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Trendspotting at the 2006 Ontario Universities’ Fair

Every year, Academica Group sends consultants undercover to attend the massive Ontario Universities’ Fair (OUF), held at the end of September at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Typically, about 80,000 prospective students flood through the exhibits and presentations over 3 days. It’s a phenomenal opportunity to observe young people as they begin their university search, and to watch the schools experiment with recruitment approaches and tactics. We take extensive notes on university presentations and booths, and can provide detailed critiques to client institutions. (Let me know if you would like a critique this year!)


Just in time for preparations for the 2007 OUF, I thought I would share some general observations about last year’s event. In the “Skyway”, the covered walkway from Union Station, a simultaneous “Student Life Expo” featured dozens of out-of-province universities, which had set up small recruitment booths, including Bishop’s, Memorial, St. Mary’s, uSask, and uManitoba. Also some Ontario CAATs had set up booths in the Skyway to promote their applied degree programs. A few ambitious schools (McMaster and uWinnipeg) had also booked illuminated overhead posters in the Skyway.


  • Virtually every university offered plastic or foil-stamped paper carryall bags, in which attendees could collect viewbooks from all the other institutions. Because Ryerson’s booth was first to the right of the entrance, their bags tended to predominate.


  • Many institutions (Ryerson, Carleton, McMaster, York, Waterloo, Laurier, uWindsor, uOttawa, Nipissing, and many others) had installed banks of laptops at their booths, to capture lead information from prospective applicants, either on forms requesting print informaiton, or online contest entry ballots. Students who sign up for the “Choose Ryerson” portal are entered in a draw for a free laptop. Carleton offered a draw for free tuition. York was holding a draw for a free Mac Mini. Sadly, those universities that had neither flatscreen monitors running video loops, nor rows of beckoning laptops, seemed decidedly quaint and behind the times.



  •  For those who have never attended OUF, UWO and Queen’s booths are striking visual recreations of their campus environments. Western has a neogothic booth apparently constructed of limestone blocks, while Queen’s features astroturf, benches and lampposts in front of a photograph of campus.


  • uWindsor had a new and unique booth design: sweeping, airy banners surrounding bistro-like seating where prospective students could sit down and chat with profs and reps. (I did not see a barista, though.) Laurentian’s booth recreated a campus reading room, complete with a faux-stone fireplace and a bay window looking out onto a photo of the campus.
  • Lakehead was giving out black t-shirts featuring their second-phase marketing slogans — not the “Yale Schmale” campaign featuring George Bush, but “Indie, not Ivy” etc.


  • Nipissing’s booth again featured a mini photo studio, with a backdrop photo of campus, against which prospective students could have their photos taken.
  • Many universities have started offering “cluster brochures” (describing a range of related subject areas) or “at a glance” brochures, instead of or in addition to traditional viewbooks.
  • Some universities made superb use of professional video in their presentations. I particularly admired the funky, urban beat of Ryerson’s intro video, and the traditional bagpipes and superb copywriting in the 3-minute Queen’s video (available here). uWaterloo showed a video segment aired on US cable TV. Again, presenters who used only static Powerpoint slides – and some poor souls who used mostly bullet points instead of photographs – risked boring their audiences.
  • Carleton promoted the “High School Locator” on their website, which allows high school students to search for the date and time of liaison presentations at their own school.
  • Most presenters gave out treats or branded trinkets to reward audience participation, such as chocolate bars, water bottles, or pens. At the King’s University College (UWO) booth, branded locker mirrors were particularly popular among high school students.


  • Most exhibitors had outfitted their reps with branded golf shirts. Queen’s had a particularly impressive approach: faculty/staff wore white Queen’s golf shirts, student volunteers wore blue, alumni wore gold, and admissions folks wore red. uWaterloo handed out branded “Glad to be a Grad” stickers to their alumni.
  • Every presentation I attended had a moment that got particular response from the crowd. Queen’s unfurled a 3-page centrefold listing hundreds of campus activities. Waterloo talked about the potential to earn $73,000 on co-op placements during an undergraduate degree. A ripple of enthusiasm passed through the McMaster room when they explained that dorm room food delivery ran until 4:00am.

We’ll be at the 2007 OUF this fall, watching for new trends and taking notes.  What do you think will be different, if anything?  Who has the inside scoop?  Login below and post a comment!

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