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Riverside founder turned request into opportunity to reach new market

Ron Wehman, the founder of the Riverside Dinner Theater & Conference Center. passed away a few days ago.

My name is Kashef Majid, I’m an assistant professor in the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington and I’m in my first year of teaching at UMW. I’m in my mid-thirties, I’ve never had any theater training, I can’t play a musical instrument, I can’t sing, and if you ask my wife I can’t dance either.

So what would I have in common with Ron Wehman? On the surface not much, we’re fairly different people.

Ron has been a fixture in the community for decades. He founded the Riverside dinner theater (the only dinner theater in the region) which tapped into his background in music and the arts.

I met Ron in August at a faculty retreat. He was on our Board of Advisors and he was kind enough to stop by that day and introduce himself. For those of you that know Ron (or even if you don’t) he was an outgoing individual, very soft spoken and very easy to like. Ron gave me his business card and told me that if he could help me in any way to let him know, I filed the card away not thinking too much of it to be honest.

Two weeks before classes started I was modifying the syllabus for one of my classes (Principles of Marketing). I wanted to give the students something practical, something they could really get into, and something out of the ordinary.

Employers sometimes complain that today’s college students are not prepared for the real world when they graduate. They know theory and concepts but they often lack the intangibles that you can only get from an inside view of an organization.

As educators we try to alleviate this gap by using real world examples and case studies but we’re limited by what is available to us. I’ve found that most firms do not want to share their real world problems because it makes them appear weak and when I’ve approached firms I’ve experienced many “thanks but no thanks” responses.

With less than two weeks to go before class I was pessimistic about augmenting the standard classroom lectures and readings with real world exposure. I’m not sure how the idea clicked but I noticed Ron’s business card sitting on my desk. It was a shot in the dark but I sent him an email asking if we could meet to talk about letting my students examine the marketing of the Riverside Center.

Within a few hours Ron wrote back with an emphatic YES. We spoke over the phone and it became clear he didn’t see this as a case of benevolent altruism; he saw an opportunity that many others didn’t see. He saw an opportunity to learn how to reach a new market (twenty somethings) and how to utilize social media to do it (something the twenty something crowd knows a lot about). He saw an opportunity to help.

Three months later and our students were at the Riverside Center presenting a detailed strategy of how the theater could use different pricing options and social media to appeal to more people. The students presented the results of surveys that they had conducted in the local community and provided a detailed plan to advertise using Facebook and Twitter.

The board of directors for the Riverside Center was so impressed with the work that the students did that they presented them with complimentary tickets to their coming performance. Overall it was a win-win situation for both sides.

Now back to my commonalities with Ron Wehman. We’re nearly forty years apart and have very little in common. Through my interactions with Ron I noticed a few things. He was a visionary that saw opportunity where others did not. He cared and wanted to help even if it wasn’t for his own personal gain and he was able to motivate those around him as he did with my students.

I’m not like Ron, not yet, but I have forty years to work on it and when I reach that age I hope I will have more common in with Ron. I hope when we all reach that age we will all have more in common with Ron Wehman.

This is one in a series of columns by University of Mary Washington College of Business faculty on various aspects of finance and economics as they affect our readers. Kashef Majid is an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Mary Washington. Send suggestions for future topics to acordray@umw.edu.

Permalink: http://news.fredericksburg.com/business/2014/03/09/riverside-founder-turned-request-for-help-into-an-opportunity/