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Field Report from the 2007 Ontario Universities’ Fair

Ken Steele attended the 2007 Ontario Universities’ Fair last month in Toronto, and provides his observations from Canada’s largest post-secondary trade show…

Walking around the 2007 OUF gives me a strong sense of déjà vu – set as usual in the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, largely the same booth designs as last year, with similar crowds, and even many presentations unchanged. (For photos and commentary regarding the 2006 OUF, see my earlier blog entry.) Yet there are definitely differences this year.

For one thing, the SkyWalk from Union Station is deserted this year, not bustling with the Student Life Expo. (Organizers tell me that they were pushed into a tent village on neighbouring parkland this year instead.) Ontario Colleges don’t seem to be represented at the Expo this year, although the same hardy recruiters from out-of-province universities are back at their tables – Bishop’s, UPEI, uSaskatchewan, and Athabasca, among others. Since the Chartered Accountants are co-sponsors of the OUF, the Certified Management Accountants are also persona non grata inside, and have a table in the tent instead. Outside the tent, a half-naked fellow in Trojan armor is promoting condoms.

Before entering the OUF, the other major difference this year becomes clear: massive lineups as 90,000 young people and parents are subjected to security scans with metal detectors, wands, and hand-searches of handbags and knapsacks. Entering this year’s OUF feels more like clearing security at an airport than checking in at the welcome booth inside the gates of a university campus. Uniformed police and security guards are very visible at the entrances to the MTCC, outside the exhibit hall, and in the corridor between presentations – giving extra weight to the authority of the young people outside the Ryerson presentation, who refuse me admission because the show has already started.

Sadly, despite the heightened security precautions, there will nonetheless be two stabbings of young people in the line-up outside the OUF this weekend, and some kind of violent assault that shatters the glass of an escalator right outside the exhibit hall. (One exhibitor tells me she heard it was a mugging.) Inevitably, this heightened security increases parent and student concerns about on-campus security and off-campus safety – how can we not absorb some of this anxiety in the process of considering universities?

On Friday morning, hundreds of school buses unload tens of thousands of grade 11 and 12 students in the streets outside, and they flood across the plaza to the MTCC entrance. The crowd of young people consists primarily of couples and groups of friends, laughing and joking as they crowd into the exhibit hall, or debate the merits of attending a presentation. By the end of the day, all of them carry bags full of university literature, and in particular the cloth bags from the University of Guelph are a huge hit, emblazoned with the words “My bag is NOT plastic!” (Booth staffers tell me that by the end of the first day, the bags are all gone – although they generously find me one last bag so that I can start my mission, collecting viewbooks.) Carleton’s bags, like last year, are made of recycled paper with rope handles and the name of the institution embossed in gold foil, which also succeeds at outclassing the plain plastic bags being distributed at most other booths.

Although many universities give away trinkets – UOIT has glow-pens again, King’s University College has magnetic locker mirrors that say “Picture yourself at King’s” – perhaps the most visible are the black t-shirts being given out at the Lakehead University booth, emblazoned with the new Lakehead slogan, “Do Something.”

A good strategy to get the institution’s message out at the OUF, but it pales next to the “Yorkies” – wearing bright red t-shirts, faces painted red or painted with the letters “YORK,” shouting and having a great time. Prospective students are encouraged to “get Yorkified” at the York exhibit, by painting their hair red, or wearing a temporary York tattoo, in exchange for a chance to win an iPod Shuffle. Meanwhile outside the MTCC, a cyclist circles the building towing a trailer promoting York. Guerilla marketing, you would have to call it, and edgy at an event where I am told participating institutions are forbidden even from parading their mascots.

Later in the afternoon on Friday, when the school buses have taken the majority of students away, there’s a desperation in the air as presenters stand in their doorways shouting at passers-by, attempting to lure them into their nearly empty presentation rooms. The sessions are small, the booths relatively quiet, as the first day winds to a close.

On Saturday and Sunday, the crowd is back but much more subdued. No school buses dumping loads of unaccompanied minors – on the weekend, the OUF parking garage fills up with luxury SUVs, and prospective students move through the exhibit hall with Mom and/or Dad, and often younger siblings too. At the cafeteria table, prospective students aren’t joking and laughing, they’re negotiating with their parents: “OK, we’ll go to the Queen’s presentation, but I also want to see Western’s.” “If I go to UTM instead of uWaterloo, will you buy me a car?” I wish I had all day to just eavesdrop on this massive focus group.

