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Field Report: The 2007 Ontario College Information Fair

Ken Steele attended the 2007 Ontario College Information Fair this week in Toronto, and provides his observations from Canada’s second-largest post-secondary trade show…

The energy is palpable as hundreds of high school students disembark from their yellow school buses into the bright sunshine at Toronto’s Exhibition Place. The leaves have turned and the summertime home of the CNE now hosts much smaller events: a few signs still point to this past weekend’s “Everything About Sex” Show, while banners announcing the Ontario College Information Fair (OCIF) flap high over Lakeshore Boulevard.

Unlike the Ontario Universities’ Fair (OUF) three weeks earlier, there are no police officers present, and no metal detectors at the doors. A matronly security guard organizes an orderly line until the doors open at 10:00am. Despite the less stringent security, there will also be none of the incidents of violence that marred the OUF – a gathering of ten times as many high school seniors. As I watch the students file into the exhibit hall, I am struck by the much higher proportion of boys in attendance here, than at the OUF.

The OCIF anticipates 8,000 to 9,000 attendees over a single day. The Fair fills a mid-size exhibit hall in the massive Direct Energy Centre, which is otherwise unoccupied today. In a sense, this is the downtownToronto stop of a rotating “College Information Program” tour, which visits each college in the province. This stop is hosted by Centennial, George Brown, Humber, Seneca, and Sheridan Colleges, and the Michener Institute, and sponsored by Colleges Ontario.

In the Exhibit Hall:

Entering the exhibit hall, it immediately becomes clear that this isn’t your typical CIP stop in a high school or college gymnasium. Sure, some of the most distant colleges have sent a single representative and the same table-top display they would use in those smaller venues, but Toronto’s largest colleges – Humber, Seneca, George Brown, Sheridan, and Centennial – have massive exhibit booths that reach 15 or 20 feet into the air.

Centennial’s booth, just inside the entrance, is immediately striking because of the many staff and students wearing neon green t-shirts. The booth features working mechanical exhibits like motorbikes and a moving robotic arm that captivates a crowd of onlookers.

Sheridan’s booth is dominated by a massive black canopy overhead, with the College’s spray-painted slogan, “I Choose,” perhaps the largest text in the room. Alongside stacks of viewbooks and course calendars, students are encouraged to complete a lead capture postcard for a chance to win a $1,000 tuition credit. I am told that Sheridan has more than 50 students helping to staff its booth today.

George Brown’s exhibit is more colourful, with stainless steel struts and a series of kiosks specific to each faculty. Most have small flatscreen monitors cycling through Powerpoint slides or video. A flood of prospective students clusters around the more popular programs.

Seneca’s booth is open and airy, with large red banners overhead and plenty of red-shirted faculty, staff and students bustling between kiosks for each subject area. Although Colleges Ontario thrusts plastic bags into the hands of each and every one of us entering the hall, Seneca dominates the crowd by giving out free black canvas tote bags, which are extremely popular and appear to be carried by more than half the students at the Fair. To obtain the deluxe bag, prospective students need to complete a contest ballot for a chance to win an iPod Shuffle.

Humber’s booth dominates one whole wall of the exhibit hall, with glossy backdrops for each major school division. Like most colleges, in addition to viewbooks Humber is distributing bookmark postcards promoting their upcoming fall open house, and their prospective student microsite,

Recruiters at some of the smaller college booths have had to be more imaginative to capture attention.Sault College recruiters are wearing jogging suits emblazoned with the school’s name. Reps from the Michener Institute are wearing white lab coats, to reinforce the medical focus of the institution.

Algonquin College has a mini putting green set up to promote its Golf and Ski Operations Management diploma program.

Niagara College’s booth is delineated by massive wine barrels, and they apparently offered wine and cheese during the morning (although I missed it all).

The prize for the most “out there” booth theme would have to go to North Bay’s Canadore College: not only did they bring their own muskoka chairs and wooden deck, but they played up their new “Crime Scene Investigation” certificate program (still pending Ministry approval) with yellow police tape, white lab coats, and even a flatscreen TV running episodes of the hit TV show, CSI. (Maybe it was a little over the top, but the question is – what did the target audience think of it?)

