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Field Report: The 2009 Ontario College Information Fair

Ken Steele attended the 2009 Colleges Ontario recruitment fair this week at the Toronto CNE Fairgrounds, and provides his observations from one of Canada’s largest PSE trade shows…

Although studies (particularly Academica Group’s UCAS Applicant Study) have made it clear that prospective college students turn first and most frequently to internet search engines and institutional websites to gather information about their post-secondary options, many still appreciate the opportunity to meet college recruiters face-to-face, pick up some glossy viewbooks and ask a few key questions. For years now, Ontario’s 24 colleges of applied arts and technology have helped meet that demand by mounting an annual, six-week College Information Program (CIP) tour of the province.  This year, the CIP made 41 stops from Sioux Lookout to Kemptville and everywhere in-between, from September 28 until November 6.  In about half the locations, the college recruiters set up their tabletop displays in high school gymnasia, while in the rest they planted their flags on the campus of a “host college” for the day.

When the CIP comes to Toronto, though, instead of six days on six different host college campuses, the colleges concentrate their efforts on a single-day event that draws about 10,000 prospective students to the CNE fairgrounds. They call it the Ontario College Information Fair (to parallel the Ontario Universities’ Fair, held about a month earlier), and it is one of the largest higher education fairs in Canada.

Host College Exhibits

The six host institutions (George Brown, Humber, Seneca, Centennial, Sheridan, and the Michener Institute) dominated the trade show floor — as well they should, since they were largely responsible for the costs of staging and promoting the event. (The 12 non-college exhibitors doubtless also helped defray the expenses, and ranged from the CGA and CMA, the Canadian Forces and WSIB, to Contiki Holidays, among others.)


Centennial’s exhibit was largely unchanged since I last attended the OCIF in 2007. The fashionable spring green graphics remain fresh, and the booth overflowed with staff and volunteers in matching green golf shirts that made quite an impression. The booth graphics now integrate Centennial’s promotion, however, and feature images of humanity in need, rather than typical career outcomes.


Sheridan’s exhibit has been completely reskinned, the black “I Choose” motif of two years ago replaced with bright white and blue graphics, and the new tagline, “Shine Brighter.”  Sheridan staff and students were still wearing timeless black t-shirts, but overall the booth seemed brighter and more inviting.


George Brown College rearranged the towering aluminum lattice display, which had been a square two years ago, to form instead a long display dominating half of one wall of the exhibit hall.  GBC’s graphics emphasize career outcomes, and the slogan “George Brown Gets You the Job” (along with what appears to be this year’s recruitment slogan, “Make it happen”). Pop-up displays with oval cut-outs allowed students to quite literally “see yourself in the job,” and after some coercion I tried out being a chef. (Thankfully nobody threw a pie!)


In what is perhaps the most intricate and complex lead-gathering tactic I have seen, GBC reps handed out slips of paper with code numbers on them, prospective students entered those codes into computer kiosks and surrendered personal contact information and their program areas of interest, the kiosks then spat out combination codes and students tried out the combinations on the big silver “vault” to win an instant prize. While virtually every college was collecting contact information on slips of paper or web pages, GBC’s approach certainly had the advantage that it engaged prospective students longer, and perhaps even prevented them from visiting as many other booths. (I imagine it would have been a bit chaotic at the height of traffic in the morning, though.)


Like GBC, Seneca repurposed the same exhibit graphics they have been using for years, but reconfigured their booth space into an enclosed “night club” environment surrounded by black curtains, and filled with the pulsing music of a live DJ. (Quite a difference from two years ago, when the impression of the exhibit was “open and airy,” or last year, when Seneca brought a wrapped TTC bus into the tradeshow floor.) Seneca’s focus was experiential marketing, from the “red shirt ambassadors” and videographers conducting interviews with prospective students, to the cosmetics students stencilling Seneca logos on their faces. (The red and black colour scheme, night club environment, red shirts and stencilling all reminded me of York University’s presence at the OUF.)


Humber College was still using the dark blue, glossy exhibit backdrops (that were probably new in 2007), although they were spaced out more generously to fill half the wall of the hall, and allowed students more room to gather around the kiosk for the school of their choice.  Humber seemed to be the only Ontario college openly flirting with the word “polytechnic,” although Polytechnics Canada also includes Algonquin, George Brown, Seneca, Conestoga, and Sheridan among its nine members.


