As a business development and marketing specialist Paula Finch found her experience as a parent visiting Universities with her son a real eye opener. We asked Paula to share these experiences plus her top tips for getting it right on the day …

  1. Preparation is vital
  • The information made available to us ahead of our visits differed from University to University. Some sent everything I could possibly require which I found particularly useful. I found practical information such as directions, parking facilities, recommended overnight accommodation. I could also explore the list of presentations and plan a time-efficient itinerary with my son.

Some sent welcome communication to my son, either in the post or via email, confirming attendance and including subject-specific presentation booking information. This usually directed us to their website for more information.

  • But, my experience of the various University websites was that they differed hugely in terms of navigation and the ease with which information could be found. They ranged from the simple and obvious, with direct links to where I needed to be, to the frustratingly complex, the latter leaving me wondering if information was being deliberately hidden or had simply been omitted. Within some, critical information about parking arrangements, presentation schedules etc was so hard to find that I gave up. Also, many of the websites we experienced appeared to be aimed at the student already at the University, with little attention paid to the needs of the prospective student or the main influencer over their choice of place of study, the parent.
  1. Get it right on the day.
  • Signs are so important. Sat Navs are great for getting a visitor to the general area but there is also some comfort from seeing visual signs directing to where they need to be. It’s reassuring to know that the queue you are in is for visitor parking, not just road works. One inner city university’s prospectus suggested that the park and ride facility was the best option, and promised that signs would be available. After a complete circuit of the very large campus we found a single sign for the park and ride location, which was already full to overflowing. To make matters worse no other options were offered, and there were no students on hand to ask.
  • As an added twist, we were presented with a brochure on arrival which provided information about paid parking facilities on campus, including the amount to pay. Parents who had received the brochure in advance, and were armed with the correct parking fees, discovered that the advertised amount did not tally with the parking machine. With no help on hand many visitors felt abandoned and stressed before they had even started the day. Clear and accurate information about practical arrangements is essential.
  1. To register or not.
  • The registration process was incredibly confusing. The universities we visited emphasised the need to bring a document that listed the details of our visit, including the talks we had applied to attend. This created an expectation among parents that there would be a specific registration area. Unfortunately this was not the case in any of the Universities that we visited. Whilst wandering the corridors we did find the general exhibition area, which was positive. But confused parents and students wandering around asking where they need to register does not make for a good start to an open day.
  1. Talks
  • All the universities included a useful introductory talk. These differed in style, content and presenters – from current and past students to just the Director of Admissions. They all covered similar information but they were of interest. All addressed employability, necessary but also a great opportunity for some marketing spin. It was vital to compare what was said to what was published within the league tables and to what we could learn from speaking to the employability staff.
  • If visitors only attend this talk without conducting additional research they are at risk of being misled. Even the definition of the term ‘employability’ can change from one university to the next. It was important to understand better what lay behind the stats. The talk on funding was also vital. The golden nuggets for us related to scholarships, the potential for a year out in industry, opportunities available within the summer vacation.
  • All the subject-led talks were informative and well delivered, but in one case, oversubscribed. With over 11,000 visitors there on the day, other talks will have been also. With registrations systems in place there is no reason why this was necessary.
  • Some of the additional talks, outside of the main subject areas, made the biggest difference for both myself and my son. E.g. those about sports, clubs , the holistic student approach, and those for first-time parents covering what to expect, look out for and understand about the journey ahead. We left feeling that our needs had been considered closely.
  • I haven’t seen, but I think we need a talk on Student accommodation. Most places offered a tour but so much more could be covered in a presentation by students explaining what type of accommodation they chose and why. In a world where one size doesn’t fit all, even with the more popular options at risk of being over-subscribed it would help prospective students to make a better informed decision. For example we heard within one talk that those who opt for private living in their first year are at greater risk of becoming isolated and suffering from depression.
  • Information was not always correct. We found Student Ambassadors to be really helpful and supportive but received conflicting replies to one question which took us much time to resolve. Had all the sports ambassadors been briefed correctly we would have saved a great deal of time and energy. I was also sent in 3 different directions for one seminar by 3 different Ambassadors.
    Finally, a friend and her son attended a talk on her son’s chosen subject to be told that the entry A level grades were now higher than those published in the prospectus. Had they known they would never have invested the time and effort in the visit.

So, our top tips for success on the day are:

  1. Brand values – make sure you reflect these at every point in the journey.
    Also, ensure you give the best customer experience every step of the way. Provide access to all relevant information and make the effort to provide information in ways that suit your prospects’ needs, not in ways that are simply convenient to you.
  2. Once a student has registered online send them an email describing clearly the process to be followed on the day, with links to the essential pieces of information. Include a suggestion that they share the email with whoever is taking them.
    And make it obvious within your website how to find guidance about how to make the most from the open day (and think it through from the perspective of the first time visitor to the site).
  3. Include online a menu of relevant documents with clear guidance about recommended pre-open day reading. Provide options for despatch through the post as well as downloading and printing from the website.
  4. Make it as easy to navigate and park on the day with clear printed maps and plenty of signs (internally and externally). Include signs to accommodation that make the name and type of accommodation clear plus whether it is open for viewing. We encountered signs directing us to accommodation but none telling us that we had arrived.
  5. Make sure the campus is clean and tidy (think about how it looks, smells and feels to the first-time visitor). Invite someone new to the University to walk around and provide feedback.
  6. Make sure there are Ambassadors everywhere, not just at key locations but present enroute to confirm you are going in the right direction (Olympic Game Makers should be the model). Also, make sure Ambassadors know where every event is being held and where to find the relevant room.
  7. Visit other Universities on their open days, experience it as someone new, take back and learn from the good and the bad. Focus upon everything that you notice as a new visitor in particular how the campus looks, feels and smells . You will be amazed.
  8. Make it easy for visitors to give you feedback – through your website, twitter, Facebook, SMS, or printed forms. Feedback will help you to improve which is what education is all about after all!

Paula Finch is a Director of N. B. Marketing Ltd, working with organisations in the private, public and third sectors supporting them to be the best they can be, delivering in line with their brand values and customer expectations, creating a positive experience that surprises and delights. If any universities would find it useful to chat about her experience to date, bounce ideas, then please do get in touch Paula Finch 01778 424640 for an exploratory informal chat.