UCAS fairs allow universities to convey a positive first impression to thousands of prospective students, a sort of varsity speed-dating session. We help Anglia Ruskin and Bristol to catch the eye.

Reflection

As we near the end of August 2018, it seems like an appropriate time to reflect on a busy spring/summer season at Rounded Edge Studio. Amidst all the exciting projects – several new product developments nearing completion and a brand new content-friendly website devised and built in-house – we still found time to expand on two key services for our business; Stand installs and managed storage solutions (otherwise known as Warehousing & logistics).

Stand installs are our bread and butter, in many ways our primary raison d’être. But we realised a couple of years ago that we had become perfectly situated to offer something few others can; managed storage, distribution and stand installs / breakdowns as a complete exhibition solution. The clients who most benefit from this concept are those who exhibit regularly, with varying stand spaces, at multiple and geographically diverse venues.

Think universities. Think UCAS fairs.

Critical mass

When all the costs have been considered for zipping around the country doing installs (personnel, training, fuel, overnight accommodation, insurance, biscuits, van hire, van maintenance, van repair, occasional hardware and graphic panel replacement), it’s clear that this endeavour has a high element of risk involved, and that any commercial profit is far from assured.

But this season, we successfully completed installs at 35 UCAS fairs for Anglia Ruskin University and 44 for the University of Bristol. Both institutions have benefitted greatly from our services; both have taken a significant step towards the focus required for successful recruitment drives; both have been imaginative, pioneering, brave. They are our trailblazers.

Importantly, and to be brutally honest, we could not offer the service without them. Also, it would not have been commercially viable without an overlap between the venues at which they chose to exhibit. At shows with only one client, we lost a little. At those with both present, we gained a little. So their pioneering spirit happening at the same time, combined with our current staffing levels and warehousing capacity have produced a critical mass driving the success of this venture.

At Rounded Edge Studio, we are not only conscious of and grateful for this symbiosis, we are actively encouraging of it. For us, creating a solution to our clients’ exhibition requirements is the ultimate end-goal of all our projects. And as a full-service provider, we want the growth of our company to be organic so that it continues to fulfil our clients’ needs. We’re really excited about the possibilities of managed storage and installs, to the extent that we’ve prototyped and are now trialling a new aluminium modular display system to help facilitate it.

UCAS fairs

UCAS organise a full programme of university recruitment events throughout the year, strategically timed to coincide with sixth-formers and college students looking at options for their progression into higher education. To attract these prospective students, each university taps into their marketing budget to secure and man the stands at each of the UCAS fairs. They are a key piece in the recruitment puzzle and events go on around the country, usually hosted by the universities themselves.

There is a local bias, but a significant number of students choose to study reasonably local to their home town, and increasingly, due to the cost of higher education, some choose to stay in their parental homes for some or all of their studies. That means that the host of each event needs to go all out at their own show; not just for prestige, but also because they can expect a higher footfall at their stands.

Having said that, students are still prepared and able to travel further afield, so there is some mileage in a northern institution recruiting in the south or vice-versa. Anglia Ruskin University has a particular reason for casting its net wider – it has several campuses in various diverse locations.

Paradigm shift

Universities may have traded purely on reputation in the distant past, but now things are different. In the modern world of online and social networking (a world which the target audience are entirely adept and often slightly over-immersed), the institutions’ marketing departments must now rely heavily on new methods and new channels for dissemination. It’s not enough to be great or successful or even to have good contacts with schools.

Funnily enough, this is quite analogous with the exhibition and display industry in general. Paradigm shifts in technology and its usage might seem to point to ‘online everything’ being the future of recruitment. And yet trade shows still happen. Exhibitions still attract huge audiences. And UCAS fairs are perhaps more effective than they’ve ever been. There’s something about a face-to-face meeting that simply can’t be replicated in any other way. And, let’s be honest, a 17-year-old is unlikely to be able or willing to organise meaningful conversations with 25 different institutions on the same day in a bunch of chat rooms.

Standing out

What about the stand itself? At many of the UCAS fairs, the display area is no more than a 3m or even 2m square. It might be in a well-lit hall. Or it might be in a marquee with no electricity. As the circus travels around the country, exhibitors are often offered an hour or less to prepare the site before the punters are let in, and a similar time to break it down at the end of the day.

