How does the cost of virtual events stack up against real-world events?

Universities have long made use of online events in some form. But a scramble to replace real-world events has seen a spike in new institutions jumping on board. Was this only a response to COVID-19 or should we expect to see virtual events stick around? Will they become a more permanent feature? Will universities see the benefit as a long-term addition to their recruitment activities? We examine one of the reasons why online events offer a long-term addition - cost.

University applicants in the UK can apply for up to five different institutions. For some, narrowing their shortlist to five is a difficult task. For most, visiting campus is one of the best ways to filter suitable institutions. To meet academics, to see accommodation options and to chat with current students. But attending university open days can be a costly business.

For this hypothetical study, our subjects are fictional students based in Birmingham. We chose Birmingham because it’s our home town, and because it’s fairly central.

We chose sample institutions around the UK. We wrote various scenarios to understand how costs could vary. 

Scenario One

  • I Live in Birmingham
  • I’m interested in Durham and Newcastle university
  • I would want my parents to attend the open day with me
  • None of us drive so we rely upon public transport
  • I imagine we’ll need to stay overnight.
  • What are the options and associated costs?

Scenario Two

  • I live in Birmingham
  • I’m interested in art and want to live by the sea. Falmouth seems the perfect fit
  • I drive but I’ve never driven that far before
  • My boyfriend would probably come with me to the open day
  • What time do their events run? Would I need to stay overnight?

Scenario Three

  • I live in Birmingham
  • I’m interested in studying Business
  • I’m anxious about leaving home so my university of choice is Aston
  • I don’t drive but I have a good understanding of local public transport
  • I would go to the open day with my friend

Scenario Four

  • I live just outside of Birmingham
  • I want to attend a quiet university that’s no more than about an hour away from home
  • I have friends who go to the University of Nottingham and the party lifestyle there puts me off
  • I’ve heard good things about Keele University
  • I don’t drive, but my parents do. Ideally, I’d like to go on my own but I think it might be easier to go with them.

The results

With the four scenarios described above in mind, we set about calculating approximate costs. We factored in travel costs, accommodation costs and food and beverage costs.

The most expensive scenario was scenario one (£232), which included coach travel and an overnight stay. The cheapest was scenario three (£25). Staying local obviously makes attendance cheaper.

On average, attendance at an open day cost £133. Even at this rate, if a prospective student attended five open days, they could very easily spend in the region of £665.

In comparison, virtual events are much more accessible. Whilst there is a hardware requirement and either broadband or a data plan, costs are significantly lower to attend open days. It’s arguable that the majority of students (particularly from home territories) would already have access to the required hardware and internet access meaning the cost to attend could be zero.

We firmly believe that universities and colleges should build virtual events into their long-term plans. Whilst they are not a like-for-like replacement for real-world open days, they open doors to new prospects. They provide institutions with the chance to convert the hot leads, whilst also catching some of the less-warm leads who may not quite be ready to commit a £150 spend to attending a real-world event.

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Matt Lees
Matt is the Creative Director at SMILE.