A welcome way to pick and mix

June 9, 2006

For a successful open day that will attract both prospective students and their parents you need judicious planning, plenty of publicity and - ideally - good weather, as Harriet Swain outlines

More than a thousand students and their parents are about to turn up for a look around your university. It's pouring with rain, two of your speakers have cancelled, you've just realised you forgot to mention the event to catering, and the main seminar rooms were pre-booked by the regional Subbuteo convention.

OK. You couldn't help the weather. But you could have stopped your university open day becoming a washout if you'd only planned a bit better.

If there is one thing students will remember from an open day it is bad organisation, says Matthew Andrews, director of the Graduate School at Durham University. He says one of the first things you need to consider is who is likely to attend the day and what their concerns are likely to be.

You then need to make sure you address those concerns during the event.

Donald McLeod, chair of the Higher Education External Relations Association, says you need a dedicated events team who should book the open day at least 12 to 18 months in advance, make sure it is included in the university's calendar and ensure that key rooms are reserved. You need to avoid clashes with competitors and with other major events and should not attempt to run multiple events on the same day within particular faculties or schools.

He suggests holding the open day at the weekend rather than midweek to ensure maximum attendance and advises getting support from senior management: "It is surprising the effect it has if the vice-chancellor gives the opening address."

As for other speakers, these need to be confirmed and briefed as far in advance as possible and briefed again about five working days before the event. McLeod advises arranging back-up speakers where possible.

In all this, you must take account of parents, who are an increasing presence at open days. Andrews suggests holding separate events for them so that they don't dominate. "It's a case of giving students the opportunity to find out about the institution while also treating parents with the respect they deserve as people who will help students make the decision," he says.

Michael Goldstein, non-executive chair of Heist, the higher education marketing consultancy, says it is a good idea to let parents mix and share their impressions, ideally over food and drink.

But don't make the day too gimmicky, he advises. It should be treated as a serious occasion, not a funfair.

Once you've set the open day in motion you need to make sure everyone knows about it - from estates, catering and security to the local paper. McLeod says that you need to consider every marketing channel available, such as setting up a website with a registration form, using e-mail lists from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, alumni communications, press advertisements, local radio, posters, higher education fairs and talks to schools.

Those who pre-register will need paper and electronic copies of the open-day programme between five and ten working days before the event takes place, he says.

Meanwhile, you need to enlist the help of students. John Wright, national secretary of the Higher Education Liaison Officers Association, says these can be the most valuable element of an open day if they are enlisted as ambassadors or campus guides. But Goldstein says you need to select, train and pay them properly. "You don't want to brainwash them but they are ambassadors," he says. "You don't want them walking past a building and saying, 'I don't know what goes on there.'" McLeod says student ambassadors doing campus tours need to do "dummy runs" before the event and should not be allowed to set out on a tour when it appears that they have only just left the student bar. Nor should staff read the paper when they ought to be talking to prospective students and their parents.

Wright says the association always tries to encourage academics to look at an open day through the eyes of a 17-year-old and keep things simple.

"Remember that these are students very much at the nursery slopes of the subject," he says. "They aren't going to be too impressed with the number of PhDs or research ratings."

He stresses that students are looking at a lifestyle rather than the prospect of an academic career in a certain subject. They are therefore likely to want to hear about student societies and opportunities to widen their horizons. "They may not realise, for example, that they could study for a while in Japan," he says. "That's really exciting when you are a 17-year-old from a local sixth form." At the same time, Andrews says, you mustn't patronise them and you should avoid overusing superlatives or being rude about other institutions.

Goldstein says you need to sell the location as well as the university. If it is in a town, you must be prepared to talk about how safe it is, how good the clubs are and how friendly the locals are towards students. Don't neglect the campus either. McLeod recommends clearing it of rubbish and cleaning the toilets.

Goldstein says that you need to know who turned up to the event and should collect e-mail addresses, telephone numbers and mobile telephone numbers so you can contact them later.

McLeod says you must remember to issue feedback forms and should have booked a post-event review for no more than five working days after the event has taken place. That way, you can make sure you get in before the Subbuteo team next year.

Further information

Higher Education External Relations Association: www.heera.ac.uk
Higher Education Liaison Officers Association: www.heloa.ac.uk  
Heist, specialist marketing services agency focusing on higher education: www.heist.co.uk

TOP TIPS

  • Plan meticulously
  • Know your audience
  • Publicise the event in every way possible
  • Make the most of help from current students
  • Monitor the success of the event and respond to feedback

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