As experiential marketing degree programs crop up, professors outline how the industry can better support students
Ask any event marketer how they landed in this industry and most will say they kind of “fell into” it. Degree programs focused specifically on the experiential marketing discipline haven’t existed, with many universities only offering one-off classes on the subject.
But progress is being made at universities to showcase experiential as a marketing career option and to prepare students with the fundamental skill sets needed to hit the ground running at their first jobs. It’s a sign that the talent landscape is shifting as a new generation of graduates interested in strategic live events will have a clearer path carved out for them.
In the meantime, aspiring event marketers have turned to related established programs that offer transferable skills and experiences. Yulitza Sosa graduated from Florida International University (FIU) in Miami with a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management and then went on to work as an event coordinator for a catering company. When a special events manager position opened up at FIU’s Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management, Sosa jumped at the chance to return to her alma mater. Almost four years into her role, she is now senior special events manager and set to graduate this spring with a master’s degree in hospitality management, specializing in mega events (more than 10,000 attendees).
In the short time between graduating with her bachelor’s and starting her master’s, the curricula for FIU’s hospitality and tourism management school had already evolved to include new event-focused specializations and tracks. And there are more evolutions like this taking place at schools across the country.
To help break down experiential education at universities, we spoke with three professors who shared insights into their syllabi, students’ increasing interest in the field and its many career paths, and the real-world experiences that will prepare students for tomorrow’s challenges.
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MARKETERS TEACH BY EXAMPLE
Michael Baringer, director-field and experiential marketing at Florida Blue, Florida’s Blue Cross and Blue Shield company, is responsible for a field marketing team that delivers community-focused events across the state, driving Florida Blue’s mission to help people achieve better health, as well as sports sponsorships and activations covering professional, collegiate and minor league teams in Florida. While Baringer went to school for sports marketing, intending to work for a professional team, he didn’t expect a health insurance company to be his way into the world of sports partnerships and events.
Baringer says that since he came into Florida Blue with a background in sports marketing, he had to pick up the nuances of strategic events while on the job. Now, with more than 15 years of experience in the industry, he’s teaching the next generation of event marketers as an adjunct professor at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). His course disciplines include sponsorships, brand management, event facility management, marketing strategy, business ethics, organizational development and, one of his most recent classes, “Experiential Learning for Business.”
“If you’re a professor and you can pull up a case study of this event that your team activated or this real-world example of a concept that you’re covering in class, that makes it, in my opinion, stickier and more relevant,” Baringer says. “So I try to do the same thing in my class instead of solely focusing on textbook examples. I can throw in photos, an event preview or recap, how we’re using data to measure ROI and how consumers are responding.”
Through her master’s program at FIU, Sosa has had the opportunity to hear from visiting guest speakers and take part in special events, like the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. The program also gives students a chance to attend the Super Bowl, Formula 1 Miami Grand Prix and Ultra Music Festival. Sosa says the hospitality school brings the industry in to meet the students where they are, offering an invaluable impact to their career development.
“They always have job fairs every other semester where you can engage with employers, so it’s great being able to network with them, get their feedback as to what’s happening in the industry and then also have them confirm, ‘Yes, everything that your professor’s telling you, we need you to know,’” she says.
At New York University (NYU), Richard L. Gant also strives to bring real-world situations into the classroom. Working during the day at his agency, The RL Gant Group Inc., as president and chief experience officer, Gant pulls from his daily experiences to incorporate real-time case studies into lessons when he teaches at NYU in the evening as adjunct assistant professor of marketing at the Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality and the Department of Integrated Marketing and Communications. “Event Marketing Strategies” is a foundational course in the 36-credit Master of Science in Event Management program, covering the execution of creative strategy, integration of marketing and communications elements, customer and competitor analysis, social media partnerships and more from both agency and brand perspectives.
During his 20-plus years at NYU, which started by obtaining a Professional Certificate in Sports, Entertainment and Events Marketing, Gant has seen curricula progress with the advent of digital technologies, especially placing a big emphasis on measurement.
“Companies could create more internships, that’s for sure, especially directly in the event marketing area. They’ll often have interns doing something else outside of event marketing and keep adding on other marketing projects. Well, you can’t do that. This is a discipline now that needs to be given attention.”
–Richard L. Gant, Adjunct Assistant Professor-Marketing at NYU, President and CXO, The RL Gant Group
DISCOVERING CAREER PATHS
The graduate students who take Gant’s courses range from younger students with limited marketing knowledge but a strong interest in the entertainment and sports business to working professionals encouraged by their organizations to attend NYU to learn how to use event marketing as a tool to engage audiences.
Baringer says that with the flexibility of pursuing a degree online at SNHU, students come into his classes from a variety of backgrounds, including recent college grads completing a master’s program, working parents taking self-paced courses in the evenings and active-duty military personnel stationed overseas. They may have enrolled to pick up credits to graduate, hone skills for their job or learn something new, but many students take Baringer’s classes with the goal of going into sports marketing, just like when he was in school.
