For a long time, there was safety in the sameness of college marketing. In the quest for diverse applicants, many colleges have promoted themselves as offering all things to all people. Daniel M. Lundquist, who has worked in admissions since 1976 and is now the vice president for external relations and enrollment management at the Sage Colleges, in New York, says traditional tours tend to be “vanilla and rah-rah” for that very reason. “Colleges are risk averse in their storytelling,” says Lundquist. “They like to talk about their brand pillars. The problem is those qualities are so universal that they’re not distinctive: study abroad, a low student-to-faculty ratio, career counseling. Most people visiting the campus probably know those things already, but those things don’t reveal the elusive personality of the campus.”
That’s exactly what Jeff Kallay began trying to capture way back in the 1980s. As a student tour guide at Lee University, in Cleveland, Tennessee, he liked nothing more than sharing anecdotes about his experiences on the campus. He spoke frankly—pointing out, for instance, where the geeks and “troglodytes” lived. After graduating with a degree in communications, he worked as director of recruitment in Lee’s admissions office, and then moved on to jobs in marketing and advertising. One day he read The Experience Economy: Work Is Theater & Every Business a Stage, published in 1999 by James H. Gilmore and Joseph Pine II. The book expanded on the idea that companies must create experiences for their customers. Memories of those experiences, the theory goes, cause consumers to form a lasting emotional bond with a product.
Kallay had found his bible. Years later, he wrote a business plan that would bring the principles of the experience economy to campus tours. In 2006, he went to work for TargetX, a Pennsylvania-based company that specializes in student-recruitment strategies. Calling himself an “experience evangelist,” Kallay was soon trekking from college to college to conduct “campus visit audits.” At each stop, he took the official tour, and then shared his first impressions with admissions officers. He followed up with detailed reports, with recommendations for improving parking and signage.
Because appearances matter, Kallay noted things like cracks in walls and dust bunnies in stairwells. Yet he saved his sermons for the subject of human interaction. Listening and eye contact matter more than climbing walls and glitzy dorms, he told his clients. He encouraged security guards to wave, secretaries to smile, and tour guides to ask open-ended questions (and to stop walking backward). In presentations, he has even suggested that tours should deemphasize their facilities, even if it means skipping the library. “Everyone’s got one,” he says.
By early 2009, Kallay had worked with more than seventy colleges, charging between $2,500 and $20,000, depending on the number of work days required. With demand growing, he hired a young assistant named Trent Gilbert, who had helped him develop the business plan for a campus-tour consulting business. Gilbert, now thirty, has since taken over the week-to-week tour evaluations. Like Kallay, he has a background in college admissions, and is an electric speaker who makes his audiences laugh. Gilbert’s title is CXO: “Chief eXperience Officer.”
“For hundreds of years, colleges have been staging themselves as places of experience anchored in education, entertainment, aesthetic, and escape,” Gilbert says. “But many visits are not operating on all those levels.” To change that, Gilbert encourages student tour guides to share personal stories. He emphasizes the importance of anecdotes that reveal three things: students’ conflicts, their coming-of-age experiences, and their unique impressions of the campus. They should talk about how, for instance, they overcame homesickness, a difficult roommate, or a challenging course. Gilbert encourages them to describe the snowy night when they went sledding with their friends on trays they borrowed from the cafeteria, or the time a history professor texted an encouraging message about that twenty-page paper. If the tour guide likes to study under a particular tree, then, Gilbert insists, he or she should show families that tree.
Also, pronouns are crucial. Gilbert tells students to use “we” a lot instead of “I” and “you.” “We try to inspire tour guides to tell stories that will become shared experiences with families,” he says.
Gilbert suggests that colleges think about creating a “signature moment” during tours. Moreover, he urges them to consider ways of engaging the five senses (taste is usually the trickiest one). At the University of Akron, visitors gather around a forty-foot-tall statue by Dale Chihuly, a blue glass tower known as the “rock candy” sculpture. Later, guests receive a stick of blue rock candy, with a tag that thanks them for visiting and directs them to information about the artist and the university. (It’s the kind of marketing that might just crack
Kallay and Gilbert have also worked with Alfred University, in New York, where visitors may now tour the school while pedaling a Conference Bike, a bicycle built for seven. The experience is supposed to convey the kind of communal experiences students can expect to have on the small campus. At the University of Louisville, visitors are told to bring their cameras and keep an eye out for the rare white squirrels that live on the campus. Parents and students who snap photographs of the creatures get a free T-shirt that says, “I spotted the white squirrel.”
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