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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.

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.

CAMPUS TOUR AS SELLING POINT

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 re sources 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 read 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.

COMPENSATING YOUR TOUR GUIDES

The University of Arizona, as of two months ago, offers an even sweeter reward: cash. About go 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."

DRESSING TO IMPRESS

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.

EXPLORING HIGH-TECH 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 stilt 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 touting, 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.

THE CHALLENGES OF A LARGER CAMPUS

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."

Making a Lasting Impression

Rick Hesel, principal of the Arts & Science Group, gives 10 tips to improve the campus visit and tour

1 Assess and address the first-impression details. Signage leading to the campus, routes to the campus, appearance of campus gateways and grounds, parking arrangements for visitors, overall cleanliness of the campus, appearance of the office and staff greeting visitors--all of these are part of the important first impression made on visiting students and parents.

2 Develop simple, clear, and consistent messages. Campus tour guides should have four or five key messages to emphasize, most of which center on the qualities or attributes that make your college or university unique or distinct. These messages should be conveyed at the beginning of the tour, supported by examples or experiences during the tour, and restated at the conclusion of the campus visit.

3 Make it personal. Make sure campus tour guides take a couple of minutes at the beginning of the tour to engage prospective students and parents. Ask questions to determine students' academic and personal interests, any concerns they may have about the campus, and other questions that give the tour guide valuable information he or she can use to customize the content and route of the tour to visitors' interests.

4 Tell a story. Stress personal anecdotes and examples--either the student guide's own examples or stories he or she gleaned from other students. Arm guides with interesting information about alumni, faculty, and unusual facts about the campus that they can share with prospective students. For example, when passing a freshman residence hall, the guide can tell a story about a famous alumna/ae who lived in that residence hall.

5 Minimize the history. A few well-timed facts about the history of the institution are useful. But a stream of historical information usually ends up being a colossal bore for most visitors. Students are interested in the here and now.

6 Focus on what goes on in the buildings, not the buildings themselves. The cardinal sin committed by many tour guides is to simply walk by buildings, and not explain what goes on inside or give potential students the opportunity to see for themselves what happens in these facilities. If the tour guide knows, for example, a student is interested in elementary education and the college recently built a new, state-of-the art facility for the education department, then take the time to go inside the facility and show the student(s) the relevant activities, classes, and resources. Inform tour guides about the most interesting classrooms, equipment, or other features in campus buildings so these can be showcased during a tour.

7 Compensate and train tour guides. Tour guides should be treated as key ambassadors for the institution. When tour guides are compensated--not just volunteers--you have the right to ask them to behave professionally and to take their responsibilities seriously. Provide regular training and spot-check their work by observing campus tours on a regular basis.

8 Insist on high standards for the dress and comportment of guides. Students with bare midriffs, sandals, and body piercing are a common sight on most college campuses, but tour guides should be held to a higher standard. Standard fare such as khaki pants or shorts and even a polo shirt custom-made for tour guides is appropriate, as are clothes students might wear to a job or interview.

9 Provide contact with faculty. Make time and arrangements during the campus visit for prospective students to meet or, if possible, interact in some way with faculty. Visit a classroom. Stop by a professor's office (call ahead to see if a faculty member is there to meet a student interested in that major or department). Faculty engagement with students during the campus visit is one of the most important factors in students' consideration of a college.

10 Include some special activities for parents. While parents play a very important role in college choice, there are moments when they and their children need to be treated differently. When students visit a campus with their parents, the students need some breathing room and independence and the college should provide it. In the same vein, parents have a number of issues and concerns that need to be addressed without their children present.

Source Rick Hesel, principal of the Arts & Science Group

Resources Arts & Science Group www.artsci.com/mainmenu.htm OnPoint Systems www.onpointsystems.com
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Author:Klein, Alana
Publication:University Business
Date:Nov 1, 2004
Words:2129
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