Posted on 26 Apr '22

Physical vs. Virtual Study Fairs – What Is The ‘New Normal’?

This spring saw our in-person study fairs return with a bang! Our Nikki Hodgson, Head of Events, and Eva Vichova, Events Manager, discuss how they’ve found getting back to going on the road with physical events and what lessons we’ll be taking forward for the future.

Having run a solely face-to-face study fair portfolio pre-pandemic, the ‘work from home’ order in the UK back in March 2020 certainly caused some significant changes to our event offering (and a fair bit of apprehension for us event planners!). For two years we moved all our study fairs online (and in the process had a baptism of fire into the world of virtual events), but in February 2022 we giddily returned with our first in-person study fairs. Here’s what we found!

From couch to virtual study fair

If there is a key lesson to be learnt from the ten virtual study fairs we’ve successfully run so far, it is that the benefits they bring certainly go beyond one’s ability to join without leaving the sofa.

The opportunity to effortlessly connect with others wherever they are in the world whilst saving budget has proven to be invaluable for both universities and prospective postgraduates alike.

#1 Leads and conversations were abound

Our universities benefitted from an average of more than 200 unique leads per event (since October 2021), with the median number of private conversations per exhibitor per fair reaching a whopping 44. So just because events went online, it didn’t mean that the connection between student and university was lost or dissipated.

#2 Students were happy

For the students, reaching out to multiple institutions at once, and the informative content provided by our exhibitors, turned our study fairs into the go-to spot for those uncertain about their future studies. In fact, 94% of prospective Masters & PhD candidates stated they would recommend the events to their friends.

#3 There’s a change in geography coming

The fairly even UK/international audience split we saw at our 2020 fairs and as 2021 began, has been replaced with more than a two-third dominance of students from overseas towards the end of that year, and in 2022 so far. Virtual study fairs are certainly here to stay for the long term and so, to cater to the changing demographic, we’ll be positioning them as a primarily international recruitment tool, targeting students wishing to study abroad in the UK, and vice versa.

That being said, it’s certainly worth remembering that virtual events are key to helping students who are unable to attend a fair in person due to work commitments or other duties, those not living locally who can’t afford to travel or feel uncomfortable doing so, or those with disabilities, reliant on technology to access material. It’s important that we consider these groups in our communications and events format.

Back on the road

The team were thrilled to be finally meeting our customers and audience in person. Some things felt like we’d never been away (hello van packing!) but there were some noticeable differences being back on campuses.

#1 Not everyone was pleased to be back

The campuses and therefore fairs were quieter, there’s no getting away from that. Our fairs took place in March 2022 when UK government advice was to take a lateral-flow test twice a week and isolate if testing positive, so we knew there would be less people who would attend or walk in if floating around on campus.

#2 Those that showed up were engaged and prepared

Although our attendance was around 30% down on pre-pandemic levels, our exhibitors were impressed with how engaged and prepared attendees were. They found they were having serious, useful conversations and people were spending two or more hours at the events. Given that our fairs last three hours, it shows that people wanted to take their time, and were happy talking to exhibitors, making the most of the talks programme and taking their research seriously.

#3 Conversations matched pre-pandemic levels

Our FAUScan lead capture app showed that exhibitors were having the same number of quality conversations as they were pre-pandemic despite the lower numbers of attendees.

So, it seems that physical fairs are attracting serious, motivated attendees who have the time to engage with the event and exhibitors, which is a big plus in our books!

Physical and virtual study fairs, hand-in-hand

Looking to the future, we’re adopting a two-pronged approach. Our virtual offering will most certainly remain, although the focus may be tweaked to target a more international audience. But, you can’t beat the invaluable in-person experience of a physical event which is hard to replicate online; providing tailored advice and guidance to attendees, and the ability to network with peers.

Although it’s still early days in our return to physical events, we want to ensure they work in tandem with our virtual ones, complementing but differentiating their offering so we can provide that important connection between prospective postgraduates and universities, regardless of attendee location or circumstance.

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