Thinking outside the classroom: Kelley students work to put Christmas in Conner Prairie

In the early 19th century, Christmas—the way we know it with decorated trees, carols and Santa Claus—wasn’t widely celebrated. In fact, Christmas Day wasn’t recognized as a federal holiday in the United States until 1870, when many of the Christmas traditions we celebrate today were first popularized. That’s challenging for an interactive history park that features an 1836 Prairietown.

Chris Petrelli is the director of programs and education at Conner Prairie, a Smithsonian Institute affiliate in Fishers, Ind. depicting Midwestern life in the 1800s; he’s been charged with rethinking the park’s holiday program.

Currently, Conner Prairie presents “Holidays on the Prairie,” which allows guests to experience winter in the 1800s. The park also displays a Gingerbread Village and invites adults to “Holiday Cheers,” a one-night park visit featuring food, drink and a candlelight stroll through the park’s 1836 Prairietown.

“Holidays at Conner Prairie can be pretty tricky. If we try to remain historically accurate, then we run into some challenges with Christmas and Christmas themes,” said Petrelli, who is pursuing an MBA in the Evening MBA Program at the Kelley School of Business on the IUPUI campus. “But we think there is an opportunity to expand our audience during the holidays, and we want to create an exciting and dynamic experience for people.”

Petrelli decided to put his knowledge—and contacts—from the Kelley Evening MBA Program to use for this venture.

“I wanted to go about this from a consumer-needs standpoint,” explained Petrelli. “First, I wanted to find out what opportunities are available in the marketplace around the holidays, and then figure out what people are looking for. What could differentiate us from other Christmas or holiday experiences in the Indianapolis area, like the Children’s Museum or the Indianapolis Zoo? When I sat down with my Evening MBA marketing professor Mark Mayer, he suggested working with Kelley students to study the problem."

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Kelley undergrad students visiting Conner Prairie.

During a semester-long project, marketing students in the Kelley Undergraduate Program reviewed research and trends, considered new concepts and ideas and formulated a new holiday event and promotion plan for Conner Prairie. Evening MBA students also evaluated the problem and potential solutions during a marketing class session.

This gives our students real-world perspective and application of the concepts and broader theories we’ve discussed in class.

Mark Mayer, clinical assistant professor of marketing

“It brings the learning out of the textbook and into real-world business situations,” said Mayer, clinical assistant professor of marketing. "You can talk about brand positioning, but when you’re trying to come up with positioning for a brand that will appeal to a specific consumer segment without a safety net under you, you truly start to understand the challenge of marketing.”

Throughout the years, Mayer’s classes have included a number of experiential learning opportunities for students. Student teams have worked on projects for Indiana-based organizations like Back on My Feet Indianapolis and Hubbard and Cravens, among others.

“Through these exercises with Conner Prairie, students were able to engage in various aspects of marketing: from researching current trends, to targeting a consumer segment, to promotion. This is a chance to try it all on and see where you win and lose in those situations,” explained Mayer.

Petrelli met with the undergraduate marketing students to explain his expectations but also to tour the Conner Prairie grounds, providing the first-person experience that often results in fresh ideas.

“One of the challenges with our brand is that a lot of people haven’t been to Conner Prairie since the fourth grade, and they still think of us as that quintessential grade school field trip. But we aren’t just quilts and looms,” explained Petrelli.

Within the last five years, even the last two years, we’ve added a lot of new energy, and we’re trying to show people that we are about more than just domestic life in the 19th century.

Chris Petrelli, director of programs and education at Conner Prairie

“We’re a place people can come and experience history, science and technology, art and nature. We’re an interdisciplinary destination for multiple visits throughout the year, not a ‘one and done’ experience.”

The Kelley undergrads devised multiple ideas to reimagine Conner Prairie’s holiday programming, while maintaining its mission.

We worked hard to identify a solution that fit within the guidelines at Conner Prairie.

Cassandra Vera, BS'17

“Because some areas of Conner Prairie are designated as historic with limitations on capacity, we decided on an event that would highlight different types of history in each area,” said Cassandra Vera, BS’17. "We also conducted a lot of market research on our target audience, as well as research on each individual activity we had planned.”

“This real-world experience was challenging but so important,” said another undergraduate. “It helped us think outside the box and really start to apply what we’ve learned to a real-world situation. We weren’t just in the classroom. We were outside, on site, in a hands-on experience.”

“Past students have told me they were able to use these real-world course experiences as examples in their job or internship interviews,” added Mayer. “They’ve had this experience in research and developing marketing events and plans.”

“For me, it was great to hear new perspectives on various ways we might engage people during the holidays,” said Petrelli. “They conducted research that I just don’t have the bandwidth for. It also was good to have other perspectives validated: For example, if the students came up with an idea we’d been talking about already, there was some validity there. I also appreciated the energy and depth of knowledge the students brought to the table. I thought it was a great experience, and there’s now a lot to digest and consider as we move forward with this project.”

Editor’s note: We won’t be sharing any of the awesome new ideas developed by our students, as another group of Evening MBA students and Undergraduate students will be getting the chance to do a similar project with Conner Prairie in the fall.