Most Ontario colleges have dropped the word “College” from their brand identities: it’s simply “Sheridan,” “Seneca”, “Mohawk” or “Sault.” Humber appears to be alone in attaching the word “polytechnic” to its brand through the tagline, “Defining polytechnic education.” George Brown College seems to have added “George” back into their tagline, “Brown Gets You the Job.”

Unsurprisingly, despite all the talk about eliminating printed course calendars, most exhibits are handing them out liberally. Many also have glossy full-colour viewbooks, and/or program cluster brochures. OnlyConfederation College tells me they are phasing out calendars, printing just a few for guidance counselors and those who really had to have them. I’m particularly intrigued when I see that there is no print material whatsoever at the Northern College booth – but then I discover that it was simply lost by the courier. The only multimedia being distributed is the “interactive viewbook” for the Michener Institute, a small glossy booklet with a CD-ROM tucked into the back cover.

Although the exhibit hall is packed from 10am until 1pm, by 2pm the school buses start to depart, and with them the tide of prospective students ebbs. Although some parents and students arrive later in the afternoon, the remaining five hours of the Fair are comparatively quiet.

The Presentations:

While the morning presentations are packed, standing-room-only affairs, the afternoon sessions are sparsely attended, often with only half a dozen prospective students in the room. I’m the only person who shows up for one session, in particular, for which even the presenters never show.

Something that strikes me during the morning sessions is just how differently young people behave at these college presentations, compared to the university presentations earlier in the month at the OUF. At the OUF, almost no students enter presentations late – in fact, the doors are guarded at some presentations to prevent it entirely – yet a great many slip out early when they grow bored with the presentation. At the OCIF, more than half the students arrive late, taking up standing positions along the walls in many cases, yet no-one seems to leave presentations until the moment they are all “dismissed.” I’m not sure what it means – I’d be interested to hear anyone’s theories on the subject – but I’m sure it creates less anxiety for speakers when their audience isn’t walking out in mid-sentence.

I am only able to catch seven presentations, but I am impressed by the depth of knowledge many presenters have about their colleges. The best presenters pace themselves well, so that they don’t deluge us with facts and figures. Some make good use of “polling questions” to get a feel for their audience, and keep us awake. Humber’s presentation shows a close-up of the prerequisite chart in the viewbook, and walks us through interpreting it. Sheridan’s presentation includes a typical student schedule for a week. Seneca’s presentation not only points us to the OCAS website, but shows a screen capture to make it more familiar. These all seem like helpful additions.

Generally, most presentations at OCIF make effective use of photography in Powerpoint slides, often rotating the images while the presenter speaks. A few presenters insist on a low-tech, interview approach which could as easily be done at the exhibit as in a scheduled presentation. Of the seven presentations I see, only Fanshawe College makes strong use of multimedia, with jazzy music and animation in an introductory video clip. I would have liked to see more use of video in the presentation, in fact – a quick tour of campus, a videoclip in residence instead of a floorplan, some student testimonials, that sort of thing. But no colleges are using video to that extent at the Fair.

I am struck, though, by how difficult it is for college recruiters to truly differentiate their institutions from each other. The application process and deadlines are identical. The prerequisites are awfully similar. Certificates, diplomas, degrees, collaborative degrees, post-graduate certificates, apprenticeships – it’s all the same in each presentation. Aside from unique programs, the only major difference I hear while at the Fair is that Centennial College gives 15% extra credit to students for their “U” level grades, while all otherOntario colleges apparently treat U and C level grades identically. That elicits excitement from the group!

Humber College has an impressive slideshow built in html, and seems to be on the cutting edge applying technology to recruitment. Prospective students are encouraged to build their own page on for customized news updates. And the presenter urges us to join Humber’s Facebook group, or to IM the recruiters on MSN. Seneca promotes the fact that they have a budget calculator on their website, which is also a feature prospective students tell us they value a great deal.

