, since in normal times most business is international. 

The specific question was, "How can/might the wilderness tourism association pivot seasonal wilderness tourism to local adventure grazers?”

“Our team was on the smaller side, but our ideas were not,” Barker said. “Each of us conducted primary research with people there, brainstorming and asking about personal experience, what worked and didn’t work, and then a good dose of secondary research as well.

“We asked people about staying in place. We asked people about their local experiences. We interviewed young families, senior citizens, local Canadians, young people, and those involved in the arts and community. We interviewed those both from the United States and Canada.”

The key finding: “The demand for local outdoor and wilderness activities is still present even after a year into the pandemic,” Katokwe says in a video of the group’s first-round submission.

“Being there without being there"

Hicks notes in the video that the group sought to create a virtual experience, a feeling of “being there without being there,” enabling local residents to explore their marvelous area amid the restrictions of the pandemic.

The group came up with three solutions to the problem:

• Have more locals become virtual weekend warriors, enjoying all sorts of outdoor activities and being spurred on by various rewards and incentives.

• Get more urban residents out into local social and cultural settings, using social media and other communication methods.

• Showcase the many local hidden gems in the area.

The group devised a prototype virtual passport, saying “Get ready to jet set in your own backyard.” Locals could go to one of the activities in the passport, take a picture of themselves in the area and use the hashtag #explorebritishcolumbia.

“Yes this is a difficult time for everyone, but why not make the most of this opportunity to have the staycation of your dreams?” Williams concludes in the video.

Out of the twelve universities in the competition, conducted by Royal Roads University in Victoria, BC, only two were from the U.S. – EMU and University of Delaware.

Storytelling and truly listening to the customer

The competition was intense, Barker said. Even though EMU did not place in the top three, the only winners selected, judges offered strong praise for the group’s final prototype.

  • Clear understanding of tie between higher income and ability to take trips.
  • Excited from the intro in the first few slides to see what the solution was going to be (you gave us all the right information).
  • Great job doing the testing to see feasibility of prototype.
  • Nice tie between financial fee and use of funds for marketing.
  • Philanthropic efforts going back to causes in the communities was a very good idea.
  • The amount of progress your team has made is just so impressive!

“While at times the learning was like drinking from a firehose, it was a wonderful educational experience,” Barker said. “Design thinking is a type of thinking that can be applied to many of life’s situations and experiences. It’s about empathizing with the customer. It’s about storytelling and truly listening.

“Diversity of ideas is the key to coming up with the best solutions. This is a lesson that we all can benefit from!”

The group’s first-round submission can be viewed in this video.

The group’s third-round submission can be viewed in this video.

About Eastern Michigan University

Founded in 1849, Eastern is the second oldest public university in Michigan. It currently serves more than 16,000 students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, specialist, doctoral and certificate degrees in the arts, sciences and professions. In all, more than 300 majors, minors and concentrations are delivered through the University's Colleges of Arts and Sciences; Business; Education; Engineering and Technology; Health and Human Services; and, its graduate school. EMU is regularly recognized by national publications for its excellence, diversity, and commitment to applied education. For more information about Eastern Michigan University, visit the University's website.

May 05, 2021

Written by:
Geoff Larcom

Media Contact:
Morgan Mark