How to host a virtual open day

IE speaks to a handful of independent schools which had to cancel their traditional summer open days and create brand new digital events

The coronavirus pandemic forced schools to bring the long-standing tradition of open days into the digital world, enabling prospective families to see what a school has to offer through online tours, interviews and Q&A’s.

Speaking to a handful of independent schools post-event, it seems there are pros and cons. Whilst virtual open days may not be able to give a full sense of a school’s atmosphere, what they can do is reach wide audiences; and it seems a number of schools will continue to use virtual open days in the future.

school virtual open day
Abbey College Manchester principal, Liz Elam

Abbey College Manchester – independent sixth form college

What happened at your virtual open day?

A virtual video tour of Abbey College Manchester allowed participants to see the great facilities on offer. This was followed by a live presentation by the principal, Liz Elam, and assistant principal, Chris Randell, that explained what programmes are on offer and focused on the unique selling points of the college as well as going through the plans in place for September 2020. Throughout the presentation participants could send in their questions (and there were many), which were answered at the end.

How many have you held?

The college had held several subject taster webinars over the last few weeks but the one aimed at prospective students was the first one delivered. There are plans to do two more though to coincide with A-level and GCSE results days.

Do you do private ones?

Individual virtual open days have also been done in the last few weeks on several occasions. These have involved another assistant principal, Iain Stewart, being in college and speaking to prospective students via Zoom. He has then walked the students around the college taking his laptop with him to show off the facilities. This has worked very well and will continue where possible during the summer.

Were there any challenges putting the event together?

Preparations for the webinar started a month before it actually took place. This was designed to ensure it was promoted through the right channels and attracted the right audience. Other typical challenges were speaker nerves and perhaps the lack of questions, so practice is key and having a couple of ‘planted’ questions also helps. Despite the meticulous planning, ultimately we are in the hands of technology and hopefully it will not let you down on the day!

How much interest did you get compared to previous in person open days?

A large number of people did pre-register for the event, which was good, but on the day participation was roughly 65% of this. Is this a consequence of a free event? The audience was greater than the last physical open day the college had but as this was at a different time of year comparisons between them are perhaps a little difficult to reach.

Can a virtual open day really be as informative as an in person open day?

Being at an open day virtually cannot beat the feeling of physically being there. Exploring a college in person will provide a much more reliable sense of atmosphere and a better idea of what it is like to study there as well as being a more personal, informal experience. Going to open days in person will allow families to meet current students and to discuss their needs with teachers.

Would you consider holding a virtual open day again after all restrictions are lifted?

The college would be keen to hold virtual events alongside ones in person when things return to some sort of normality. They open up more opportunities to reach a wider audience, whether this is in the local market or for us internationally, as well as having the facility to answer lots of different questions all at once.

Do you have any tips for schools looking at holding their own virtual open days?

Preparation and practice. From the message conveyed and the technology used through to the presentation to be delivered and promotional channels selected, choose everything very carefully. And then practice. As many times as possible until the day of the event.

school virtual open day
Jeremy Quartermain, Rossall’s headmaster, and Sven Knight from KRS Productions, during the school’s first virtual open day

Rossall School – independent boarding and day school

What happened at your virtual open day?

Rossall School’s virtual open day included a live welcome from headmaster, Jeremy Quartermain, a tour of the school and grounds with deputy captain, Alexander Fielden, and a 360 internal tour of a number of the school’s key facilities. There were introductions to music and the school farm from the headmaster, and the directors of performing arts, CCF and sport provided information on their departments and what pupils could expect from Rossall’s co-curricular activities.

Deputy head of teaching and learning, Dina Porovic, head of junior school, Matt Turner and director of sixth form, Stephen Prest, covered the curriculum and academic enrichment. The event concluded with a live, hour-long Q&A session, where viewers were able to post questions and interact with polls, which ensured engagement for the duration of the event.

How many have you held?

This was Rossall School’s first virtual open day. It was great to see so many families and agents from overseas, and families from various locations in the UK tune in to watch. It will definitely be something we continue to do.

Do you do private ones?

