A group of 24 students from the UNC-Greensboro Hospitality and Tourism Management Program visited Mount Airy on Tuesday to begin working on their Community Partnership Project, which is the final project of their college careers.
The Community Partnership Project is part of a class taught by Dr. Erick Byrd. The class gives students an opportunity to apply their knowledge to a real-life scenario by partnering with Mount Airy and working with a local hospitality and tourism-related business or organization.
The businesses and organizations who participated included Mount Airy Professionals of Surry, The Visitors Center, Miss Angels Heavenly Pies, the Downtown Business Association, Cross Creek Country Club, Mayberry Toy Company, Main Oak Emporium, Quality inn, and Mount Airy Parks and Recreation.
Students spent two hours on Tuesday afternoon in teams of 2-3, working with their assigned organizations and businesses. They may design a project on shipping, social media, marketing, customer service — any area that needed assistance or a fresh perspective.
Students will work with the businesses and organizations throughout the semester.
“We want this to be a learning experience for the students, but the community needs to benefit from this as well — it has to be a partnership,” says Dr. Byrd.
Dr. Byrd hopes to have the final project presentations locally, which he believes will make a greater impact since many small business owners may not be able to travel to Greensboro for the final project presentations.
“This would be a great value to the students because they can come back to the community. They could see the impact of their projects and it will bring this back to where it started — full circle.”
Mount Airy was recommended to Dr. Byrd by Darren Rhodes, chief planner of the Piedmont Regional Office for Community Development, which is based in Winston-Salem.
Dr. Byrd already had a connection to the area through one of his former students and graduate of the UNC-G Hospitality and Tourism Management program: Jessica Roberts, Director of Tourism and Marketing for the Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center.
The students began their day with a visit to the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, where they received packets of information about the area and attended a presentation by local community leaders.
Betty Ann Collins, president of the Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce, spoke to the students about the purpose of the Chamber of Commerce, how to gain the interest of members of the chamber and the community, and how “business is the solution” not the problem.
Community Development Coordinator for the city of Mount Airy, Martin Collins, gave the students several handouts and passed around a relief map, pointing out that most of the elevation around our city is to the north and the west, which designates Mount Airy as a gateway to the mountains.
All of the students raised their hands when asked how many had ever heard of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which receives 22 million visitors each year. Collins says Mount Airy receives many Blue Ridge Parkway visitors, such as motorcycle and sports car enthusiasts, who enjoy traveling the gap roads and routes from the Parkway that lead into Mount Airy.
Collins also mentioned the Autumn Leaves Festival and the several hundred thousand visitors and $8.2 million the festival brings to Mount Airy.
“Mount Airy has always been a shopping hub,” says Collins. “People from rural communities once came here to shop and buy equipment for their farms, as well as other household needs.” Now, many retail dollars are lost to Winston-Salem, according to Collins.
Collins told the students, “Mount Airy wants more of you. We want you to come back to Mount Airy. We want young graduates to come here for the quality of life in this community.”
“Our community rallies together to help others. We have a Build-a-Dream playground at Riverside built because the community rallied together to raise funds. The skate park at Riverside was built because a group saw a need and raised money for the project. We are not an apathetic community — we have many leaders.”
Students were particularly interested in the Solar Farms installed in the area, with several students asking questions about plans for sustainability. Collins spoke about the upcoming installation of a solar farm and the methane plant at the landfill.
Jessica Roberts, director of tourism and marketing for the Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center, began her part of the presentation by asking the students what they heard about Mount Airy before visiting the area.
In unison, the students replied, “Mayberry!”
When asked if they had ever watched “The Andy Griffith Show,” only two students raised their hands, with others indicating they had heard of the show, but had not watched.
Roberts spoke about the shift in tourism in the past 10 years, from primarily Mayberry tourists to more winery tourists, who are here to enjoy local wineries, shopping, and dining.
After an overview of the many festivals and events in the our area, Roberts told the students about the Fastlink wi-fi connection, available throughout the downtown area, in case they needed to access the internet.
Leeann Stokes, Surry County Economic Development Partnership vice president, organized the partnerships and coordinated the links between the university and the community. “It creates a new perspective for the businesses,” says Stokes, “and in fact, we had several businesses who expressed interest in continuing participation in this project.”
Partnership participant and business owner Angela Shur, of Miss Angel’s Heavenly Pies in downtown Mount Airy, was overheard telling the students assigned to her business that she wants them to “feel like a tourist” and asked them to think about what they would buy and why they would buy it.
Shur feels that it is good for the students to have the hands-on experience. “Right now, our business is at the highest point we can be at, but our next step is shipping. The students are going to help us design a new website so we can ship across the whole world.”
George Schwab, general manager of Cross Creek Country Club, enjoys participating in the project and is continuing to participate after a positive experience last year. “A big part of what I do personally is give back by mentoring young people. This is a real-life experience, not just classroom work. It gives exposure to real-life situations by allowing the students to interact with leaders, business owners, and managers,” says Schwab.
Schwab says that Cross Creek Country Club already has a “very strong marketing team” and he enjoys receiving the good ideas from the students who bring in an interesting perspective. “I’m going to keep doing this as long as I can. It doesn’t take a lot of our time, but both sides truly benefit.”
M.A.P.S. president Robbie Gardner just began the partnership with this new group of students. According to Gardner, M.A.P.S is a “young, professional organization that benefits from getting a viewpoint from like-minded young people. We are looking for a way to broaden our audience and fine-tune our communication for all the members. They are helping us to streamline communication and make it more efficient. Basically, we are asking them how they would recruit themselves for our organization.”
The UNC-G students were spotted throughout the downtown area on Tuesday afternoon, visiting multiple stores and carrying shopping bags. Several students expressed interest in returning to Mount Airy for upcoming festivals, or just for a day trip.
The students provided their own transportation, which was beneficial for the town since many planned to stay and shop or dine in area restaurants. In addition, the students drove here, which may encourage them to visit in the future. Stokes mentioned that this will also benefit our community because the students may encourage others to visit or they may tell someone about Mount Airy in the future.