Reinventing the Virginia Tech campus visitor experience
For many years the Virginia Tech Visitor Information Center was known as “the little old house on Southgate Drive” – and that little old house served more than 50,000 visitors each year.
While university visitor surveys reported experiences that were overall “extremely enjoyable,” facilitated by helpful staff and a beautiful campus, visitors also noted that they did not think the little old house represented Virginia Tech’s true brand experience. So after four years of planning and 18 months of construction, in July 2011 the university opened a new construction, two-story, 18,155-square-foot building clad in traditional Hokie™ Stone.
The new center, which also houses Undergraduate Admissions, sits next to the Inn at Virginia Tech and Skelton Conference Center on Prices Fork Road. The structure incorporates energy saving technologies – including motion sensor lights, rooms with individual temperature controls, and low-impact storm water management features – and is expected to be LEED certified.
Alumnus James W. (Jim) Severt, Sr., who served two terms on the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors from 2003 to 2011, championed the project.
“We have a world-class university; therefore, we need a world-class visitor center,” he said.
But reinventing the campus visitor experience did not stop with a new building. University Relations teams spent more than a year repositioning it to immerse prospective students and all visitors – parents, alumni, friends, partners, and media – with the Virginia Tech brand. With the help of professional exhibit design firm Riggs Ward, they designed exhibits that create innovative, interactive, and emotional experiences to forge personal connections with key audiences.
Interactive kiosks and exhibits showcase content to inspire visitors to want to invent their futures with Virginia Tech. Video, photography, and interactive maps span university history, academics, campus life, research, Virginia Tech around the world, community service, and the surrounding New River Valley. A large University Relations team and a freelance writer – alumna and retired employee Clara Cox – spent 18 months preparing the content.
“It was important that we create a functional area where people can go to get their parking passes and directions, but it was more important to design a space where every visitor will begin a very special Virginia Tech experience,” said Larry Hincker, associate vice president for university relations.
As a Virginia Tech alumnus and parent of two former Virginia Tech students, Hincker was able to contribute multiple perspectives to the vision for the project.
“While the old center was adequate, it was really a missed opportunity to engage visitors with the brand from the very first moment they enter the campus gates,” he said.
One of the favorite exhibits, particularly with younger visitors, is the life-size HokieBird. Fans can select one of three background images and snap their picture with the beloved mascot using their mobile phone or device.
Other branded materials
In addition to interactive exhibits, University Relations created a new visitor guide, built a mobile app, and launched a new website to dimensionalize the brand for campus visitors.
Considerable thought went into reducing the quantity of print materials offered, and the new visitor guide was developed specifically for the new center. Marketing and Publications spent several months on the guide, taking special steps to research what content campus visitors want and need, to write the content in an informal tone that suited the campus culture, and to design a fun and useful format for carrying around campus.
The unit worked closely with Web Communications and Visual and Broadcast Communications to develop www.visit.vt.edu. The website features driving directions, an event calendar, campus maps, and links to off-campus resources such as hotels and on-campus resources such as conference services.
For visitors who are savvy with mobile devices, the units collaborated with Smart College Visit to build a Visit Virginia Tech mobile app on the Nomad Mobile Guides platform. The app is available for free download on iTunes.
High-tech exhibits are a great attraction and a successful way to engage visitors, but customer service also plays an important role in creating a lasting brand impression. The unit hired two additional receptionists to cover expanded hours and recruited volunteer student greeters to offer a student’s perspective on things to do while visiting campus. Staff and student volunteers are trained on branded talking points as well as customer service techniques.
New days and hours of operation are as follows:
- 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday;
- 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday; and
- 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.
On the second floor, the Office of Undergraduate Admissions staff is available by appointment 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and many Saturday mornings, 8:30 a.m. until noon, unless the university is closed. Undergraduate Admissions is closed on Saturdays in May, June, and other select weekends. Prospective students need to register for information sessions and tours. A new Undergraduate Admissions bus is available to take visitors from the new center to Burruss for tours.
To route visitors effectively to the new center from off-campus, the university worked with the Virginia Department of Transportation on altering the highway signs to guide motorists to the university from U.S. Route 460 via Prices Fork Road instead of Southgate Drive.
Hincker explained, “In re-creating a visitor experience, every detail counts, right down to getting people to the visitor center with as minimum confusion, traffic, and parking challenges as possible.”
Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.