Stefan Drew, FHE Marketing Consultant

FE claims to be underfunded. 

I understand why providers complain of underfunding.  

What I don’t understand is why some of them then spend so much on unnecessary expenditure.

For example, a college has just spent more than £500k on new servers. The alternative was to use a cloud solution which has lower cost, has no capital expenditure and outsources the headaches.

It also cuts IT staff requirements which means fixed costs can be reduced. The IT Director concerned doesn’t like the cloud but, other than that, couldn’t give a business case for taking the expensive option. No costed alternatives had been explored. 

Another example of unnecessary expenditure is the high cost of official openings and other events.  

Official Openings are Good PR 

I’m not against official openings per se. We need the public and our ambassadors to be aware of our facilities and for the media to promote them as news. What I’m against is the seemingly widespread excessive expenditure on official openings. 

To often I see celebrities being paid 4-5 figure sums to cut a ribbon and say a few inspirational words that don’t go far beyond the audience present on the day. 

What have these celebs actually provided that will help the provider to reach their business objectives? How many students will get better grades and how many additional students will be recruited due the celebs presence?

Of course, its good to get a national figure to cut the ribbon and say a few words. The media are far more likely to cover your official opening with them rather than without them. But your MP, a government minister, or a Royal will not charge you a penny and you will probably get you better media coverage anyway. 

An alternative to a politician or Royal is to book an alumnus. They probably have more in common with your existing and future students than most politicians. They can also probably inspire young people, not least due to having the same starting place, the college, in common.

Some alumni charge relatively high appearance fees. But a little negotiation can either reduce this figure to zero or a more manageable figure. And if they charge, what can you get them to do as an extra .. perhaps run a masterclass that you can charge people to attend?

Back in the 1990s I recall the opening of a new riding school at the college where I was Director of Marketing. We brought in an equine Olympic Gold Medallist to perform the opening ceremony and then had them run a masterclass. As I recall tickets were quite expensive … and we sold every one of them and made a cash surplus on the event! It can be done.

But of course, who you invite to perform a ceremonial opening depends on your objectives. Waving the flag or PR is not a measurable objective in most cases. Getting a few column inches is often quoted as a measure of success, but how does that translate into hard measures like recruitment. 

These things aren’t easy to measure. That’s why you employ professional marketing and events staff! Be guided by them, but make sure the brief they are given is about recruitment,or similar, rather than waving the flag. 

How to Choose a Celebrity

Before you choose the celebrity, there is a question to ask. 

What is the purpose of your official opening? It's a question that many SMTs fail to fully answer. They do however assume that whatever it is, it needs a celebrity to achieve it!

If it is recruitment, will asking the Captain of the England team, of whatever sport, achieve this? It might encourage some sports students, but will it encourage engineers, hair and beauty students or art students? Of course, if you are opening a sports hall or gym, a sports personality is a more likely choice and makes sense. That’s why we invited an equine Gold medallist to open an indoor riding school! 

Our Gold Medallist resulted in a lot of column inches, and, more importantly, many attendees applied to a place on a course whilst attending the event. These people weren’t there by chance. We used the celeb and event to leverage pre-event PR, in tandem with advertising, to attract the right audience. The SMT had determined the events objectives and marketing had ensured they were satisfied.  

How Not to Overspend on Celebrities and PR When Opening New Premises or Buildings

  1. Step one is to ascertain the objectives of your official opening or other event. It might be recruitment or sponsorship or .. the list is long, you decide. But it should never be as vague as flying the flag.
  1. Leave your ego at the door. I understand that you might want to meet your sporting hero or a Hollywood star..but unless they contribute to your business objectives AND you can afford them. Forget it! 
  1. Now determine your budget and keep to it. Can you reduce costs by negotiating a nil fee with the celeb? Paying expenses is usually OK .... unless you fly them first class from LA ..  but keep costs under control. When hotels and restaurants run events they get their suppliers to supply food and drink free of charge .. can you do something similar? And can you use your students to prepare and serve the food and drinks? Any extra drinks are going through the bar are being paid for by the individual, aren’t they?
  1. Next is to decide on who is to be invited. Choosing the right Ambassadors will do more for your PR than almost anything else. But each must “earn” a place at the event. If it is an open event are you charging for a lecture demonstration or similar? Play your cards right and you could make a profit on the event! Certainly ensure you have the right staff on hand to handle student applications.. you might even interview on the day .. and business enquiries need encouraging and handling as well. 
  1. Where and when you hold the event is another consideration. It makes sense to hold an opening ceremony in the building itself.. although I’ve heard people suggest otherwise. You need a very good reason to hold part of the event elsewhere or it could result in negative PR. Clearly if it is a topping out ceremony another site maybe sensible once the basics are over, for H&S reasons, but otherwise staying put makes most sense. 

When to hold the event is probably down to the weather and time of year. I once advised a HE faculty to hold their event late at night. But they were unveiling an astronomic telescope and observatory, so lunchtime somehow didn’t make sense. 

Holding an event too close to handover day doesn’t make sense. Get the snagging out the way or you could end up with toilets that don’t work! 

Reduced funding might be a fact of life but spending sensibly will nullify the worse of it.

Stefan Drew, FHE Marketing Consultant

About Stefan Drew: He was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges and for over a decade has consulted with colleges, universities and private providers throughout the UK, Europe, Africa and the US. Underfunded Education.

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