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Study Abroad at the Olympics?

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SOCHI CEREMONY
ASSOCIATED PRESS

It's not as far-fetched as you might think.

The Olympics are big business. This year's Winter Olympics in Sochi cost Russia an estimated $51 billion, NBC paid almost $800 million for the rights to broadcast, and the Games have attracted a record number of advertisers with the total value of contracts with sponsors, suppliers and licensees totaling almost half a trillion dollars. Both the Winter and Summer Olympics, as well as the World Cup, offer an opportunity for business students to learn first-hand what goes into organizing such large-scale international sporting events.

As colleges and universities increasingly recognize the need to offer students the opportunity to acquire international experience prior to graduation, classes structured around an international assignment are on the rise. Dr. Lisa Delpy Neirotti, associate professor of tourism and sport management at the George Washington University School of Business, has been leading groups of students to Olympic Games and World Cups since 1992. I caught up with her while she was in Sochi and asked her some questions about this business-related twist on study abroad.

1. You have been taking students to the Olympics and World Cup as part of a sport marketing class for almost 22 years. What is the point of the class and what do you hope to accomplish?

There is no better way to understand the complexity of organizing mega-international events than to experience them in-person and to meet with the people involved in all aspects of the event from the International Olympic Committee, local organizing committee, corporate sponsors, media, volunteers and athletes. The students hear about the strategies involved in the management and marketing as well as the challenges involved in working in the host country and city. Each Olympic Games or World Cup tournament has its own unique issues.

2. Why is it necessary for students to have a global perspective on sport and tourism?

The sport industry is global in nature. Not just the Olympic Games and World Cup, but now all major professional leagues in the United States have offices abroad and play games around the globe. In fact, the growth opportunities for most leagues are international. Understanding how to work in different countries -- dealing with various customs, using different currency and understanding specific marketing techniques -- are important skill sets. One of the most important lessons, for example, from the Sochi Olympic Games was the issue of supply chain management and contingency planning. Things in the U.S. we may take for granted are not necessarily "givens" in other countries. Creating a VIP experience becomes more difficult when the food supply is not consistent or robust. Dealing with customs and freight forwarding companies is another logistical process not often considered. The United States Olympic Committee shipped the equivalent of 15 semi-trucks filled with equipment, uniforms, contingency items, yet some of the containers were stuck in customs until after the Games started.

3. Who is eligible to take this course?

Priority goes to Masters students studying sport or event management (MBA or Masters of Tourism Administration with a concentration in Sport and/or Event Management). The sports marketing course is highly recommended and those who have taken it are given higher priority over others.

4. What do you do to prepare your students for the cross-cultural experience on the ground?

The number one quality I emphasize over and over is "flexibility." Unlike other study abroad programs, we do not have a confirmed day-to-day schedule. We depend on the availability of those working the Games and their schedule is continually in flux depending on how things are going. The speakers often do not confirm until 24 hours or less in advance, but somehow the schedule is full from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with lectures and site visits. It is a juggling game and students need to be nimble which means often missing meals and running from one meeting to the next.

As for culture and protocol, we have representatives from the U.S. State Department speak to the group and generally visit the local Embassy in D.C. We did not visit the Russian Embassy, however, for this trip due to scheduling issues. But one of the students in the course was born and raised in Russia, and she provided helpful insights before and during the trip. The students complete most of their research prior to traveling so they are well versed on the country and the situation on the ground. At international sport events, most everyone tries to adapt to the local culture as best as possible out of respect for the host country.

5. How is this trip integrated into the semester? Do students take pre-departure and return classes?

For the Sochi Games, we started meeting in the fall and the students worked on their research papers over the winter break. We then met two more times on campus for lectures in January prior to traveling to Russia. The students were required to turn in their term paper 75 percent completed and to take an exam prior to traveling. The more they know and are prepared before going, the better the better the questions they ask and the observations they make.

6. Share some specific examples that illustrate students' involvement in actual sport marketing projects on the ground with real sponsors, athletes and countries.

The students spent the majority of their time meeting with executives to discuss the ins and outs of the games and observing how the games were managed. The students also conducted spectator research onsite and volunteered at the USA House monitoring the doors to make sure only guests with credentials or an invitation entered. They also scanned guests in and out of the house and ensured that guests had an enjoyable visit. The students were the face of the United State Olympic Committee tasked with providing excellent service and hospitality.

7. What is the most important lesson students take away from this class?

The magnitude and complexity of the Games. As a spectator, few people think about the design, manufacturing and distribution of thousands of pieces of volunteer uniforms, or the training of volunteers who have never worked an event before, or the issues getting equipment or food into the Olympic Park as everything has to be scanned for security. The details are endless. Witnessing all of the back-of-house details and hearing about the challenges faced by managers, increases the awareness and preparedness of the students to work in such situations. Alums who land positions with future events have a working knowledge of what to expect and how to handle situations that arise.

8. Do you have any examples of students having leveraged this experience post-graduation into a career?

Over the years a number of students have gone on to work at different Olympic Games or for Olympic sponsors or media. It was fun running into a number of GW alums at Sochi. One alum is responsible for uniform design, the ordering and distribution for all NBC Olympic staff and talent. Another is responsible for Olympic sponsor transportation in Sochi. In previous Games we have had alums handling millions of dollars' worth of Olympic tickets for a sponsor, managing an Olympic venue, and running social media campaigns for sponsors. I have a saying, "For those who have never attended a Games, it is difficult to describe and for those who have attended, difficult to forget". It is interesting to meet up with people who have traveled to multiple games -- once you get the bug, you keep going. The students also conduct research on spectators at the Games, asking them why they attend, what they do, how much are they spending, as well as their satisfaction (a consumer motivational and behavioral survey). I continue to require this as it is not only good data for the IOC, but it also makes the students talk to people. It forces them to approach strangers and to begin a discussion. Some of the best stories come from these encounters. It is amazing the reach of the students as well. It seems like anyone I ended up meeting had already met one of my students and, of course, I loved hearing the positive reviews they provide. I had a great group who represented GW very well.


Morgan Abate, an international relations and journalism student at Elon University, contributed to this article.

 
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