So there are some obvious restrictions to the kind of exhibition and display equipment suitable for these events. But then some of the shows suffer no such restrictions. Like the one we attended at the NEC in June; a full 3 hours to set up, plenty of space, electrics and WiFi options as you’d expect at the NEC. At this event, the stand that a month earlier had slotted neatly into the 2m space in a marquee in Hull (shown below) would now be totally inappropriate and inadequate. The exhibitors therefore need to cover several bases, buying or hiring several different display options.

For some of the representatives of the universities we talked to as we attended these UCAS fairs, that is a slightly painful point. The guys running the stand were often expected to transport the display equipment and boxes of heavy prospectuses themselves, then erect the stand before each show, hardly the best preparation for a day enthusing about their establishments. We found ourselves frequently helping people around the halls struggling with the installation of their stands, having no prior knowledge of exhibition equipment. Their stress was palpable.

Rounded Edge solutions

For Anglia Ruskin University and University of Bristol, we applied all our knowledge and expertise to provide truly flexible solutions, rugged enough to withstand use at multiple shows. We were meticulous in our handling of the stock in order to maintain quality across such a long programme of events. Our solutions included:

  • Design and production of appropriate equipment for different stand spaces
  • Provision and maintenance of professional, stand-out displays
  • Provision of battery-powered lightboxes for venues without electricity
  • Liaison with event organisers
  • Country-wide distribution, installation and breakdown
  • Storage and management of stock, including prospectuses

The galleries below show images from our larger NEC builds in June, hopefully demonstrating pictorially what UCAS fairs actually entail for stand installers like ourselves. This was a two-man install (myself and Andy on this occasion), but Andy seems to have conveniently dodged the camera lens by virtue of being behind it. We remember the drive down to Birmingham fondly as we listened agape to England’s 6-1 win against Panama on the van radio. We remember the 28-degree heat during the build with slightly less fondness.

Anglia Ruskin University

Anglia Ruskin University chose a Twist display system for the stands, giving them the flexibility to use fewer or more graphic panels depending on the stand space. For the NEC show, they had a double-shell space to fill, which they did using 13 graphic panels (including the flexi joins and curved end-caps) on 7 Twist stands, each with lighting. The imposing back-wall was higher than the shell walls, so we hung blanking panels on the back to hide the uprights and power cables. They also employed a bespoke iPad enclosure cabinet.

University of Bristol

University of Bristol’s equipment included some bespoke elements, like the tower stand cabinets, lovingly crafted by Chris in our workshop. For the small and medium stands, we built a fabric-covered lightbox using an aluminium framework, modular in the sense that it could be single or double depending on the stand space. For the larger shows like this one, we constructed towers and a back-wall area using an effective if rather fiddly German system called Clic. It was covered with graphic panels printed on a special acetate substrate called Duratran, which adds vividness using powered or ambient backlighting. You can see Clic in action in the images below.

Future developments

The UCAS fairs are important fixtures in the calendar for all concerned; UCAS themselves, the universities, the show venues and organisers, the students, the schools and colleges. And to this list, with some amount of pride, we’d like to add the stand installs teams. After a few seasons of doing this, we’ve met our competitors, helped those trying to DIY, and talked to universities, many of whom are now starting to seriously consider a managed solution.

As with all our innovations in exhibition services, we found that putting concepts into practice may require courage, but is the only true test of an idea’s potential. We find that in doing it, rather than just talking about it, we discover things along the way that help to accelerate development, close off uncertainties and optimise workflows.

Some of those optimisations come directly from the clients. And if other universities are looking to get on board with us, it’s partially because they’ve admired our clients’ stands and realised the primary benefit of outsourcing installs and logistics – being able to focus on the recruitment part of the UCAS fairs. So we salute our trailblazers, and look forward to working with them and others next time the UCAS circus rolls into town.

Related content

Post author

Director

Client

Institution of higher education

Client

Institution of higher education

Venue (featured)

The National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham

Product

Premium portable and modular exhibition display system

Product

Bespoke modular exhibition products and services

Service

At-show hardware installation and breakdown

Service

Managed storage and distribution

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