In the Exhibit Hall:

In the exhibit hall, the vast majority of the university booths are identical to last year. Ryerson’s booth still reminds me of a row of bank tellers, sitting behind a long counter with the names of their programs suspended above them. uToronto’s booth barely makes an effort at aesthetic appeal, but is the largest and most crowded of all, regardless. Western’s booth remains my personal favourite, with simulated neo-gothic archways of limestone as the backdrop for hundreds of interactions and discussions. Without a doubt it’s the most striking presence in the massive hall.

A few booths are noticeably new this year. Queen’s has a massive, sail-like booth that matches the fabric look of their materials, and is certainly brighter than the campus backdrop they have used in recent years.

uWindsor has added its new curvy logo to the booth that was new last year, a curving fabric banner surrounding a circular meeting area of bistro tables and stools for university reps and prospective students to sit down and chat.

Brock has a new four-sided approach with bright colours and plenty of opportunity to interact. At the corners, students are encouraged to enter their contact information for a chance to win a prize, or can pick up a viewbook without wading through the crowd.

Laptops and contest opportunities are only marginally more prevalent this year on the exhibit hall floor. Many institutions want to capture contact information from the 90,000 attendees at the OUF, and they do so by offering prizes ranging from free tuition or $1,000 tuition discounts, to iPods, laptops, or mountain bikes.

The Presentations:

At this year’s OUF I sit through ten university presentations over two days, and quickly feel first-hand the frustration and impatience of so many applicants. The majority of universities are hitting the same points in their presentations – prominent research, glorious history, beautiful architecture, diversity of campus clubs, residence facilities, free transit passes, guaranteed scholarships. Many are now imitating the pre-show trivia slides that appear in movie theatres, and that uToronto implemented years ago. Quite a few are pushing statistics like student/teacher ratios, Maclean’s rankings, or their standings in TVO’s “Best Lecturer” competition. The weakest presentations literally walk us through the viewbook, page by page. The audience starts to wonder, are all universities really this much alike? Is this what lecture theatres will be like? And after the third lecture on OUAC, admission deadlines, how high school averages are calculated, and OSAP funding, the restlessness is palpable as many students head for the doors to abandon presentations before the Q&A.

Thankfully, a few presentations do find ways to stand out from the others:

Powerpoint Slides: OK, in 2007 you would take this for granted, but several of the OUF presentations I attend use no multimedia at all, while others use Powerpoint quite badly. Some poor souls put all their key points up in text, but direct us to pages in the viewbook to look at photographs of campus, residence, or classrooms. (Now I ask you, why wouldn’t the folks designing the viewbook share the photographs with the liaison department?) Jazzy photographs behind an engaging speaker are far more compelling.

Inspiring Video: If a picture is worth a thousand words, video is worth at least ten thousand. An increasing number of universities are incorporating video clips in their OUF presentations, to different effect. The Queen’s presentation includes a short, fast-paced and inspiring marketing video that sells us on the idea that a university can have tradition without being traditional, and that Queen’s diverse students and alumni are many threads woven into a single tartan. (See the video here). York’s presentation included a friendly tour of a student’s residence room, and a really fast-paced overview of athletics. uToronto’s video clips include a range of students answering key questions about their experience at UofT. Although I couldn’t attend Ryerson’s presentation this year, I still remember their use of video last year, with an urban, throbbing soundtrack and plenty of aspirational camera angles up the sides of skyscrapers toward the downtown Toronto sky. This year, I was particularly struck by the use of video throughout Brock’s session – a video tour guide starts by assuring us “I’ve been where you’re sitting,” and walks us through what Brock has to offer, making the presenters almost redundant.

The bottleneck: As I line up for the Queen’s presentation, I wonder whether in fact I’ve arrived too late and whether I’ll actually be able to make it in – and then I smile to think that again, the medium is the message, and the twinge of anxiety we feel getting into the presentation is nothing compared to the anxiety applicants feel over admission to the university itself, which now has an admission average of 88%.

The Science Fair: UOIT always seems to be embracing new innovations in recruitment – for example, their recruiters encourage interaction on Facebook, and they are constructing a virtual campus on Second Life – but the UOIT presentation room is the first I have seen at OUF that creates stations around the perimeter for each faculty, like science fair booths, with operating equipment and faculty to explain it. The overall presentation is kept short, so that attendees have time to tour the stations and speak with faculty. An interesting idea, and one which might work for the more serious attendees.

