Harvard Square, June 2013.

Harvard Square, June 2013.

Like many prestigious American universities, Harvard and the larger Cambridge economy have benefited tremendously off a consistent stream of tourist revenue. The local Cambridge and Boston economy has evolved to adapt to a visitor base that has now contributed over seven billion dollars. However, the University and business organizations like the Harvard Square Business Association have failed to acknowledge that the 20,000 students who call Harvard home are not incentivized in the same fashion to contribute to this local economy.

While tourists are guided frequently by tour companies to spend extra time around Harvard Square perusing local shops and restaurants and offered increasingly higher-end establishments, Harvard students often are left lost navigating ever-changing Harvard Square establishments that seem to pop in and out of existence after every summer break (i.e. Au Bon Pain, Pinkberry, Yenching).

From a student’s perspective, the widening distance and lack of relationship between Harvard students and local businesses is an area that must now be addressed.

Within the Harvard ecosystem, students are consistently fed information about campus-wide social events, opportunities for local volunteering, speaker events, and other ways they can spend time at Harvard. However, it is extremely rare for opportunities to connect students with local Cambridge businesses or be incentivize engagement with these businesses.

This contrasts with the ecosystem of other institutions. At Penn, students are given the option of purchasing a campus and nationwide student discount card called the Student Advantage Card. For a price of $45, students are given a four-year subscription to over 70 partners in and around Philadelphia with “discounts up to 40%”.

This type of business model can easily be replicated around Harvard Square and Cambridge, so long as the avenues of communication between students, the administration, and local businesses are strengthened. The administration needs to take a more dedicated role to connecting students with local businesses, while businesses need to find more novel methods beyond traditional advertising to connect with students.

Some may refer to HSA’s Marketing branch, which is the only organization authorized to conduct direct-to-student marketing on campus, as an example of this type of student activism. Yet in this past semester, the lone contact many students had with HSA Marketing was a coupon envelope in the beginning of the semester. Although a step in the right direction, this relationship between businesses and students is simply insufficient. The administration should loosen up its ability for advertisers to connect with the student body and promote stronger local business relationships with student organizations outside of HSA.

Other opportunities for growth include business events for students to understand local businesses from both an employment and consumer angle, similar to how Harvard hosts start-up fairs or research events. At these events, businesses can advertise to their students about their products, offer discounts, or even post job openings. Companies can also hire students to adopt more of a brand-ambassador role, collaborating with the student body to promote items or new products through social media networks and other social groups like extracurricular clubs.

Some critics of this model may claim that this type of commercial interaction is unethical. Students are already bombarded by promotional brochures and advertisements on a daily basis. If the University establishes partnerships with businesses,  it may lean students to turn to businesses who have a recognized partnership with Harvard while shunning those who may not desire for such a relationship. However, I argue that this exact lack of commercial interaction has caused and will cause mutual harm between students and the local community.

Without avenues of communication or incentives to connect students to local businesses, students will increasingly be prone to resort to big-box retailers like CVS or Amazon rather than exploring alternative options, say Broadway Marketplace or Cannondale Bike Shops. Furthermore, business models and partnerships with commerce organizations like the Harvard Square Business Association will grow increasingly geared toward the tourist market, leaving students with fewer and fewer affordable options.

The more dialogue local businesses can create with the Harvard student body, the greater the long-term sustainability of these establishments will be. There also exists tremendous opportunities for Harvard students to build longer-term relationships with these businesses that can create educational opportunities related to entrepreneurship, marketing, and other real-world skills.

However, this will take a willingness on the part of local businesses to reach out to students, an openness from the administrative level to embrace greater networks of communications with the student body, and a greater willingness among students to understand the Cambridge local economy.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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