Rossall is open now and throughout the summer for private tours, by appointment only. Families are welcome to visit the school at any time during the year and the visit is tailored for the pupil’s age, individual tastes and interests. We hold open days four times a year – one each term – and an additional one for sixth-form in the Michaelmas term; there are no restrictions to numbers on these events but they are not as bespoke.

Were there any challenges putting the event together?

There weren’t any challenges as we were very lucky to be approached by a local company, KRS Productions. The web conferencing solution that KRS provided was invaluable, giving us a digital solution to present our school to limitless guests and the technical confidence that the whole event would be uninterrupted, professional and smooth. They were instrumental in encouraging live elements, such as having numerous people on the Q&A session in different locations, and options for guests to post questions and interact with polls.

All of this combined with the high-quality sound and visual presentation elevated the school’s already excellent digital presence. KRS also provided data analytics and feedback post-event, which was incredibly useful and insightful, and will definitely aid future open event planning.



WATCH ROSSALL SCHOOL’S FIRST VIRTUAL OPEN DAY


How much interest did you get compared to previous in person open days?

We had 200 national and international guests watch the virtual open day. In addition to families from our local area, we had guests from Leeds and Glasgow, and from outside the UK there were views from over 15 countries including Germany, Thailand, USA, Hong Kong and Nigeria.

Can a virtual open day really be as informative as an in person open day?

A virtual open day can be as informative as in an in person open day; both are there to provide a ‘taster’ of the school and to leave families enthused and keen to pursue their enquiry. Both can be followed up with more individual questions, however, the tool on the virtual event allowed questions to be asked during the presentation, which was extremely beneficial. As many questions were answered as possible during the live Q&A and others were responded to later that day. The one disadvantage is atmosphere – you can possibly not get a true picture of the spirit and community of a school like Rossall from a virtual event.

Would you consider holding a virtual open day again after all restrictions are lifted?

We will continue to run a virtual event alongside our normal open day.

Do you have any tips for schools looking at holding their own virtual open days?

Get professional help.

school virtual open day
Jane Gandee, headmistress at St Swithun’s

St Swithun’s – independent day and boarding school

What happened at your virtual open day?

We have run several virtual events including general open days, specific age-group conferences and a sixth form specific open morning. Our general senior school open day included:

– A welcome from the head

– A virtual tour of the school site with a commentary from the registrar

– A virtual tour of the boarding facilities with the head of boarding who also talked about the boarding experience and opportunities at St Swithun’s

– An overview of personal development and support from the deputy head pastoral

– An overview of the admissions process

– Student voices – experiences of life at St Swithun’s

– A Q&A with all the presenters including students

Do you do private ones?

Families can request a one-to-one virtual meeting with the head, but that doesn’t include a tour. The open day events for the senior school have been for one large group. For the prep school we split the audience into smaller groups to facilitate more age-specific Q&A sessions, for example.

Were there any challenges putting the event together?

There was a steep learning curve to familiarise the staff organising and presenting the events with the technology. We put a series of rehearsals in place for the first one to iron out all the issues we hadn’t known about. We worked closely with our IT team who were also busy supporting teaching staff to deliver remote learning, so it was busy period. Subsequent events have become easier technology-wise although there is still a considerable time-commitment in bringing the presentation content together.

How much interest did you get compared to previous in person open days?

250 people signed up to our first open day event which was more or less in line with what we would expect at an in-person event.

Can a virtual open day really be as informative as an in person open day?

There are pros and cons. You can never replace the face-to-face experience of a student-led tour and it’s difficult to replicate the physical atmosphere. However, the Q&A means that all attendees hear perspectives from a number of staff and students on every question, so they have a more complete response from the most appropriate people to answer the question. We have found that it is possible to convey the energy, dynamism, candour and team-working of staff and students and the spirit of St Swithun’s in our virtual events.

Would you consider holding a virtual open day again after all restrictions are lifted?

Yes. I can imagine a blended approach which includes both virtual and physical events at different stages of the admissions process.

Do you have any tips for schools looking at holding their own virtual open days?

– Rehearse as you would for a stage production and don’t forget to walk through the technology.

– Have someone on standby to deal with the technical difficulties of attendees trying to join on the day.

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