The Aircraft Hangar: uToronto couldn’t make their massive presentation room feel bigger if they tried. Massive echoing chamber, distant black ceiling with the hum of ventilation, row upon row of hard plastic chairs. The medium, again, sends a message. As always, the emphasis in the UofT presentation is on the institution’s massive scale – $1 billion in research each year, 267 Canada Research Chairs, thousands of courses, 475 intramural teams, etc. The size of the room, and the distant voice of a barely visible presenter, is the lasting impression.

The Night Club: York’s presentation is perhaps the slickest performance event imaginable. Loud thumping music (by York alumni) plays prior to the presentation. Then the houselights darken, red spotlights shine up the pillars around the periphery, and a spotlight illuminates the host on a raised stage in the middle of the room. (It helps if your recruitment director is as talented as David Huckvale, who could give Canadian Idol’sBen Mulroney a run for his money.) York cheerleaders do a demonstration performance. Things may go too far when special effects reproduce the count-down and lift-off of a York alumnus on the space shuttle – but then I’m not the target audience, am I?

The Game Show: The York presentation also engages the audience, and rewards them for their attention. Students and staff distribute candy (including Mars bars, to emphasize York space research) and various prizes (Frisbees, a rose, music CDs, coffee beans) to reinforce different points about York. The host approaches a student from the audience and asks her grade average, doling out in $100 bills the amount of scholarship she would be guaranteed if she attended York. (He is able to take the cash back afterward, since she isn’t quite ready to commit yet.) At the conclusion of the presentation, attendees all receive a MuchMusic download card, good for 3 free songs, in exchange for their contact information.

Clickers: At the beginning of the Western session, staff hand out a few flashy electronic gizmos they call “clickers,” and I look forward to seeing a live demonstration of this classroom technology I have only previously read about. What a great way to turn the medium into the message, to show students how interactive a 300-person presentation room can be? (In the end, I am surprised and disappointed that the clickers never get mentioned again, but I have to assume that they were in fact used during some of Western’s other presentations this weekend.)

Choosing the Voice:

While there are a variety of approaches to presentations at OUF, as I sit through them I am struck by the fundamental difference between the presentations run by current students, recent alumni, and mature professionals.

When a university decides to have its presentation given by current students, doubtless the assumption is that young people a year or two older than the audience will present an aspirational, often good-looking role model, who can retain audience interest better than someone older. These students often do a good job conveying enthusiasm and school spirit, and can speak at length about their own personal experiences, the quality of residence and athletics. But the presentations I see at the OUF reinforce for me that student volunteers or part-time employees may make fine tour guides, but will often be unsure of their facts and unable to answer audience questions adequately. At the risk of appearing callous, I actually clock one presenter at 9 “ums” a minute. Somehow, when a 20-year-old assures me that “in my opinion, we have the best nursing program in the country” or “our social work program is fantastic,” I am left wanting more factual support for the claim. Naturally, I have more in common with the parents in the audience than the students, but this must have an impact on them too.

The majority of OUF presentations are delivered by recent graduates of the institution, who have been working for a year or so in the liaison department as their first job upon graduation. These young alumni share some of the student strengths – young, good-looking, enthusiastic – but also some of their weaknesses, including a tendency to speak too much about their own personal experiences, and to be unable to provide much of a broader perspective. They are better versed in facts about programs and facilities, but the unfair question in the back of the audience’s mind has got to be, “When I graduate, is this the job I’m going to get?” A bit too young to seem genuinely caring about the teens in the room, these recent grads sometimes seem a bit aloof, or practice overly artful speech techniques like constant rhetorical questions.

Some OUF presentations are delivered by more mature recruitment staff, like York’s recruitment director David Huckvale. David is youthful and high-energy, but a very polished speaker who really knows his university. Likewise, I am impressed by the warmth and good humour of Iain Smith, an experienced academic advisor at Western with a wonderful Scots accent that allows him to convincingly dismiss concerns about UWO’s size as “piffle.” The parents in the audience find his tone caring and reassuring as they contemplate sending their kids away to school. At least Western seems to have some grown-ups running the place.

In the end, it appears that the mature and knowledgeable adult presenter makes a much better impression on parents, and may well convey better information to students. What is critical is to support the “voice of experience” in these presentations with more youthful co-presenters, or videoclips of students conveying the youthful enthusiasm and personal experiences that students are curious about. An increasing number of OUF presentations are making better use of video to bring together the voices of engaged students, successful alumni, intelligent faculty and caring administrators in a combination that hits all the right notes. I look forward to seeing how things evolve next year!

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