RRU MBA Asia Pacific Trade and Investment Program: COVID-19 and the Shift from Travel Abroad to a "Virtual" Online Asia Field Residency

April 9, 2020
Hugh Stephens Jeff Kucharski Charles Krusekopf
RRU MBA Asia Pacific Trade and Investment Program - a virtual experience

The rooms in the hotels in Tokyo and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) had been all booked, the air tickets and visas were arranged, speakers and site visits had been lined up, appointments with companies and government officials in Tokyo and HCMC were confirmed - and then the COVID-19 crisis hit first Asia, and then North America. The onsite learning experience planned in March 2020 for the Asia Pacific Trade and Investment (APTI) specialization that would take MBA and MGM students to Asia for 8 days was suddenly thrown into turmoil as the virus, and travel restrictions, spread throughout the region and then crossed the Pacific to Canada.

This year was the fifth year for APTI, which is an international business specialization option within the MBA program. It was created in recognition of the growing level of business and trade between Canada and Asia and was designed to include a field experience in Asia that introduces students to the realities of doing business in the region. APTI includes two integrated courses, EXMN 665 (Asia Pacific Business Environment) and EXMN 669 (Asia Pacific Management and Strategy), that provide students an overview of the economic, social and business environment in Asia. The courses include online studies that provide an introduction and background information, but the centerpiece of the program is an onsite visit to two Asian countries within a compressed time span of just over a week. The field residency builds on the readings that have been done in the two courses prior to travel, and the lessons learned from the residency are incorporated into the online discussions in the final weeks of the courses. See here for articles on past APTI residencies in Asia including 2018 travel to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Shenzhen, China and 2019 travel to Shanghai and Tokyo.

This year APTI was going to visit Tokyo, Japan and HCMC, Vietnam. In Tokyo, the group of 16 students and 2 instructors were to have two and a half days of meetings, discussions and company visits. The arrangements had been coordinated with the BC Government Trade Office and the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo. After the meetings in Tokyo, the group planned to fly to HCMC mid-week, conduct further meetings and visits in Vietnam, before doing a final program wrap up with student presentations and discussions in HCMC.

Everything for the site visit was ready when the courses launched online in early February, but then the wheels began to fall off. As the coronavirus spread in Asia, one by one, the meetings were canceled, flights reduced and border restrictions were announced. It became quickly apparent that it would not be safe to travel, and the decision was made by the university at the end of February to cancel the field residency.

By this point, the students were almost halfway through the courses and had been doing their reading and packing their bags to prepare for the travel in Asia. After the travel portion of the program was canceled, the instructors, RRU Associate Faculty members Hugh Stephens and Jeff Kucharski, quickly arranged an alternative program of discussions and guest speakers as part of a “virtual residency”.

Some of the activities and resources developed included selected video clips of current events in Japan and Asia-Pacific, supplemented with a voice-over PowerPoint presentation covering various aspects of doing business in Japan and the impact of the pandemic there. Students were also asked to participate in an online discussion forum with the theme being the differences in doing business in Japan and Vietnam.

The program in HCMC was to have started with an overview briefing from the Senior Trade Commissioner at the Canadian Consulate in HCMC, followed by meetings with Canadian businesspeople working on the ground in Vietnam arranged by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in HCMC followed by visits to an industrial park. Instead of visiting Vietnam, during the week of the “residency” two online, live Collaborate sessions were arranged, first with the Canadian Trade Commissioner who, working from home, presented a detailed Powerpoint to the students outlining basic economic facts about Vietnam, the current state of Canada-Vietnam trade relations and highlighting a number of sectors that offered business opportunities. He was able to engage in an interactive Q and A session with the students and offered to respond to follow up inquiries.

A second live online session connected the Executive Director of the Canadian Chamber in HCMC, who recounted his personal experiences during the four years he has lived in Vietnam, introduced the Chamber and its services, and gave some “stories from the frontlines” on challenges faced by Canadian companies in doing business in Vietnam. These online interactive activities were supplemented by additional readings on Vietnam’s current role as Chair of the ASEAN community.

As for the cultural component of the visit, the MBA and MGM programs hoped to get members of the class together in the future to share a Japanese or Vietnamese meal, but given the ongoing social distancing requirements, even that component may have to take place online this year.

But one day these restrictions will end, and Asia will remain an important business location for Canadian companies and business leaders. While the students were disappointed that they were unable to visit Asia this year, they have been invited to participate in a future APTI residency in Asia. The APTI program is also offered as a Graduate Certificate, and all MBA and MGM alums are invited to join a future offering of the APTI program.

The instructors and students of APTI 2020 will long remember their unique "virtual residency", which made the best of a difficult situation and allowed them to gain some insight into Asia, while never leaving home. But as the current crisis has shown us, we live in a highly globalized and interconnected world. It is increasingly important for leaders in all fields to gain an understanding of other cultures and countries, and we trust that APTI 2021 will once again allow students and alumni an opportunity to explore Asia, both online and onsite.