The Michener Institute, the sixth of the host colleges, seemed to have moved from white lab coats to white shirts this year, over superhero t-shirts that build on the recruitment campaign, “The World Needs More Heroes.” (Call me a comic book fanboy, but it’s kinda catchy.)  Their exhibit had a prominent location near the entrance, and directly opposite the food vendors, too.

New College Exhibits

Although most of the non-host colleges stuck with the tried and true CIP tabletop displays or pop-up banners, several colleges evidently made an investment in trade-show style exhibits which were new (at least, since I was last here in 2007). Some looked like they might be too large to use at smaller venues, but I was particularly impressed by the improvement in the exhibits for Confederation, Fanshawe, Fleming, Durham, and Loyalist.


Confederation College’s new exhibit features dynamic curves of stainless steel draped with vibrant orange and blue fabrics, and the slogan “Change your Life through Learning.”


Fanshawe College’s exhibit had the biggest “aural footprint”, next perhaps to Seneca’s, thanks to the live DJ, throbbing music, and busy video screens. 4 Macintosh computers were poised to gather lead data, and prospective students were given red-and-white Fanshawe-branded hacky sacks. (I saw quite a number of students playing with them out in the hallways of the Direct Energy Centre.) Banners emphasized this year’s recruitment slogan, “Answer Life’s Big Questions.”


Fleming College’s new display featured dynamic curves and a tall, aspirational backdrop, vibrant colours and action-oriented photography. I have to admit, I rather missed the nifty wrapped automobile Fleming had at their booth outside the OUF, and wondered if the OCIF rules prevented the use of vehicles this year.


Durham College had what looked like a 20-foot-high backdrop featuring the slogan, “achieve – grow – learn” and emphasizing that “the student experience comes first.”


Loyalist College had a modern, well-lit aluminum frame exhibit design for large, vibrant photography. The interplay of the aluminum created a sense of energy and a busy booth.


Georgian College had a new backdrop for their booth, almost like sailcloth, which augmented the traditional pop-up banners and tableskirts on either side.

Other Displays


Algonquin College’s new booth design was also more professional and contemporary than it was in 2007 (although I miss the mini putting green).


St. Clair College banners included the new, somewhat tongue-in-cheek slogan, “Canada’s Hottest (Southernmost) College,” and of course a ballot box with an opportunity to win a Wii, iPods, laptops and scholarships.


Niagara College’s winery motif of years past was replaced by their new slogan, “Applied Dreams,” and new brand image, an “nc” button, accompanied by giveaway buttons. (Everything old is new again – it’s been a long time since I saw a college or university handing out buttons at the Toronto fairs.)



Canadore College continued to emphasize “An Environment for Learning,” and retained the Muskoka chairs and cedar deck theme of years past (although the more labour-intensive CSI cast of lab-coated characters were gone this year).


St. Lawrence College’s exhibit space focused on three kiosks with laptops for gathering contact information, and of course the alert and lively personalities of its reps.


Lambton College recruiters got into the spirit of the Hallowe’en season, with pumpkins and candy giveaways.


Collège Boréal’s display built on last year’s “Mon Choix Smart” campaign, encouraging applicants to make “Un Choix Bien Pensée.”


Conestoga College’s display promised students the opportunity to “Learn without Limits.”


Ottawa’s La Cité Collégiale, the oldest and largest francophone college in Ontario, promised students “Une Formation Vraiment Intense.”


Cambrian College had a tent-style exhibit that tended to capture attention just as attendees made their way toward the exit of the exhibit hall. (Sorry guys for the blurry pic, I did my best.)


Mohawk College managed to piece together five separate banners so that they looked almost like an integrated exhibit, encouraging students to “take your seat!” and “graduate to success!”


Northern College filled their booth space with eight rainbow-coloured pop-up banners repeating their brand promise, “Real!  People – Opportunities – Careers.”


Sault College’s booth included a vibrant red display encouraging students to “get inspired!” and traditional Sault blue banners for Environment/Outdoor studies (surrounded by props and shrubbery) and Aviation (accompanied by model airplanes).


The title sponsors of the OCIF, the Certified General Accountants of Ontario, had a large presence on the exhibit floor and very prominent opportunities to enter and win a weekly prize.

As always, I picked up an armload of college viewbooks at the OCIF, and will photograph and summarize the latest trends visible in the print materials in next week’s blog.

Meanwhile, if you were also at the OCIF and can provide more insight, background, comment or rebuttal, please leave a comment below!

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