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Tour guide Gabrielle Maire, a double major in integrative neuroscience and music, prepares to give a campus tour last month.
Photo by Jonathan King
Tour guides tell stories, woo prospective students
July 8, 2014Tweet
Gabrielle Maire knows Binghamton University like the back of her hand. Head over to Bartle Library and she’ll tell you about the flash rave she attends there every year before finals week. Visit College-in-the-Woods and she’ll share how she and her friends used to stop by the dining hall for burritos. For Maire, a campus tour guide, personal recollections like these help convince prospective students and their families that Binghamton University is the place to be.
“In general, when you’re listening to someone tell a personal story, you can definitely see they’re passionate about it, and it shines through,” said Maire, a senior majoring in integrative neuroscience and music. “They can see it’s a place you can really call home.”
More than 38,000 guests visited the University during the 2013-2014 academic year, making it among the most highly visited campuses in New York. With that many people stopping by, the Undergraduate Admissions Office has its work cut out for it. But Visit Coordinator Joseph Tiesi isn’t worried. He believes stories like Maire’s are a great way to make an impression.
“I don’t really want to call them tour guides,” said Tiesi, who oversees approximately 100 tour guides throughout the year and serves on the board of directors for the Collegiate Information and Visitor Services Association. “I want to call them storytellers, because the reality is I can tell you all about admissions, but I can’t authentically tell you what food is like here, or what classes are really like or how safe I feel on campus. Well, that tour guide…can sincerely, authentically tell them what’s real.”
Competition for a tour guide position is fierce. Each semester, Tiesi hands out 300 applications and hires just 12 guides. Part of ensuring that tour guides know the University inside and out comes down to hiring highly active, well-rounded students. Tour guides don’t just give tours. They’re student-athletes, leaders of student organizations, campus employees, etc.
But even for the all-star student who seemingly bleeds Pantone 342 (the University’s official green), learning how to give an engaging 1.5-hour tour takes ample training. It all starts with an orientation, where seasoned veterans give new hires an overview of the program and discuss what to expect. New hires undergo a rigorous training process before they actually get in front of guests, shadowing veteran tour guides, taking part in several “tours for tour guides,” doing “buddy tours” with a mixture of veterans and other new hires, and giving tours to veteran tour guides.
Throughout the training process, tour supervisors fill out evaluation forms for new hires and sit down with them to discuss ways to improve, whether it be learning to speak louder or something as simple as remembering to mention Campus Mail Services. To maintain quality control, supervisors conduct surprise audits throughout the semester.
Tiesi, who consults with tour guides year-round, noted that they’re “different people” when they leave the program.
“I feel like we are teachers and it’s more than just a tour and more than just storytelling. I want that person who may have been a little bit shy or introverted to destroy that little voice in the back of her head that says ‘Oh my gosh. My lack of confidence. I can’t do this,’” he said. “I don’t want that. I want them to put that confidence and that swagger in their step, and I want to teach them how to be public speakers, how to get outside of themselves.”
Andrew Loso is one of those teachers. As tour program coordinator for summer 2014, he facilitates the training and performance of 35 guides, and oversees a supervisory staff responsible for scheduling tours, coordinating group tours for camps and summer programs, and handling payroll. He wants guides to be at a level where they’re not just competing with other universities — they’re peerless in their presentation.
“We are a top-notch program,” said Loso, who gave 13 tours himself over spring break. “At this point in time, we are trying to get 35 new tour guides to go from students to hand-shaking people who are ambassadorial and convincing people to come here. So you need to develop people in a way that helps them become student voices and also people who are salesman.”
While Loso said there is no catch-all, master tour – he doesn’t want guides to turn into “tour bots” − general guidelines do exist. Tours are broken down into sections. The first three or four stops revolve around the academic portion of campus. The second phase is more non-academic and focuses on extracurriculars, the Student Association, The MarketPlace, etc. The third and final part of the tour consists of a visit to the residential communities. For those interested in the sciences (60 percent of applications to the University have a science component to them), admissions offers an alternate, science-based tour. Science major or not, all guides are expected to give science tours.
Students are responsible for keeping up-to-date on the latest comings and goings of the University, but they get plenty of help from campus departments. While Tiesi doesn’t mandate new talking points be added to the formal tour program often – that would get overwhelming real fast – he does update the list of talking points on occasion, meeting with various University officials and then distributing new information to his team.
“It takes a campus to run a visit program, because we’re all invested and we’re all called to recruit the best and brightest students,” Tiesi said.
Big news and initiatives like the Freshman Research Immersion program or the University’s new $12.8 million energy grant are key items for tour guides, as are isolated instances that may affect tours directly. For example, when Physical Facilities alerted Tiesi that there were gopher and beaver traps set up near CIW (the traps didn’t kill animals but were relocation tools), he made sure that guides were prepared to answer questions about them.
Gopher and beaver traps aside, guides must also be ready to respond to difficult questions with finesse. For example, guests often express concern about the amount of construction on campus. Experienced guides, Tiesi said, are able to frame construction in a way that presents it as an opportunity, that someone believes enough in the University to want to improve and expand upon it.
“Guides reach down into that pride. And if visitors see the passion, that’s what going to come forth,” said Tiesi. “This is an emotional experience. It has very little to do with information, although we provide it. We want to provide an emotional attachment. We want to make sure they remember how they felt when they’ve left here.”
From the looks of the 2014-2015 Campus Visit Survey, it seems that guests are seeing that passion. When asked how likely they were to apply and/or enroll before their visit, 38.87 percent of guests responded with “very likely,” and 56.02 percent responded with “somewhat likely.” Asked how likely they were to apply and/or enroll after their visit, 84.13 percent of these same guests responded with “very likely,” and only 13.36 percent responded with “somewhat likely. That’s a shift in perspective of nearly 50 percent.
“Once they get here, they fall in love and that’s the goal,” Tiesi said.
This is just the kind of impact that Loso is looking for. If guides can sell the University by telling their own stories, by being the living, breathing proof of the Binghamton experience, then they’re doing their job.
“We’re in a neat situation because we’re not just selling a product,” Loso said. “We’re not knocking on doors and selling a vacuum cleaner. We are the vacuum cleaner in a kind of interesting way to phrase it because we tell a story, and that’s what makes it such a genuine kind of point-of-sale. We sell what we are. We tell our story.”