University Collaborations are at the Heart of Iowa Regional Transit Agency

Marketing strategy targeting the sandwich generation, created by Drake University Advanced Advertising Students

The Heart of Iowa Regional Transit Agency (HIRTA) needed a new look and a new message.  For over 30 years, HIRTA’s blue striped, white vans had provided invaluable door to door transit services for the elderly and those with disabilities.  But HIRTA had grown and now offered more services to more people.  HIRTA’s Executive Director, Julia Castillo, knew that the agency needed to rebrand its image but could not do it internally due to lack of available staff, marketing expertise, and time.  She decided university students were the answer. Determined not to take no for an answer, she called the main line for Drake University, and after explaining what she needed, was directed to the Advanced Advertising Department where a professor agreed to take on the project. The following semester, Julia attended the first class with the students and told them the HIRTA story and what the agency wanted to accomplish.  The students asked questions then went to work for the semester.  The result? By the end of the semester, three student teams had developed complete marketing campaigns for the agency to choose from.

Each campaign included: a creative strategy, brand identity, direct mail campaigns, newspaper and radio spots, a loyalty program, social media, and a marketing campaign budget. Many of the marketing products developed by the Drake students were adopted and implemented by HIRTA and the partnership experience was a success.

Julia Castillo, Executive Director, heart of Iowa Regional Transit Agency (HIRTA)

The ball was now rolling for more university collaborations and the CyBIZ Lab and MBA programs at Iowa State University-Ames were ready to go. The CyBIZ Lab provides the opportunity for cross-functional teams of undergraduate and graduate students to work on business and organizational projects. Students gain hands-on experience working to solve real business problems, and companies and organizations receive potential solutions to business issues. For HIRTA, the students collected data and analyzed financial and geographic information, then created HIRTA’s first strategic plan in thirty years.  In a separate project, students developed an electronic timesheet app for the HIRTA drivers.  Instead of paper timesheets, drivers were then able to record their time on the driver tablets.

Next up?  Students at Central College in Pella, Iowa helped HIRTA translate customer related materials into Spanish, as well as helped to identify and summarize grant and funding sources related to public transit.  One student was eventually hired to perform HIRTA trip verification, a job that could be done from his dorm room.  As the relationship with Central College developed, HIRTA learned that some students were challenged to find transportation from this rural campus to the airport during academic breaks. HIRTA began a program providing airport shuttles for students for a nominal charge.  This was a rural community need that might have been missed if HIRTA had not interacted with Central College.

HIRTA Work Performed by Hannibal-LaGrange University Intern

From Hannibal-LaGrange University, HIRTA brought in an intern.  “Rural transit agencies should hire an intern,” says Castillo.  “The benefits are greater than you ever imagined.” 

HIRTA hired a public relations major who brought in fresh energy and new ideas.  The intern created a new, nationally recognized brochure, attended events to promote HIRTA services, frequented numerous Farmers Markets to survey people about transit, and created marketing material for social media.

It is pretty clear why Julia is such an advocate for student engagement. “Creating a project where two entities can work together and both benefit is a complete WIN-WIN for everyone.”  She sees universities as a resource that allows staff to access time and knowledge they may not have within their own agency. Project partnerships create a relationship and mutually shared knowledge, which can lead to bigger ideas and more collaboration. In the process, students learn about rural transit needs and, as Julia notes, “you have most certainly created future transit advocates! Isn’t that one of the best types of sustainability for public transit?”

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