Higher Education and Alumni Events: Needs, Challenges and Solutions
Every industry has different event planning needs, and some of the most unique ones can be found in the world of higher education. Whether you’re in the industry or not, learn about the challenges event planners at colleges and universities face on a daily basis, and get inspired by the event technology solutions that can help change the game for higher ed.
Depending on the industry, planning meetings and events can mean a lot of different things. From product marketing to increasing revenue, to spreading awareness or raising money, there are no limits in what events can accomplish. But often a priority is also to create a sense of community. And that goal for events couldn’t be truer for higher education.
As I’m sure many of us can relate, our time at our respective institutions of higher learning was filled with formative, fun and unforgettable experiences, so much so that it’s difficult to leave that identity behind. It’s why the relationship between student and university often extends beyond graduation, and that it’s often facilitated through in-person events that bring people with the same experiences together. In fact, 48% of alumni professionals report that their clubs, chapter and reunions have “significant” or “some impact” on alumni engagement.
These events are also crucial for colleges and universities as drivers for revenue, fundraising, marketing and enrollment. I would know — before getting into the events industry, I wrote for a magazine all about the ins and outs of running colleges and universities. I can tell you that nurturing relationships with alumni is of the utmost importance when to comes to university growth and reputation.
Whether or not you’re an event planner at a college or university, there’s still plenty of best practice to take away from this distinctive niche of the event industry! Let’s take a look at the role events has in higher education and what the latest technology can do to make them even more successful.
Why Higher Education Events Are Unique
Colleges and universities are special when it comes to building their communities as they are typically dealing with lots of different people under the same umbrella: students, parents, faculty, and of course, alumni.
While most institutions have this same audience in common, there’s also many varying factors that go into their event needs, such as:
- Type of institution; is it a 2-year or 4-year school? Public or private? Liberal arts or a technical school? These factors may not change the type of events higher ed planners are putting together, but their audience may certainly be different.
- Enrollment size; schools today vary anywhere from the hundreds to even the tens of thousands students!
- Number of departments; while events may happen campus-wide, individual departments also have their own events to plan.
- Number of satellite campuses; often state schools, for example, have their main campus but also several local campuses across the state.
- Alumni network; where are they spread out and concentrated, what cities are close to where they live, is the presence national or international, etc.
The final point is especially unique for higher ed event planners, because the size and scope of an institution’s alumni network will greatly influence where and how they’ll be reaching this key audience.
Alumni are unique in of themselves, as they are an intuition’s greatest champions and influencers, as they typically want their school to succeed as much as administrators do. After all, they want to tell people about the university they went to with pride and for it to have a great reputation. This is why we’ll focus on this group in particular in the rest of this post.
Alumni Events: Never Ending Ideas & Opportunities
When it comes to alumni, the amount and variety of events can really run the gambit. These are just some of the many examples of the events higher ed planners are organizing for today’s alumni:
- Local alumni chapter events, including formal dinners, roundtables, receptions with guest speakers, networking events with each other or prospective students, etc.
- Fun trips or meetups; not all alumni events have to be serious! Schools often plan laid-back local events like pub crawls, brunches, sports team watching parties, trips or tours at local attractions or even working together at a charity or a day of giving back.
- Multi-day events on campus; either weekends devoted just for alumni, like reunions, or a series of events running along something like a homecoming weekend.
- In-person fundraisers like auctions, raffles, galas, golf tournaments, etc.
- Online fundraising events that may involve creating email campaigns, donation websites/forms, etc.
The point is, the possibilities are endless, which can certainly help keep alumni engaged but can also mean a lot of work for planners to handle on any given day. But that’s not the only struggles they’re facing!
5 Challenges Higher Ed Events Planners Face Today
With so many different events to manage, there are quite a few challenges that colleges and universities face today, especially with their technology:
Right off the bat, budget can greatly affect the resources available to higher ed event planners, especially if they are working at a state or public institution. Not to mention there’s a lot of pressure to stay within a strict budget when to comes to selecting new technology to assist with event planning.
Depending on the size of a university or its alumni network, there may be as little as one person managing events. Even if they have a small team, managing them and getting everyone on the same page can also be a struggle.
