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Campus tours that turn heads

One dozen ideas and trends for making your campus tour stand out
University Business, October 2015
  • Being open to creative campus tour approaches helps make visits memorable to prospective students and families. The University of Michigan offers Segway tours.
  • West Virginia University takes advantage of its 8.7-mile electronic “podcar” system, which connects the university’s campuses, to offer a unique tour. The system’s vehicles resemble miniature buses and can accommodate eight seated passengers or a total of 20 people.
  • Visitors travel on seven-person bikes at Alfred University.
  • Hilbert College makes visitors feel like VIPs from the get-go with personalized parking.
  • Augustana College experimented with a tour scavenger hunt.

In an era when prospective students and their parents can learn about hundreds of schools from the comfort of their homes, the in-person campus tour offers a golden opportunity to tip the scales in your favor.

The tour is also the most influential factor in enrollment decisions, according to a 2012 Noel-Levitz study.

But too often, these tours follow the same staid formulas, potentially blending together in the minds of families who may visit up to 30 or more schools during their searches. That’s why it’s more important than ever to make your tour memorable and to maximize visitors’ time spent on your campus.

The following are 12 ideas to make your college stand out from the crowd and bring your tour into the present.

1. Sweep them off their feet.

As sprawling campuses grow, many schools have found creative ways to help visitors see all their best features, no matter the distance between them. Golf carts, vans and Segways have become common additions to the traditional “golden walk.”

Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, offers trips by boat, while Alfred University in upstate New York allows visitors to ride on a seven-person bicycle that’s steered by a tour guide.

At West Virginia University, tours incorporate the school’s personal rapid transit system—electronic “podcars” that run along 8.7 miles of track and connect the university’s campuses.

Nontraditional tour takers

When considering tweaks to the campus tour, don’t forget about attracting people besides families of high school seniors and juniors gearing up to enter college.

As part of an effort to create a “college-going culture” in the region, Western Michigan University has given tours to all sixth-grade students in Kalamazoo Public Schools for the past six years.

The tours are extremely popular among students and teachers, according to Associate Admissions Director Scott Hennessy, who says schools often call asking to bring their students on tours after hearing about the experience from colleagues at other schools.

While the first group of middle schoolers to take these tours has not graduated high school yet, the effort is designed to leave a lasting impression and connection with the university.

Another way to reach new audiences: Invite high school counselors on tours—and fly them in if necessary. Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, partners with Bradley University in Peoria and Illinois Wesleyan University to pay travel and lodging expenses for high school counselors.

They get campus tours that include face time with subject matter experts: A visit to the cadaver lab led by an anatomy professor, for example, or geology faculty will use a model to demonstrate how a volcano explodes.

Merely highlighting the features of dorms and classrooms isn’t really what counselors want, according to Barnds. Instead, they want a deep dive into the academics, athletics and program offerings at each college, he says. “They want sharp edges.”

2. Set up selfie opportunities.

Capitalizing on visitor interest in the system, West Virginia took one of its rapid transit cars offline, cleaned it up and put it in the visitors center. Now, the car has become a popular photo-op stop for visitors.

Pointing out such spots on campus can create a powerful social media experience “that allows for mass customization, and it’s authentic,” says campus visit consultant Jeff Kallay, who has worked with WVU as CEO of Atlanta-based Render Experiences.

3. Create personalized parking signs.

At Hilbert College in Western New York, a popular selfie spot is in the parking lot, where visitors are welcomed by parking signs with their names on them. Director of Admissions Justin Rogers says this small investment of a couple hundred dollars has helped the school make immediate connections with its visitors, who often snap a photo as soon as they step out of the car.

Each day, card stock printed with students’ names can easily be swapped out of the signs, which have a plastic covering. “Students are really happy when they see it,” Rogers says.

4. Create a scavenger hunt.

This summer, Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, elevated selfie opportunities to a whole new level by creating an extensive scavenger hunt for prospective students, who, accompanied by tour guides, followed a series of clues around campus.

At each stop, students took and shared photos via social media, which also put them in the running for a $2,000 or $4,000 scholarship.

The activity also tested the impact of separating parents and students, says Kent Barnds, vice president of enrollment.

Although this was just an experiment, Kent Barnds, vice president of enrollment, communication and planning, says he doesn’t consider it a failure and will likely try it again. Such efforts need to be timed right, though, he adds. “I think it will work much better with students who are deeper into the selection process.”

5. Offer customizable schedules—and language choices.

Hilbert’s prospective students can also build their own tours “a la carte” through the college’s website. “This way they don’t have to do what we prescribe,” says Rogers. Because the school has a high commuter population, many visitors skip dorm tours to meet with an athletic coach or financial aid counselor.

