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An insight into running Open Days

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Over 20,000 students and visitors joined us at our latest Open Days last month.

A great opportunity for us to promote the University and for prospective students and their guests to get a feel for the University and the city, organising open days is no mean feat.

Dialogue caught up with colleagues to find out what goes into making the days run smoothly.

Karen Wilson, Deputy Head of Recruitment and Conversion, has led the work on undergraduate (UG) open days for the last eight years before taking up her new position. While Megan Clark, Student Recruitment Assistant Manager, has worked on UG open days for just over three years.

From left to right: Megan Clark, Karen Wilson and Craig Hoye
From left to right: Megan Clark, Karen Wilson and Craig Hoye

Getting ready

Karen said: ''We start planning 16 weeks before the event, with rooms booked nearly a year in advance. We work closely with colleagues from across the University, including Estates and Facilities, Colleges, DCAD, Marketing and Communications, Volunteering and Student Support. Liaising with Durham County Council, Durham Pointers, local businesses and Durham train station too is key given the number of visitors to the city.

We do cap visitor numbers to ensure our campus and the city can cope – we need to consider everything from parking to catering and toilet facilities. It’s crucial to ensure everyone has the best experience.

Attendees register in advance and the latest open day was fully booked two weeks beforehand. To help visitors prepare, the team runs a webinar a week beforehand to explain how visitors can get the best out of the day. Information is also provided on the website and in several focused emails in the run-up to the event. The team works closely with the enquiries team to ensure individual enquiries get answered.

On the day

Karen continued: “It’s an early start setting up, with visitors often arriving from 7.30am. We have regular shuttle buses operating from the station and the city centre to upper Mountjoy.

''Two hundred academic activities take place over the course of the day including presentations, exhibitions, tours and drop-in sessions. Some departments even give demonstrations like our Chemistry colleagues making ice cream out of liquid nitrogen.”

On the day, 250 student ambassadors carry out a variety of roles. Prospective students want to speak to current students to get a real feel for what it’s like at Durham, and there is a student ambassador in every talk - they play a key role.

Acting on feedback

The team asks for feeback from visitors and always looks to improve their Open Day experience - Open Days regularly see 90%+ satisfaction rate. Some of the improvements over the years included a central information hub at the Teaching and Learning Centre to provide a one-stop shop for visitors’ queries.

The introduction of a food court outside Bill Bryson Library is now a regular sight with a number of high-quality local providers offering a range of sweet and savoury treats and coffee options.

Craig Hoye, Assistant Retail Operations Manager, leads our open day catering offer. He said: “Open Days are a great opportunity for us to showcase our offer to potential students and we try to cater for everyone. We have 55 catering staff working each day. It’s a team effort and I’m incredibly proud of them. It’s extremely busy but we really enjoy the buzz and great energy the Open Days bring. While catering is a small part of university life, we hope our catering services and our friendly staff play a part in a student’s decision about whether to study here.”

Visitors on campus
Visitors on campus

Taken by surprise

As with any event, things don’t always run smoothly. Megan said: “One of the biggest challenges we’ve had was severe flooding on Palace Green in 2022. We had to close the Bailey colleges and re-route visitors so they didn’t cross the bridge, which was like a waterfall. Thankfully the fire and rescue service drained it quickly.”

Megan’s three-day University first aid course was put into action at this year’s April Post-Offer Visit Day. Along with another member of staff and nearby student, she helped to save the life of one of our volunteer athletics coaches after he collapsed due to a cardiac arrest. Between them they administered CPR and used the nearest defibrillator from the Sports and Wellbeing Park. He has thankfully now made a full recovery after undergoing triple heart bypass surgery.

Love of the job

When asked what they love most about the open days all three said it was working with colleagues and seeing the enjoyment on the faces of our visitors.

Megan said: “For me it’s seeing people’s first reactions and impressions, and seeing them fall in love with Durham, just as I did.”

The team is used to having high profile guests too. Karen said: “Most of them want to remain low key as they are usually here for their son or daughter. To us it’s just another attendee and whoever it is, we want them to have the same great experience.”

One of the most challenging things the team had to deal with was Covid-19. Two weeks before lockdown we had to postpone a Post-Offer Visit Day and move it all online. We had 311 separate digital events running in 2020 thanks to support from colleagues – a phenomenal, team effort. But as Karen said: “You can’t beat face-to-face. Online worked during Covid but there was an appetite to get back on site as soon as possible.”

Karen and Megan now have new roles, so this year’s open days are being organised by other colleagues with their support.

A student who attended last month’s UG open day said:

The graduate ambassadors were very friendly and seemed down to earth. They made the experience much nicer overall as it felt like we were talking to real, engaged people who wanted to guide us.

Interesting facts:

At last month’s Open Days we sold over:

  • 2,500 bakery items
  • 1,450 hot main meals
  • 1,000 panini
  • 1,300 sandwiches
  • 4,000 hot drinks
  • 3,100 soft drinks

The Catering Service also provides drinks and lunch for 1,300 staff and students working over the two days. The library square food court serves over 1,000 people in three hours over the lunch period.



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