- Manual processes
Many higher ed planners are still using Excel spreadsheets to manage their alumni communications, which can be tedious and a time waster.
- Ineffective technology
A common software tool that university administrators use today to manage student data and communication are called student information systems (SIS). These platforms often have alumni relations and fundraising tools, but they often don’t go deep enough into events themselves.
- Reaching goals
Again, fundraising within the alumni community is huge. If events to drive donations are ineffective or aren’t measuring up to previously set goals, that can spell trouble for planners. That’s just some of the many issues event planners are dealing with, but like the rest of us, it’s never just one! There’s often many problems to solve at once that are all connected together. Therefore, it’s imperative to find an all-in-one technology solutions to kill multiple birds with one stone.
How Event Technology Can Help Higher Ed Event Planners
With all of these potential problems for today’s higher ed planners, investing in affordable technology, like event management software, can be the key to making alumni events simpler to manage and more effective. Along with time saved through automated processes, with software, each event can be more engaging and memorable, thus getting alumni more involved and active in an intuition’s future.
Here are just some of the ways event management software can help throughout the alumni event lifecycle:
- Finding the right venue: As higher ed planners know, important events don’t just happen on campus or in the town the school is in. Especially if your alumni network has chapters on a national (or even international level), finding the right venues in multiple cities can prove to be a time-consuming challenge. An event software with venue sourcing technology can help eliminate and streamline the back-and-forth with eRFPs for hotels and other venues, while also reducing the time researching online and frequent phone calls.
- Create targeted email marketing campaigns: A common strategy that colleges and universities use to engage alumni, seek donations and tell them about important upcoming events is via dinner-time phone calls (you know the ones!). Yet events have traditionally found the most success via email marketing. Software that allows planners to create attractive emails efficiently through drag-and-drop tools, template creation and that are mobile-friendly can make this easy. Other features like attendee categories (like alumni in different graduation years or area chapters) can help target specific groups and track the results.
- Incorporating school branding: Nothing, I mean, nothing invokes more pride and nostalgia for alumni than their school symbols: logos, mascots, motto, and especially their colors. From marketing emails to event-specific websites, to surveys and mobile apps, taking the time to incorporate those oh-so important branding elements will help capture alumni attention. Look for software that allows for complete look and feel customization when it comes to these event elements.
- Increasing networking opportunities: Software that works with other exciting new technology can help you create an engaging onsite experience for alumni. As you can imagine, a common goal of alumni events is networking, whether it’s reconnecting with old classmates, making business connections, or working with current or prospective students. Make it fun and high-tech with technology like digital badges, which can allow for the seamless exchange of contact information instead of old-fashioned business cards (among other things).
- Enhancing engagement via mobile: A common misconception is that event mobile apps only work at large-scale events. The truth is that mobile apps can be utilized at any size event, even the smallest of alumni meet ups. One option is to create a multi-event app just for alumni, where the information for all your events in found in one place. No matter the event, it can be the place to review all of their networking connections (that they got from the digital badges in the example above), message fellow alumni and where they can find all the latest updates. Not to mention, planners can send out push notifications pre-, during and post-event to increase awareness and engagement. It’s also especially crucial to consider a mobile presence for your events as the younger generations are incredibly mobile-centric.
- Tracking event success and ROI: After all is said in done, university stakeholders want to be able to track and see measurable results from these events. But unfortunately, 70% of alumni administrators do not track ROI to evaluate the success or failure of their programs. Prove alumni events’ worth with event management software that keeps all of your planning tools and the data it collects in one place. That way you can get truly get a full picture of what event features worked or didn’t work, or which resulted in the highest networking or fundraising opportunities, to create even more successful events in the future.
Event planning in the world of higher education has its own unique challenges, but like any industry, finding the right technology solution can help with event success. In this case, it’s increasing engagement, getting more donations or funding, and, overall, building an even closer community of their respective intuition’s alumni, its greatest champions and loyalists. This all helps cultivate a culture of life-lasting support, consistent growth and increased positive association of a college or university, and it all starts with outstanding alumni events.
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