Fair Review: Ta Utdanning – Oslo, Norway (Feb. 2016)

Last week, I traveled to Oslo for a few days to participate in the Ta Utdanning student recruitment fair on February 17th and 18th. It was my first time recruiting in Norway, a decision that we made based on a variety of factors, including the nation’s student mobility trends, its prosperity/quality of life, and student funding opportunities.

The Ta Utdanning fair takes place in multiple cities across Norway; however, due to my schedule, I could only participate in the fair in Oslo.

I have mixed feelings about this event and its effectiveness as a recruiting venue. Here are my thoughts, organized into a list of what I perceived to be the positive and negative elements of my experience.

Pros

  • Excellent service before the fair. I was really impressed with the Ta Utdanning staff prior to the fair for a variety of reasons, such as:
    • The information on their website is very clear. Beyond dates, the venue, and logistical information, they provide helpful information about why schools should consider recruiting in Norway–information that led me to Lanekassen, an organization that funds Norwegian students to pursue their university studies abroad.
    • The staff is very responsive. Any question or email that I sent to them was responded to very quickly.
  • Oslo Spektrum location

    Walking distance, Oslo Central Station to Oslo Spektrum, from Google Maps (http://bit.ly/1Qva3dm).

    Sensible location. The fair was located at the Oslo Spektrum, which is very close to the Oslo Central Station, where multiple types and lines of public transit converge. It was easily accessible to the public, and close to shopping centers.

  • Attendance by mostly high school students. The fair was attended almost exclusively by high school students who were in the middle of their second-last to last year. This made it an interesting recruitment opportunity for institutions promoting their undergraduate study options or Gap Year programs. Most of the students attended the fair from 10:30 a.m. to just before 2:00 p.m., which indicates that they likely received some release time from school in order to attend.
  • English level. For the most part, the student participants had high intermediate to advanced levels of English–which was great for me, as I was there to promote undergraduate programs and ESL programs that require a higher level of English.
  • Seminar options. They provided options for exhibitors to give seminars on topics of their choice–a great opportunity to have the individual attention of (potentially) a large number of participants. They also provided us with all seminar equipment–which meant that all we had to do was bring our files on a USB storage device.
  • Customizable booth options. I could choose what type of furniture and set-up that I wanted in my booth. They also provided a recommendation for a basic package. As a result, I had everything I needed to sit comfortably with students and discuss their study plans.
  • Easy-to-order additional services. They made certain services easy to arrange, including things like a simple lunch delivered to your booth and WiFi connectivity.
  • Good WiFi connection. The WiFi connection itself was stable and strong, so I had no difficulties accessing the web pages and information that I wanted to share with potential students–and doing periodic backups of my lead data to the cloud.
  • Large booth size. The minimum booth size was 9 square meters. This provided me with plenty of space for materials, decorations, and furniture to have in-depth discussions with students. In addition, on the second day, I set up a panel with branding and additional lighting to act as a type of photo booth, where I could snap pictures of students and print them on little stickers using my new Polaroid ZIP mobile printer. Very cool. I’m including a picture to show what this looked like toward the bottom of this post.
  • Helpful staff on site. The staff was friendly and professional–and spoke excellent English. They were happy to troubleshoot anything that came up. For example, I had a small tech issue when I was setting up for the seminar, and they had someone on site to provide assistance.

Most of the items listed above may seem like small things, but I find that, with event planning, the “Devil is in the details.” I think that this fair organizer has the potential to be truly excellent in the future–especially if they take the following items into consideration, which, in my opinion, are areas for improvement.

