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Reinventing the Campus Tour

Many universities are enhancing the campus tour by better training and paying student tour guides, and utilizing GPS systems and even tram cars.
University Business, Nov 2004

The initial campus visit is like a first date. The tour guides are the suitors and the objects of their affection are the prospective freshmen. But this courtship has a twist--the guides' role is to represent not themselves, but the campus. Walking backwards as they often must, the guides woo visitors with a lively tour of the campus's finest facilities, while offering charming anecdotes about student life. In turn, the students decide whether to accept a second date. But unlike the proverbial dinner-and-a-movie second date, this one could be the start of a four-year relationship.

For this reason, the campus tour is vital. But with so much effort being focused on enhancing e-recruitment, ad campaigns, college viewbooks, high school visits, and college fairs, the campus tour has taken a backseat. But if first impressions really are everything, then perfecting the campus tour should be a top priority.

Speaking to this point is a recent study conducted by the Arts & Science Group, a Maryland-based higher ed consulting firm. Of the 472 polled students, 65 percent said the campus visit had the most impact on their enrollment decision. In comparison, only 26 percent cited the college web site as an influencing factor; while about 25 percent said the same about the college viewbook and other promotional print materials.

"Instead of spending time, energy, and money on brochures that get tossed in the wastebasket, schools should spend these resources on training their guides," says Judy Quest, guidance counselor at Duchesne Academy (Neb.). Quest has heard her share of what she calls "tour guide tales." Quest says one guide told a parent that she asked "the dumbest question ever." Another said to a perspective student: "Our music department can't be very good because I don't even know where it is housed." The reality is campus tour guides are not professionals with years of hospitality experience--they're just students.

That isn't to say that they're not worthy of assuming an ambassadorial role. "I think student-guided tours are very appropriate," Quest says. "But the kids have to have a bit of flare and personality for it. And they have to realize what an impact they are making." Fortunately, IHEs can be discriminative about which students they elect as their school ambassadors. For years the University of South Carolina Aiken didn't have this option. Instead, they had shared the pool of volunteer students working for the Alumni Office to lead their tours. "We felt that students in that group were focused solely on alumni and didn't understand the importance of interacting with prospective students and their parents," says Andrew Hendrix, director of Admissions at the university. As a result, Hendrix formed his own group of volunteer students (most of whom were recommended by faculty and staff) who were primarily interested in admissions. The students are rewarded for their time and effort with, for example, a $150 gift certificate to the university's bookstore.

Sixty-five percent of students polled
said the campus visit had the most
impact on their enrollment decision.

The University of Arizona, as of two months ago, offers an even sweeter reward: cash. About 90 student guides were put on the UA payroll for the first time this fall, earning $5.85 per hour. "We wanted to increase the responsibility and require more training hours (four to five per week) of our guides," says Keith Humphrey, senior assistant director of Admissions. "We didn't feel we could ask this of purely volunteers, especially because our students tend to be very involved in other leadership activities. We wanted to make sure they were getting treated well for their time." Paying the guides has also improved attendance at the weekly ambassador meetings. "The meetings are essential because our campus is undergoing tremendous changes. We need our students to be on top of current information," he says.

Despite the benefits of paying student guides, there are ethical concerns that come into play. "Yes, you can require and expect more of your students when you pay them," says Hendrix. "But I think it's a bit mercenary. If a parent or student found out their guides were being paid, it would immediately color the way they see the guides talking about the campus." Humphrey says that he does encourage ambassadors to speak about the positives and negatives of their college experience. "We want them to be honest; we don't want them to censor themselves."

A less expensive way to maintain a professional edge is through implementing a tour guide uniform. Some IHEs require students to sport khakis, even blazers embossed with school logos; others allow their students to wear street clothes. "It really depends on the kind of student that you're trying to attract. A more conservative student might appreciate a more formal look," says Brooke Konopacki, assistant dean of Admission at Ripon College (Wis.) But Ripon is veering away from a standardized uniform. "We want students to have the opportunity to let their true personality show. We don't want them to look like salespeople for the college. We want prospective students to feel they can ask open and frank questions and feel like they're getting honest answers." Ripon is considering offering their student guides gift cards to the bookstore so they can pick out Ripon apparel to wear on tours.

Or there's the option of eliminating the tour guide altogether. Arizona State University has decided to let technology do the talking, or touring, for those students who request it. While it is still optional, prospective students can opt for a handheld GPS-assisted tour, using satellite-guided technology. Using wireless headphones, students can listen in to prerecorded audio programming, full of animated student voices and ambient sounds.

There were many reasons for ASU to implement the technology, but most important was the demand for taking tours simply outpaced the university's ability to offer them. "Now we can provide tours at any time and on short notice," says Timothy Desch, dean of Undergraduate Admissions at the university. "And so far, we are the first to use this, so the 'wow' factor will serve as a unique recruiting tool." ASU still offers student-guided tours twice daily during weekdays and during peak times and holiday breaks.

But Desch says the technology will not replace student-guided tours. Instead, it will serve as an alternative for students who are unable to come during regularly scheduled tours and for those who prefer this method of touring. While ASU is currently the only school using this kind of technology for touring, Jerry Ufnal, marketing vice president of OnPoint Systems, the company that helped develop ASU's tour, says in five to seven years this technology will be commonplace at IHEs. "The benefits of the technology will be strongest among universities that have high levels of visitation and tend to be larger in size," Ufnal says.

For larger universities, creating effective campus tours can be more challenging. Not only do they tend to host more student visitors, but they have more square footage to show off. "We like to keep our walking tours to an hour but that's just not enough time to show off our 1,700-acre campus," says Dewey Holleman, former director of Admissions at University of South Florida. To solve the dilemma, USF has just purchased a customized tram vehicle to offer "tram tours." Sporting the university's gold and green colors, the tram, which was completed just weeks ago, seats 80 guests. Trained volunteer guides will talk about the campus through the tram's speaker system. While the tram follows a specific route, visitors will be able to get on and off the trams at designated spots.

Now the university is able to show more of the campus that students traditionally did not get to see on a walking tour, such as the university's Contemporary Art Museum. In addition, the tram makes the campus more accessible for parents, grandparents and those with disabilities. "It will also make our visitors much more comfortable in the summer weather in south Florida," he says.

While USF is similar in size to ASU, it never considered the audio-guided tours featuring GPS technology as an option. "I just don't want to give students the perception that we're so big that they need a GPS system to make sure they don't get lost," Holleman says. "We're glad we're big but we don't want to scare students away."

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