Virtual Fairs vs Traditional Fairs

“Internationalization” seems to be in the air in the field of higher education in the United States and around the world. Many universities recognize the need to attract additional diversity to their student body, and they are exploring overseas markets to fulfill this need.

International student recruitment is an incredibly rewarding field. It has given me many amazing opportunities to travel abroad and to share in the energy and excitement of students that dream of studying in the USA.

Unfortunately, anyone who works in the field realizes very quickly that international recruitment is an expensive undertaking.

Expenses associated with recruitment-related travel

Costs involved include fair registration fees, airfare, visa fees, hotels, meals, laundry, printing/shipping of materials, translation of printed materials into the local language, and other costs associated with having special activities and events around the fair schedule, such as meetings with local partners, alumni events, marketing and catering of special events and seminars, etc. A two- to three-week trip can easily cost over $20,000 US for a single representative, depending on the market.

Though marketing and travel budgets for many recruiters continue to be reduced, admissions officers and recruiters continue to feel the pressure to bring in additional international students–and to spend less while doing it. As a result, we are all looking for creative ways to recruit international students without having to pay the high costs associated with travel.

Some companies have seen an opportunity in this area and have begun to organize “virtual fairs,” which differ significantly from the “traditional” fair format.

Fair formats: Traditional vs. Virtual

In the “traditional” fair format, exhibitors rent a booth in a conference center. They stock the booth with program information and decorate it with photos of their campuses and/or students. This is done in an effort to pique the curiosity of potential students in order to strike up a conversation about the their goals for international study–and to share with them the benefit of choosing the particular school or program being promoted at the booth.

In addition, traditional fairs will often include seminars with topics of interest to the students, including presentations by consular officers about navigating the student visa process, or presentations by recruiters to discuss a particular program that they wish to highlight.

By contrast,  “virtual” fairs use technology to allow recruiters to chat with students via webcam and/or instant messaging. This allows recruiters to pass information and brochures to students electronically and to handle multiple conversations at once using chat room and instant messaging software.

Other virtual fairs can take the form of a small web conference with virtual presentation software. For example, I recently participated in a virtual fair that involved the use of PowerPoint slides uploaded into web conference software, and I simply dialed in to the phone line that was dedicated for that conference in order to access the audio service necessary to give my presentation and to participate in the conversation.

Virtual fairs: Advantages

The major advantage of virtual fairs is the fact that they dramatically reduce the costs associated with international recruitment. Though the fair registration fees may be higher in order to cover the costs associated with the technology (which can be outsourced by the organizer), one does not have to pay for printing, shipping, hotels, food, airfare, and other costs that are associated with travel. The difference in price can easily amount to tens of thousands of dollars.

With this in mind, my colleagues and I have recently tried out a short series of virtual fairs. We wanted to test these services to see if they could become effective components of our international marketing plan. We tried both the small-scale web conferencing service as described above, as well as the online student fair format with instant chat technology to talk with several students who “visited” our electronic booth.


Before I give my opinion on the a matter, I need to clarify that I have only participated in three virtual fairs. Certainly, one may argue that three virtual fairs are not enough to form an educated opinion; however, I am not claiming to be an expert in these matters. This is just my conclusion based on these experiences–and several years’ worth of international student fair experience. In addition, my opinion does not reflect an official position or statement by my employer.

My opinion

In my opinion, virtual fairs do not seem to be as effective as traditional fairs for recruiting students. The major drawback of the virtual fair format is that it eliminates the personal connection that I am able to make with students and their parents at traditional fairs.

For example, I am currently participating in the Salao do Estudante international education fair series in Brazil. I have participated in this fair twice per year for over three years. Over time, I have found that the Salao has allowed my university to build recognition of its name and brand in the Brazilian market among students, agents, and educational counselors. The amount of visibility that this fair affords us surpasses the virtual fair, which only attracts a fraction of the number of participants and potential students.

In addition, I have found that Brazilians, collectively, respond very well to face-to-face meetings. They want to know the person that they will be talking to via email as they make their plans to attend the program. They want to develop a sense of the people who are waiting for them in the community where they have decided to study. They will not apply for an overseas program unless they feel that they have a solid expectation of what awaits them.

So, at the fairs, I talk with and smile at Brazilians. I laugh at their jokes and I make a few jokes of my own. I show them pictures of the city and campus. I try to make a connection with several of them while they are at my booth. I answer their questions, and I end the conversations with a sincere promise to be easily available to them as they make their decision to travel, whether they will come study in two months or two years. Then, I deliver on that promise.

This type of connection does not translate via a virtual fair experience, especially when the potential student and their parents cannot see you, touch you, shake your hand, or hug you when the conversation is over. To effectively recruit a Brazilian student, you have to be in an environment that promotes relationship-building.

Perhaps it is no surprise that, during one of my recent virtual student fair experiences, I only spoke with one Brazilian.

After participating in a handful of virtual fairs of different formats, I now feel as though there is no substitute for effective face-to-face contact with students and their families. I will continue to recommend the traditional fair formats to my supervisor and our marketing committee.

Potential for virtual fairs

Though I am not convinced of the effectiveness of virtual fairs for direct student recruitment, I think that there may be potential for using them on a small scale for indirectly recruiting international students: via a business-to-business format.

For example, the US Commercial Service organizes small virtual fairs for limited numbers of schools. The school representatives give a short presentation to a small group of agents and education counselors who are located in a conference room abroad. Ater the short presentations, the school representatives and the agents/counselors have an opportunity to ask questions about programs and about services offered to students.

This format was inexpensive and only requires a time commitment of approximately two hours. In addition, it allows agents and school representatives to develop a sense of the services offered and allows them to follow up with each other after the event.

Though face-to-face meetings are still necessary in order to form strong relationships with overseas agents, the virtual education fair in a B2B format provides a decent and inexpensive alternative to agent workshops (what I like to call “agent speed dating”) that are often attached to a student fair series and cost several thousand dollars.

As for the B2C virtual student fair format, I do not feel that they will ultimately be very succesful for my institution. Instead of spending a little money on an effort that naturally limits our ability to reach out and connect with students, we are better off making room in our budget for more effective fair formats with fewer limits.

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