How the executive MBA travel bug was bitten by Covid

Coronavirus has disrupted much of the traditional executive MBA experience. Group discussions morphed into Zoom calls. Networking events were reduced to WhatsApp chats. But the biggest loss for many students was missing overseas travel to visit companies, meet renowned chief executives and experience different working cultures.

The international study trip is at the heart of many executive MBA programmes. To outsiders, such visits may look like a jolly escape for students. But tutors insist that they are important for teaching leadership.

“It is a bit like learning to swim,” says Susan Hart, associate director of accreditation body the European Foundation for Management Development’s Quality Improvement System (EQUIS) and executive dean of Durham Business School in the UK. “It is easy to explain what you need to do to move through the water in a classroom, but that is very different to actually getting wet.”

Study trips are considered so critical that attendance often counts towards final credits, so business schools had to develop alternatives to travel in order for students to graduate.

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Jonathan Doh, associate dean for research and global engagement at the Villanova School of Business (VSB), near Philadelphia, developed alternative international experiences with “integrative virtual global consulting projects” for the full-time MBA and executive MBA programmes.

Last Autumn, VSB students completed an online consultancy project with Totto, a Colombia-based designer, manufacturer and marketer of backpacks, travel bags, clothing and accessories. Together, they developed strategies to sustain the business in light of the pandemic.

“That was our experiment,” says Prof Doh. “We made it much more an applied practicum, working on a project, rather than just an immersive experience.”

This model was extended to the current Executive MBA International Immersion course, where students worked with Knorr-Bremse, a German manufacturer of braking systems, on a project to expand into the Chinese e-mobility market.

Caitlin Ganley, senior director of government and regulatory affairs at Comcast Cable, had to do the online overseas project with Knorr-Bremse to earn enough credits.

“I love to travel,” she says, adding that it was “very disappointing” to learn that the overseas visit was being replaced. “I wouldn’t say the trip was the main reason I got my MBA but it was a big reason.”

However, having had the alternative experiences, Ganley sees benefits to interactions with foreign companies that were, in some ways, more realistic. Her online consulting projects lasted from January to May, giving a more detailed understanding than a 10-day study visit.

“[Communicating online] meant it felt in some ways more like real, a chance to actually conduct business with a client,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong, I really would have enjoyed going to Germany. But I don’t think I would have got the same depth of experience on a 10-day trip.”

Although MBA students such as Ganley are able to graduate without visiting other countries, many schools are offering those who missed out on overseas trips the option of travelling with other MBA cohorts once travel restrictions are lifted, or going on more local visits.

Spain’s Esade has offered trips to Berlin and Milan to its executive MBA students, if students follow the travel rules set by Germany and Italy.

The University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School is allowing its pandemic intakes to join trips in the next three years.

“We were lucky to be able to visit Mumbai in November 2019, before the lockdown,” says Manshuk Bekbolat, one of the EMBA cohort graduating this autumn, who missed three other trips, to China, South Africa and Silicon Valley.

“I was disappointed not to visit more places during my course,” Bekbolat adds. “I had chosen Saïd because it offered more international study trips than other peer universities.”

Kazakhstan-born Bekbolat feels fortunate to have travelled extensively already, having moved to the Netherlands after completing her first degree, and a full-time MBA in her homeland. She is now finance director for the Northern Europe cluster of management consultancy Lee Hecht Harrison, a subsidiary of the Adecco Group, based in Amsterdam.

“One of the reasons for choosing Oxford was that the networking aspect was so rich because you have classmates from all over the world,” she says. “On a trip like Mumbai, you learn about the different ways of doing business, but you also learn from the perspectives of those classmates travelling with you.”

During the 2020-2021 academic year, 118 EMBA students at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business took virtual study trips to Finland, Estonia, India, Japan and Argentina.

It was not the same as the global immersion courses that Darden professors Marc and Shizuka Modica have led to Japan for several years. However, they say that the virtual tours added something new: making traditional Japanese meals; or trying out local customs with their families.

“People got really involved with it emotionally and intellectually,” Shizuka Modica says.

Among the students taking part was Crystal Farmer, a programme manager at the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory near Washington. She researched the Japanese art of kite making as part of the two-week virtual tour, building and decorating her own four-foot version using traditional materials ordered on Amazon, which she attempted to fly in a Washington park. “Flying would be a kind description of what we achieved!” she admits.

Farmer started the course in 2019 and took a study trip to Brazil before the pandemic struck. She was days away from a visit to China when the US capital went into lockdown in March 2020.

“I had wanted to get my MBA since leaving university, and travel was one of the big factors, partly because I haven’t been able to travel much in my life,” the 35-year-old Floridan says.

There has been talk within Farmer’s MBA cohort joining future foreign trips run by Darden, although she is unsure whether this will happen.

“I do plan to visit some of the places I might have gone to on my MBA programme, however — especially Japan,” Farmer says. “Once you have your mind set on travelling to these places, I don’t think the travel bug ever stops biting you.”