'U' resists trend as other schools hire out for campus tours

BY TORREY JOSEPH ARMSTRONG
Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 20, 2009

The breathless, backpedaling tour guide is disappearing quickly from college campuses across the nation. But not here.

In efforts to meet enrollment goals and enhance their campus images, schools like American University, Albion College, Northern Michigan University and Ohio State University have enlisted the help of TargetX, a private consulting firm that offers campus visit audits. In an audit, a representative from the firm participates in a campus tour and later reports on its strengths and weaknesses to the school.

Jeff Kallay, an “Experience Evangelist” with TargetX, estimates that he has visited and advised hundreds of schools, and he claims that all of them have reported positive impacts from his advice.

Greg Grauman, acting director of admissions at American University, said the changes suggested by TargetX were beneficial for guides and prospective students.

“Our tour guides are more confident now that they walk forward with the tour participants,” Grauman wrote in an e-mail. “Students and parents now ask more questions during the tour and also are more likely to provide feedback to their guide after the tour.”

Kallay said some of the main problems with the tours he attends are that they are too long, the walking groups are too big for participants to hear or see the tour guide and the presentation is monotonously scripted and impersonal.

As an “evangelist,” Kallay preaches the importance of feeling and ambience in campus visits, citing Starbucks and Disney as corporate examples of how to sell an experience.

“They don’t invest in their campus experience, though college itself is a huge experience,” Kallay said of schools whose campus visit practices are in need of change. “It’s a place where you eat, where you sleep, where you study and have fun. Prospective students want to hear and see that entire authentic experience.”

Feodies Shipp III, assistant director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Michigan, said that the University has not consulted TargetX or similar companies. But, Shipp said, the University does largely follow the firm’s principles for successful campus visits.

“On a constant, ongoing basis, we look at evaluations and make tweaks to our presentation,” Shipp said, adding that evaluations are consistently positive. “Any good director of admissions is constantly asking his or her staff to rigorously evaluate their tactics and make cost-effective changes.”

Shipp said that while tour guides are trained to give specific facts and lead the group through the Diag and in important buildings like Angell Hall and the Chemistry Building, many tour choices are up to them.

“We don’t necessarily prescribe a certain route around campus for our tour guides, and we definitely encourage them to make their presentations personal and share stories,” Shipp said. “We are trying to give a sense of the University’s scope and size, as well as its personality.”

In his experience, Kallay praised two TargetX clients, Albion College and Northern Michigan University, in particular, for their campus presentations.

“They’re two of the most authentic and rich campus experiences around,” he said.

Kevin Kropf, director of admissions at Albion, was appreciative of Kallay’s critical eye.

“Things that seem matter-of-fact can really have a negative impact on the school’s image,” Kropf said. “Now we want to treat outsiders like insiders — letting students in on the lingo, engaging in the traditions, so they kind of feel like they’re a part of the place.”

Gina Lombardini, assistant director of admissions at NMU, agreed, recalling an unpopular portion of NMU’s past campus tours as an example of miscommunication between admissions directors and tour guides.

“The tours would go past a big music hall, which was a pretty standard stop. But hardly anyone except music students wanted to see that,” Lombardini said, adding that tours no longer include the music hall.

While Kallay reported around 85 percent of his clientele to be smaller liberal arts schools like Albion, he said larger public universities like the University of Michigan always have room for improvement.

“A lot of larger flagship universities present their campus experience really well, which is why so many applicants choose them in the end,” Kallay said. “But I also think they should offer a more customized experience.”

Kallay cited personal elements like themed tours, which focus more heavily on particular academic departments or student organizations, and anecdotes from the tour guide as improvements many schools could make.

Regarding the direction tour guides face when they walk, Kallay was ambivalent.

“It’s stressful to watch a person walk backwards while talking at you, and it can be distracting, but our main focus is the feeling the prospective students and their parents are getting,” Kallay said. “You can walk backwards, forwards, sideways — it doesn’t matter if you’re being authentic.”

Shipp agreed, saying that University of Michigan tour guides are not instructed to face a particular direction, only to engage all members of the tour.

“College is fun, and somehow we’ve made it seem like a challenging and daunting thing,” Kallay said. “Tours should dispel that.”