Some presenters seem to realize that their real job is story-teller: spinning memorable anecdotes about themselves or specific students, that make a college’s strengths or unique programs stick in our memories. Emotional stories, or stories that arouse sensations of sight, sound, or taste, are particularly memorable. A deadline becomes much more memorable when we’re told the story of a student who applied late, and couldn’t be considered until all the “equal consideration” applicants were either accepted or rejected. Centennial’s nursing lab, we are told, includes $250,000 mannequins that can simulate giving birth with disturbing verisimilitude. (Sure most colleges have similar equipment, but they didn’t tell the story!)  Sobey’s flew experimental varieties of gelato from Italy to their test kitchens at George Brown, for students and faculty to taste-test. Studio execs from Disney, Industrial Light & Magic, and other Hollywood animation studios come to Sheridan’s campus to screen student videos. It’s also hard to forget the story, once we’re told, that the model on the cover of Centennial’s new viewbook had a nose-ring, before the designers airbrushed it out. Or that their Centre for Creative Communications was the original Degrassi Junior High.

When presenting at a college Fair, remember your poor audience. Facts and figures wash over us all day, in one ear and out the other – even though I am taking copious notes, nobody else is!  What’s more fun to tell, and to hear, are human stories, funny and memorable stories, and if they stay focused on your institution’s key messages, they can create a message that sticks in the mind of your audience.

What Universities could learn from the OCIF:

Many of the college exhibits made good use of eye-catching equipment, experiments, and machinery to serve as conversation-starters. Perhaps more universities could follow UOIT’s lead in that regard. The college presenters seem to do a much better job spinning stories about students, employers, and programs than the university presenters I saw, who largely focused on their own experiences in residence, and rather abstract encouragement to “get involved” in campus life.

The colleges kept their presentations to 30 minutes, with 15 minute breaks between them. At the OUF, the most successful presentations used only 45 minutes of their hour, but many presenters used up the entire hour and left student no time between sessions to grab lunch or make a rest stop. Enforcing a 15-minute gap between presentations would do students a real favour.

I’m no security consultant, but from what the Toronto Police said to the media, the stabbings at the OUF occurred because students were kept waiting more than an hour to clear security. The OCIF had no metal detectors, few security guards, no police, and also no incidents of violence, that I know of.  I wonder, could the OUF perhaps consider loosening up some of the overly assertive security precautions?

What Colleges could learn from the OUF:

Although many colleges were capturing lead data from prospective students using paper postcards or ballots, I saw none of the laptops so common at the OUF to capture applicant data directly into electronic form. Colleges should consider whether this wouldn’t get them more accurate contact information, in a form that could be used immediately for a mailing or email campaign.

None of the presenters at the OCIF used microphones, but most OUF presenters wore wireless clip mics that made it far easier to hear them at the back of a crowded presentation room. I think it’s worth investing a few bucks in the technology, in this kind of setting. A college fair is not the same as a classroom, and certainly there were times when the speaker could not quite be heard over the chatter.

While the universities are quite consistent at handing viewbooks to every student as they enter the presentation room, college practice seemed to vary quite a bit. And while many universities hand out promotional products, from locker mirrors and glow-pens to t-shirts, few of the colleges seem to do the same. The College Student Alliance booth had a nice basket of Hallowe’en candy, Cambrian College gave out branded pencils, and of course Seneca gave away canvas totebags, but one of these years somebody is going to start giving away t-shirts like Lakehead’s “Do Something” shirts.

At the OUF, some universities made particularly good use of multimedia in their presentations. Queen’s had a wonderful, inspiring promotional video (watch the video here). uToronto showed snips of Q&A with students. Brock used so much video that their presenters were displaced for half the session, but did a great job combining testimonials from students, faculty, alumni and employers. College recruiters, attempting to appeal to an even less “bookish” audience than the universities, should really be leveraging the power of multimedia to create a compelling, fast-paced and visually stimulating presentation.

For more details and photos of the OUF, see my previous blog.

My friends on Facebook can check out more pics in the 2007 OCIF album.
(New friends are welcome!)

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