Grad students take on Ojai marketing plan as class project
By Nao Braverman
The growing number of commercial vacancies in Ojai have been worrying city officials, local decision makers and concerned citizens; especially when the nationwide economy has taken a downturn and the city budget is highly dependent on revenues from tourism.
While elected officials and community members discuss ways to boost the local economy, several Claremont graduate students are working on a marketing plan for the city.
“Graduate programs like to use real-life examples, real businesses, as a way to study,” said Jenny Darroch, a professor of a marketing strategy course at Claremont University’s Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management.
Her students are divided into smaller groups, each focusing on various real-life organizations including a host of for profit and nonprofit business models. Two of her students, Lugene Whitley and Tyler Barrell, chose to work on a marketing plan for Ojai.
“Tyler has a real interest in sustainability and socially conscious business, and Lugene is has been working in art management,” said Darroch. “They were a perfect fit because they truly understand what Ojai is about.”
Darroch, who came to Claremont from the University of Otago in New Zealand, offered the city of Ojai as a study focus for her students, after speaking with Claremont graduate student and Ojai resident, Martha Groszewski.
Groszewski, former chief financial officer of Patagonia and friend of Jeff Haydon, the president of the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce board, has been facilitating a sub-committee of the Ojai Chamber of Commerce Marketing Group.
The recently formed sub-committee includes Mayor Sue Horgan and Councilwoman Rae Hanstad from the city, various chamber members including CEO Scott Eicher, and other highly engaged members of the local business community. The group’s goal is to come up with some concrete plans to help boost Ojai’s economy. Members hope that the Claremont graduate student study will result in some applicable solutions and plans to help Ojai’s struggling merchants and policy makers. If not, it should at least provide some interesting information, said Groszewski.
The marketing plan is a class project, not a city project or a Chamber of Commerce project, she clarified. The city has no obligation to adhere to any of the suggestions that the students offer. However, the study will likely be beneficial in some way, at no real cost to the city. Especially since the city doesn’t have a lot of money to spend on consulting, Groszewski added.
While some universities charge organizations as much as $50,000 for similar studies, Claremont’s Graduate University’s study is funded entirely by the school.
“We want to build partnerships with the community, we want to give back,” said Darroch. “Even if Ojai is not technically our neighbor, it is a nearby suburb and part of Southern California.”
Whitley and Barrell are just in the information-gathering stages of their research. They have made a few trips up to Ojai during the Ojai Music Festival and the Lavender Festival and interviewed City Council members Hanstad and Horgan, Eicher from the chamber, city manager Jere Kersnar, Peter Bowen, Ojai Valley Inn’s director of marketing, and Cathy and Don Cluff, of The Oaks at Ojai, among others. They still have plans to interview a few more merchants and key community members, Whitley said.
Because the scope of their work is limited, they have decided to focus on a tourist marketing plan, something Ojai doesn’t have yet.
“The fact is that Ojai is pretty tourist dependent,” said Groszewski. “I don’t know if that can change, or if that is a good thing.”
Already the two students have had a taste of some of the commonly debated topics, such has how to balance mom-and-pop shops that cater to locals, with establishments that cater to tourists. While some of these overlap, others seem to conflict. Some local merchants, while grateful for the traffic that the Ojai Valley Inn attracts, are frustrated that more and more visitors seem to be content to remain on the inn’s premises, and are less likely to venture to town to shop.
One thing both students understand is that city officials and Chamber of Commerce members are very concerned about maintaining Ojai’s character and charm, Whitley assured.
“Ojai is different from other communities and has a lot to offer. That is a real strength, we want to keep that,” she said.
They are also aware of the fears that many residents have of Ojai becoming purely a tourist trap.
While Whitley has a background in arts management, she also grew up in a small agricultural town in Illinois, and appreciates Ojai’s origins. Barrell grew up in a 4,000-person town in Maine and hopes to move to Ojai one day with his wife, who was born and raised in Ventura.
“Cities who rely to a certain degree on tourism are often uncomfortable having a certain amount of people in town,” said Whitley. “We understand that is a concern and we are sensitive to that.”
Whitley and Barrell are still compiling information and are far from making any solid recommendations. But a full marketing plan should be complete and ready to present to the Chamber of Commerce sub-committee by mid-August, said Barrell.
Both Barrell and Whitley have agreed to check the Ojai Valley News Blog for suggestions and comments from community members.