Cons

  • Unreasonable fair hours. As I said before, this was my first time in Norway; so, culturally-speaking, I don’t know if there are certain hours that people are expected to do business. That being said, based on my experience, I was unhappy with the fair hours.
    • On Day 1, the fair went from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. — a ten-hour fair. For me, the issues were as follows:
      • For someone who traveled internationally to get there and who arrived the day before (and was dealing with jet lag), I felt like those hours were really long. In fact, I think that 10 hours was long even for the locals who participated.
      • In my opinion, fairs should not be longer than 5 hours long. I find that this is the “magic hour,” striking a good balance between length of time promoting your brand and programs to potential students and keeping up your energy–especially when you have an event the next day.
      • In addition, the fair was so long that there were several stretches of time in which it was poorly attended–which made it feel like a waste of time.
      • Day 1 was a Wednesday–the middle of the Norwegian work week. Apparently, Norwegians typically work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. I suspect that the fair was open for so many hours to accommodate students in the morning (students tended to attend from 10:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.) and the parents in the evening. This would have been more palatable (though still exhausting) if parents had actually come to the fair…
    • On Day 2, the fair went from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.–a schedule that makes it very difficult for parents to attend. I did not speak with a single parent that day.
  • Lack of attendance by parents. As I mentioned before, the fair was almost exclusively attended by high school students ranging from 17-19 years old (on average). In any culture, with students that age, it is important to speak with their parents–especially considering the cost of the programs and their distance from home. Unfortunately, I barely met any parents during this two-day event–not even on the day in which the fair closed at 8 p.m. to provide the parents with an opportunity to stop by after work. In my opinion, this is a major issue.
  • A lot of confused teenagers. I spent a great deal of time dealing with students who were very perplexed about what they wanted to do after high school graduation. They were attending a study abroad fair, but they had absolutely no direction–most of them didn’t even have a short list of their countries of interest, let alone a concrete idea of what they wanted to study. This was quite surprising, as I am accustomed to meeting a much larger proportion of students that have at least a partially-formed idea of what they want to do after high school. I have two theories about why this happened.
    1. The Norwegian Education System. In Norway, the system requires high school students to specialize in a certain area of study, a vocation, or program during the final 2-3 years of their education. After graduating, the students attend a university and major in the same (or a related) area of study. This has some obvious benefits, as students can use their time building a strong foundation in the subject matter prior to attending university. That being said, there is a downside to this type of structure: what happens if a student realizes that he/she dislikes his/her area of study?
      • Several students expressed to me that it can be very difficult to enter university in Norway if you want to study in a different field from that in which you specialized while in high school simply because, by specializing in a certain subject area, they stop taking other types of courses that may be required in the future for entrance into another university subject area. For instance, one student that I spoke with said that he currently studies in a program that focuses on Political Science, but he was interested in pursuing a university degree in the sciences. He was considering going overseas because his high school curriculum didn’t contain enough math and science courses for him to enter university in this area.
      • Regardless, with such a structured education system, I still expected that I would have met more students with solid ideas about their future and who would simply attend the event in as part of their research so that they could start making concrete plans. Instead, I dealt almost exclusively with students who had no idea what they were going to do when they graduate…only four months from now.
    2. Ineffective marketing strategy. In my experience, one of the indicators of the quality of students leads is whether they have solid ideas about what type of study program they wish to pursue. In my experience, a lack of direction among the students results in a lack of quality in the lead–and a lack of quality leads normally signifies an issue in the marketing strategy on the part of the fair organizer (i.e., they simply did not reach the right kind of students that we prefer to see at this type of event).
  • Poor attendance/booth location. On Day #2, the fair organizers circulated a leaflet that indicated that the previous day’s attendance was over 8,000 people. Well, I can tell you that those people did not make their way over to my section of the fair. The section that I was in saw very little traffic. On both days, I had long stretches of time (30-60 minutes) without speaking to a single soul.
  • Missing details to facilitate student participation. In my opinion, more of the “little things” could have been done to make the students’ experience a little easier. For instance:
    • US flagIt was a study abroad fair, but there were no flags over our booths to show in which country the institution was situated.
    • Booths seemed to lack an obvious system of organization (as far as I could tell). In most study abroad fairs, booths are organized by country or by theme; however, I never did figure out how the schools were arranged–and I’m experienced in this area. What about students who have never attended a fair before? How were they supposed to know what type of schools were there?
    • Impractical fair catalog. Exhibitors were provided with a basic listing in the fair catalog, but had an option of paying for a premium listing, which would contain a program description, logo, contact details, etc.–which would give the participants an idea about who they could meet at the fair and where they were located in the floor plan. Perhaps I missed something, but I’m accustomed to having our name, booth location, program description, and contact information included in fair catalogs as a standard service that is provided to all exhibitors. I was not expecting to open the catalog and simply seeing our institution name and booth location, and that’s it. Considering how far back my booth was, I wish I had better understood this point when registering. That being said, the vast majority of exhibitors did not opt for a premium listing, which made me wonder: was I the only one who missed this?
    • Little signage to promote the seminars. The organizer placed the seminar schedule online, and they had a couple of signs at the site to inform participants of the seminar topics, themes, and locations. In my opinion, they should have had a great deal more of these signs on site. Seminar topics and times were not obvious to me, at all. The organizing staff did announce each seminar prior to the start time, but the audio in an expo hall of that size obviously has its limitations.
  • Support from local embassies? In most study abroad fairs that I have attended, the organizers typically request the presence of representatives from embassies or from other organizations that promote education in another country; in our case, this is normally done by EducationUSA. Unfortunately, I did not see any of this type of organization at this event. It is normally good to see them, as they provide a certain level of legitimacy to a fair. In fact, representatives of these educational organizations and those of the fair organizer often form strong working relationships, which allow the education reps to provide the organizers with information about trends in the industry, allowing the organizers to better serve their clients and the student participants. In this particular event, it would have been great to have EducationUSA present, as there were so many confused teenagers who were trying to figure out what the American education system is like and what their study options are.

Would I attend these fairs again?

At this point, I’m not sure. I shared my opinions, good and bad, with the fair organizer via their post-fair evaluation form. I am interested to see whether they will reach out to me about it.

To me, the good news is that most of the items I listed in the “Cons” are easily addressed. If they do fix these issues while keeping the favorable traits that I listed above, I imagine that they will have the potential for major improvement. So, I won’t write them off just yet…but I will start looking for another venue to recruit students in Norway sooner rather than later.

 

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