Baringer has noticed that once students take an event marketing or sponsorship course, it opens the door to different career avenues they may not have known existed.
“You could work in production, graphic design, the digital space, there are all kinds of things in the experiential industry outside of just sports marketing,” Baringer says. “I see students who are curious and who didn’t know that there are other options out there in the experiential world, that there are brands doing the same sort of [activations as sports teams].”
STORYTELLING AS A SKILL
At the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando, which is home to some of the world’s largest theme parks, Themed Experience graduate programs teach students how to create spaces where guests interact with narrative-driven environments. Students learn about the planning, production, story, design and concept development involved in creating projects ranging from single kiosks to complex, multinarrative theme parks.
While themed experience doesn’t exactly fall under event marketing, it’s a parallel industry that offers a route into the design and production side of experiential, also tapping into concepts from tourism, hospitality, engineering and design. Graduates can go on to work on themed experiences presented in trade shows, pop-ups, attractions, retail, dining, museums and virtual worlds.
UCF’s Themed Experience graduate program is still relatively young, having launched a Master of Fine Arts Theatre Track in Themed Experience (three-year program) in 2019 and a Master of Science in Themed Experience (two-year program) in 2021.
“From the first day, we emphasize that themed experience is designing an environment to convey a narrative. That sounds fairly simple, but creating a compelling narrative through interaction can be rather complex. Every detail in an environment must move that story forward,” says Peter Weishar, professor and director-Themed Experience at UCF. “What we do applies to many different forms of entertainment and interaction, with students working on trade show booths and kiosks, restaurants, retail, installations, museums and, of course, theme parks.”
Students go through a core group of classes, starting with the “Themed Experience Seminar” and then moving into three studio classes that teach about how a story plays out through experiences of varying lengths, the details involved in developing each one, and the importance of the guest experience. All of the program’s adjunct professors are from the themed entertainment industry, including Walt Disney Imagineering, Universal Creative, Falcon’s Creative Group experience design company and the Orlando Magic NBA team.
Students can also get hands-on experience through the UCF/Universal Creative Lab, an immersive learning experience that provides specially designed coursework and on-site sessions at Universal Orlando Resort, as well as through the UCF/Meow Wolf Writer’s Workshop, featuring in-person and virtual sessions with professional writers and producers from Meow Wolf, a Santa Fe, NM-based arts production company that creates interactive multimedia installations.
“The real point of a great collaboration is for companies to meet and work with exceptional students who have great ideas, energy and talent. Professionals can see that students can produce pertinent work, and then, hopefully, they can identify future employees,” Weishar says.
“The real point of a great collaboration is for companies to meet and work with exceptional students who have great ideas, energy and talent. Professionals can see that students can produce pertinent work, and then, hopefully, they can identify future employees.”
–Peter Weishar, Professor and Director-Themed Experience at the University of Central Florida
FIRSTHAND LEARNING EXPERIENCES
While event management, event marketing, themed experience and experiential marketing degree programs are starting to crop up more and more at universities around the country, NYU’s Gant says they’re still predominantly graduate and continuing education programs.
At the undergraduate level, students can take a first step into experiential marketing as brand ambassadors. Marketing agency Wasserman Next Gen offers a brand ambassador program that recruits college students to represent brands like Adidas, Amazon Prime Student and HBO as campus brand managers, while gaining marketing experience, building their resume and earning a stipend or university course credits. Participating students spend about five to 15 hours a week over six to 10 weeks per semester developing social media marketing content, hosting events and activities, and engaging with fellow students to generate buzz for the brand they represent.
And once they’re ready for off-campus learning, Gant suggests students line up an internship with a brand or an agency to gain real-world business experience, but he has some advice for companies bringing young professionals in.
“When you look at the marketing mix circle, you’ll see events and experiential marketing along with personal selling, advertising, all that is in the mix now,” Gant says. “Companies could create more internships, that’s for sure, especially directly in the event marketing area. They’ll often have interns doing something else outside of event marketing and keep adding on other marketing projects. Well, you can’t do that. This is a discipline now that needs to be given attention, so if you bring someone in, let them work in event marketing if that’s what you’re using as part of your mix. It definitely is a competitive strategy that offers a competitive advantage.”
When developing UCF’s Themed Experience program, Weishar says he sat down with its advisory council made up of directors and executives from around the industry and discussed the skills and experiences they gained by learning on the job. They pooled together their post-graduate learnings and drafted the skills necessary for success.
“That is what we want to teach. We don’t teach how to be a ceo, but we’re going to teach a lot of those skill sets that people learn by just trial and error. When students graduate with a degree in themed experience—and I’ve heard this time and time again from my grads—they feel incredibly prepared to do the work that they’re doing. And on the other side, the people who are hiring them are taking much less of a gamble on that employee,” Weishar says. “We’re getting students whose goal it is to be here and build a career doing exactly what we teach.”
Featured photo credit: University of Central FloridaThis story appeared in the Spring 2023 issue