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Published: November 25, 2020

Manatee Mania

Students at the Naimoli Institute for Business Strategy partnered with TECO’s Manatee Viewing Center to create an online store.

Group photo of the professor and students inside the Manatee Viewing Center.
Faculty member Jody Tompson (left) at TECO’s Manatee Viewing Center with (clockwise) Angelina Lantieri ’21, Miller Hoskins ’20, Christopher McPherson ’22 and Ashley Massicott ’21

One tourist attraction that’s becoming iconic is watching the manatees gather by TECO’s Big Bend station in Apollo Beach. It’s led to a rewarding, hands-on assignment for some marketing students at UT’s Naimoli Institute for Business Strategy (NIBS), which was established by the late Vincent Naimoli, founder of the Tampa Bay Rays and a longtime UT donor.

Jody Tompson, professor of management and entrepreneurship and director of NIBS, had partnered with TECO on class projects in the past. This past academic year presented a new opportunity. TECO’s Big Bend station discharges warm water into a Tampa Bay canal, which beckons up to 850 heat-seeking manatees to frolic every winter. Over the years, TECO has set up a viewing area, concession stand and shop for visitors who come to see these adorable creatures, which look as if they were created by a Disney animator.

The energy company asked UT for help in taking its retail business online, selling plush animals, manatee mugs, tees and other souvenirs. “We have up to 400,000 visitors a year who want to watch the manatees, but our viewing area is only open for five and a half months, when the weather’s cool, each year. We wanted to develop our online store to serve the ongoing interest,” says Stanley M. Kroh, TECO’s manager of land and stewardship programs.

The junior and senior students stepped in with “fresh ideas we wouldn’t have considered otherwise,” says Kroh. Four students per semester identified the 10 most popular items, built a Shopify store for them, photographed samples and established pricing and shipping.

Ashley Massicott ’21, a marketing major, loved the mission of a web shop from the very start. “TECO’s Manatee Viewing Area welcomes visitors from all over the world, but often they are getting on a plane home and don’t want to carry souvenirs. Our goal was to create an easy, convenient way for customers to remember their Tampa experience and share it with family and friends,” she says.

Designing the site and photographing the products were the most fun for Massicott, who’s minoring in film and media arts. And wrangling a project for a large, regulated corporation proved deeply valuable. “We learned how to communicate with and as business professionals, how to gain consensus and how to get work done during an emergency (the COVID-19 pandemic),” she says.

Another perk of the aquatically oriented assignment: The students networked with the MacDonald Training Center, a nonprofit that trains and empowers people with disabilities. Its trainees will manage stock and fulfill orders for the web store. The group is finalizing contracts and looks forward to launching the website soon.

By Janet Siroto
Photography by Jessica Leigh

This story first appeared in the Fall 2020 UT Journal.

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