All schools should let visitors customize tours, says Kallay of Render Experiences. “Parents and their kids have very specific needs and wants,” Rogers points out. “It’s about making your school stand out in less selfish ways. It’s more about what the family wants.”

Schools looking to attract multicultural populations provide tours in multiple languages. Soka University in Southern California runs daily tours in English and Japanese, while trained guides can lead tours in Chinese, French or Spanish upon request.

The school’s population includes 40 percent international students, says Community Relations Director Wendy Harder.

6. Connect campus traditions.

As a small institution in the crowded Boston-area market, Lasell College is deeply familiar with the “tour fatigue” effect. Families often drop in after visiting three or four other schools in a day, says Christopher Grey, who co-leads the college’s tour program.

In the 2013-14 academic year, administrators attempted to make tours more memorable by letting visitors “carry the torch.” The event draws on a popular annual tradition, the Torchlight Parade, which is led by graduating seniors who march through campus and pass on a symbolic torch—along with advice—to a rising senior.

Campus tours now begin with a video of the march. That builds hype before tour guides carry torches and lead visitors along the parade route. “We’re sharing a piece of our identity with them and it really resonates,” says Gray, who adds that campus visits happen to be up 13 percent this year over last. “We’re looking to capitalize on that. We don’t want to lose that personalized experience.”

7. Go for intimacy.

Many smaller schools—such as Centenary College in New Jersey and Alfred University—offer individual tours for prospective students. But even larger schools aim for intimacy. The Ohio State University keeps tour size at or below the student-teacher ratio, which varies around 14:1. “It’s a way of scaling the perception while managing 50,000-plus visitors,” says Kallay of Render Experiences.

Gen X parents with college-aged children “don’t like just being herded around in large tours,” he adds.

Meetings with faculty have become more common, and they’re a new feature of tours this year at Hilbert College. The program replaces the phone calls accepted students used to receive from faculty.

“It wasn’t a good use of their time,” Rogers says. “Faculty are more receptive to this because when students are on campus, they’re more likely to engage. We’re getting buy-in because we’re responding to faculty feedback.”

8. Satiate visitors’ hunger.

It’s important to remember visitors’ immediate needs. “If you walk them over an hour around campus without a break or a beverage, it’s a death march,” says Kallay of Render Experiences. At West Virginia, cookies with the “Flying WV” logo are a popular giveaway—a simple treat that visitors center Director Danica Wilburn says are extremely popular among students and families.

A strong impact can also be made during lunch. “We try to make lunch strategic, not just, ‘Here’s a free pass, knock yourself out,’ ” says Kallay. He suggests having a student host the meal, or inviting faculty and coaches to join in and steer the conversation toward why the school is a great fit.

9. Veer off the script.

Part of the reason so many campus tours appear to be the same is guides who are instructed to “stick to the script.” Lake Success, New York-based independent high school guidance counselor Jill Madenberg says she often asks tour guides questions such as, “Why did you choose this school?” or “What don’t you like about it here?” But one guide recently told her, “I’m not really supposed to answer questions like this.”

Admissions offices should encourage guides to talk about their own experiences and help them choose stories to tell, says Abby Rosenweig, a college counselor at Fort Worth Country Day School in Texas who took 12 campus tours this summer.

Ideally, two or three guides could be grouped together on each tour to share different experiences, she says.

10. Don’t avoid the safety discussion.

Being conversational doesn’t mean avoiding more serious topics. And that means preparing tour guides to answer what Kallay says parents ask about most: safety. It’s important to highlight efforts such as hurricane preparedness, campus security, and emergency response. Until these concerns are addressed, Kallay says, “they’re not even paying attention.”

11. Elicit real feedback.

In 2010, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland embarked on a broad recruitment plan to raise visitor numbers. Part of that plan included using Welcome to College, a college visit and management software platform that matches prospective students with schools that align with their regional, academic and personal interests.

The service also administers customized visit surveys that provide Case Western administrators with daily feedback on anything from the tour route to a guide stumbling over a tough question. Since 2010, campus visits have almost doubled, while the number of applicants has nearly tripled, recruitment director Jonathan Wehner says.

12. Be authentic.

Above all else, schools need to present an authentic view of their campus experience, says Kallay of Render Experiences. “Show students the dorm they’re most likely to get into rather than just the new sexy one for juniors and seniors,” he says. “Know who you are and have the gumption to be that.”

Ioanna Opidee is a Milford, Connecticut-based writer.