Wednesday, October 19, 2011 | Category: PSE Fairs
The 2011 Ontario Universities Fair, held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre October 14-16, is the largest PSE consumer show in North America. Some US college fairs have more participating institutions, but none attract as many students — in recent years, the OUF has tracked more than 100,000 attendees. Exhibitors reported that Friday attendance was down by a third this year — from 38,000 last year to just 27,000 this year. Any number of factors may explain it: the fact that organizers moved the event 3 weeks later, into a short week after the Thanksgiving holiday; that local school boards did not have a scheduled PD day that day; that the two biggest universities, York and Toronto, had already been out to many local high schools. But it was clear that attendance was strong on the Saturday, with huge lineups and crushing crowds everywhere.
This was my 6th OUF, and I have to admit that, year after year, it seems that less and less changes. (Am I getting jaded?) This OUF was the first, however, to which I brought an expert consultant — my 16-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn, who won’t graduate high school until 2013, but is already thinking about her PSE choices.
Below: Kaitlyn meets her first university president, Dominic Giroux of Laurentian University, on the “beach” at the OUF.
Seeing the OUF through Kaitlyn’s eyes gave me a fresh perspective on what is cool or notable to a teenager, but even more remarkable was the experience of attending the OUF as a parent. Certainly it slowed down my usual interactions with clients and friends in the exhibit hall — this year I missed many of you because I couldn’t get back to your exhibits — but I think the gains far outweighed the loss. I discovered, first-hand, just how easy it is for a tired, impatient or aloof faculty member to outright offend me as a parent, turn off my daughter and eliminate a university from her shortlist entirely. (I won’t name names, but I was shocked and disappointed.) I also discovered just how powerful a lure the games and contests can be, to grab attention and slow a prospective student’s progress through the hall.
As in previous years blogging from the OUF, I won’t try to offer a comprehensive review of all the presentations, exhibits, and print materials. Check out my blogs on the 2006 OUF, 2007 OUF, 2008 OUF,2009 OUF, and 2010 OUF to read about things that remained unchanged in 2011.
One innovation this year was the release of an iPhone app through Apple’s app store. Although functionally limited, it did allow me to carry the presentation schedule and exhibit floorplan in my pocket. We were able to plan our day before even arriving onsite, and while sitting through presentations. I hope future releases include videos of campus tours or university commercials — but most of all, how about allowing us to fill in a form with our contact info ONCE on the iphone, and then share it with institutions instantaneously to enter contests, etc?
Most exhibits were changed only subtly from last year, perhaps with a few replacement photographs or additional video monitors. McMaster’s exhibit was completely restructured, from a “walled garden” of sorts that students had to enter (introduced at the 2008 OUF), to a much more inviting, open concept exhibit.
Last year they were novelties, this year virtually everybody had ’em: QR codes on posters, viewbook racks, print materials, postcards. I’m not convinced that it makes much sense to put a QR code to access an online viewbook right above a rack of glossy printed viewbooks (who would rather squint at a cellphone copy when the original is right there in all its tabloid glory?) but I understand the pressure to appear “cutting edge”. Likewise some booths displayed prominent Twitter hashtags or Facebook page addresses.
iPads are starting to replace laptops at many exhibits, either anchored to a kiosk or in the hands of a friendly recruiter, as a way to capture student contact information on the spot. (Though I’m an iPad fanboy — and wrote this blog on my iPad during a flight to Calgary — I think Laurentian was wise to include Apple’s wireless keyboard, to accelerate people’s typing and reduce their errors and frustration.) And of course, countless contests featured an iPad as grand prize. Most exhibits are now requiring contact information to enter contests, but also to get free swag, like branded pens, the perennial black t-shirts from Lakehead, or the self-portraits from Nipissing’s booth. UOttawa offered a “deck out your dorm” contest, which was distinctive this year.
A few years back, recruiters at Nipissing were worried about the extinction of Polaroid instant film. The Nipissing exhibit featured a backdrop of Northern Ontario in fall, and students always seemed attracted to the opportunity to pose with their friends in a mock convertible. Nipissing bought a supply of film to last a few years, but ultimately they needed to come up with a new gimmick to catch students’ attention at the OUF. This year the evolution of the Nipissing Road Trip seems complete: students entered their contact information on oversized touchscreens, captured their images in a webcam, positioned themselves in a cut-out image, and the resulting portrait was emailed to them directly.
I was very taken with Brock’s “Both Sides of the Brain” photo booth last year, and I admit I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t see it this year. (Talk about great brand integration in an event setting!) But the new attraction seemed to work extremely well too: a video slot machine with an oversized button, offering students the chance to win various small swag items like lip balm. To play the game, students had to line up to enter their contact information first, and Brock’s friendly, persuasive recruiters worked those lines with remarkable efficiency. My daughter hadn’t been considering Brock at all, but after two recruiters approached us, engaged us In conversation, and introduced us to faculty members who actually stopped to listen and seemed both enthusiastic and caring, she was really intrigued. Though doubtless some faculty will complain that a giant video slot machine creates a casino vibe for their exhibit about higher education, I have to admit that the gimmick worked, at least for us!
The biggest innovation I saw at this year’s OUF was the Laurentian presentation room. While every other room was set up lecture style, with rows of seating and a PowerPoint screen, Laurentian’s “5D” presentation room took a completely novel tack. At what I can only assume was considerable expense, the presentation room was transformed into a miniature campus.
One corner was made over to look like a beach volleyball game, complete with I don’t know how many wheelbarrows of sand.
Another corner represented the Laurentian gymnasium, complete with basketball court, lockers, swimming pool and rock-climbing wall.
Another corner represented a typical residence room (although I must admit it looked far more spacious than any residence room I’ve ever seen on a campus).
In each area, student, alumni and staff ambassadors were waiting to greet prospective students, answer their questions about residence or athletics, and engage with them in a much more dynamic environment than the traditional lecture, or the exhibit hall floor.
Unlike several other presentation rooms, where guards literally turned us away if we weren’t lining up to enter on the hour, the doors to the Laurentian room were always open, and a steady stream of students and parents was flowing through it the entire weekend. Laurentian president Dominic Giroux tells me that the traffic through the presentation room in the first day far exceeded all the traffic they attracted in three days last year. No doubt many more students spent a few moments discovering a university that may not even have been on their radar. It’s a brilliant tactic for a smaller, distant school to use in the GTA… even if the fire marshall kept a close eye on the crowd within.
Those are the highlights of what I noticed at this year’s OUF, but I know I missed plenty this time. I didn’t get out to the Student Life Expo at all, so sadly I don’t know what the colleges and out-of-province universities were up to. I probably missed some other innovations in the exhibits or presentation rooms, too.
If you noticed something interesting at the OUF that I haven’t mentioned above, please add it below in the comments!
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