2016 MBA@UNC Global Immersion: Chapel Hill Day Three

MBA@UNC Global Immersions are offered four times a year as unique opportunities for students to travel to major domestic and international business destinations with their fellow classmates, participate in engaging discussions with their professors and elite industry leaders, as well as apply what they have learned to real-life problems.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Executives at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., had a challenge.

The number of visitors to the largest privately owned house in the U.S., a 250-room French Renaissance château, and gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted has grown in recent years. The struggle was to convince more of those visitors to imbibe.

Wine has been a part of the Biltmore tradition since the 1970s, when George Vanderbilt’s grandson started the winemaking operation in a converted dairy barn. The vineyard sprawls across 94 of the estate’s 8,000 acres, and its grapes are stomped into the more than 170,000 cases the winery produces each year.

More than 1 million people pay to wander around the estate each year, so why weren’t more of them spending time at the winery? And how might Biltmore executives reverse that trend? That was the challenge that Paul Friga, Clinical Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at UNC Kenan-Flagler, put in front of the 10 teams that made up the Consulting track of the 2016 Chapel Hill Immersion.

Friga puts a lot of emphasis on preparation before the students arrive at the Immersion, but his team in Chapel Hill also does a lot of prep, with researchers digging up a mountain of data students will use to make their cases to the potential client. Friga also puts a priority on team bonding, both before and after the students arrive on campus.

The word often used to describe the Consulting track is “intense,” and Friga says that’s by design. He pushes students to frame the given problem and form a hypothesis. They work for a full day on their presentation, and then the 10 teams compete, with two of them going head-to-head in a final in front of the clients, some faculty and the rest of the their trackmates.

On Sunday, teams of about eight, split into two groups, gave 15-minute presentations to three Biltmore executives. Ideas ranged from hosting a wine festival to creating a wine master class to ambitious child care options. Some teams focused on better use of digital ad dollars while others suggested better transportation and signage.

After the students wrapped up, Friga pronounced the group the best he’d ever seen.

There was “consistency, high level of analysis and depth in the stories you told,” he said. “What you did in eight hours...I’m convinced you cheated and worked all night.”

Natalie Hackney, Biltmore’s vice president of retail and attractions, told the group she’d been “blown away” by their presentations.

“We have professional consulting groups come in and spend weeks with us and not know as much as you did after one day,” Hackney said.

In an interview, Sean Wilborn, Biltmore’s winery manager, said it was fun to “watch great minds solve specific problems that we know and talk about every day.”

“I was feverishly taking notes,” he continued. “There were some great, out-of-the-box ideas. We’ll go back and have real conversations about a lot of these.”

As a thank you to the students, the execs gave them each two passes to the Biltmore. Each member of the winning team also received a promised bottle of wine—which they can pick up at the winery during their trip to the estate.