Preparing for NAFSA 2017 – A Conference Roadmap for International Admissions Professionals
Click to download the 5 page workbook: Conference Roadmap for International Admissions Professionals Conference_Roadmap_International_Admissions
If you would like the workbook as a fillable PDF instead of printing it, the editable version is here: Conference_Roadmap_International_Admissions Editable
Next month 10,000 international education professionals will be descending upon Los Angeles for the annual NAFSA conference. NAFSA’s own splendid online guide to the conference focuses on networking by institution and by region’ the Knowledge Community buddy programs; and using the online program to pre-schedule your sessions and conferences. But there’s another step that’s important in prepping for NAFSA: a self-evaluation of your own goals and your university’s needs and future strategies. With some advanced preparation, you can create a roadmap for yourself to successfully navigate the conference!
We’ve all been there: A message pops up in the online scheduler from an agent or vendor in a specific country. Before you know it, you’ve filled your schedule with meetings with representatives from Mongolia, Uruguay, and Georgia – even though you’ve never once admitted any student from these countries. When you get back from the conference, most of your notes consist of “Look up how many students we receive from India,” or “This vendor only deals with graduate students.” It’s a normal mistake, and sometimes unavoidable – after all, sometimes it’s good to meet to clarify questions. But by using data carefully and strategically, you can also focus and use your time wisely.
Bonus: I’ve made a handy PDF handout (Conference_Roadmap_International_Admissions) that allows you take notes on potential invites before adding them to your calendar and helps you remain focused. It’s available to print at the link above, and the rest of this article offers a more detailed look into a data-driven mindset. By the way it also has an editable PDF version (Conference_Roadmap_International_Admissions Editable), so you can save it to your computer and edit it as well!
- Send an email to your agent/partner/vendor mailing list to let them know you’ll be at the conference
- Run your 2016 admissions statistics and projected 2017 statistics – doing this now will make you more confident in accepting or declining invites (more on this later)
- Run a report showing all sources (agents, advertisers, lead generators) for your 2016 and 2017 classes. If you’re really ambitious you could do three years. Successes/improvements can then be discussed face to face. You may be surprised by some of your findings – that the $20,000 investment you made two years ago has only yielded 2 students. Making sure you know these facts before the conference is very important.
- Register for the conference
- Book your flights and hotel
- Arrange your meeting schedule and pencil in potential networking opportunities
It’s fun to go through the session descriptions, but start to distinguish “I absolutely must attend this session” from “This would be nice to attend.” For instance, if you are also a DSO, you may want prioritize attending a SEVIS update meeting. But, sometimes meeting with partners should take priority over certain sessions. Write down some of your top session priorities to make sure you don’t accidentally book meetings at the same time. Think about recent trends (have you recently started accepting sponsored students? Are you beginning to coordinate exchange agreements) and don’t forget to reach out as a courtesy to your fellow colleagues on your own campus who may not be able to attend but who can give you good insight. For instance, I always ask my ESL Program administrators if there’s anything they want me to find out for them at NAFSA if the opportunity arises.
Reception Invites and Social Engagements
NAFSA can be very social, especially as you progress in the field. You may find yourself referring to your “NAFSA friends” who you only see once a year! Use the PDF workbook to write down all potential receptions or social events you’d like to attend – sometimes it’s good to make a list before formally putting them in your Outlook calendar! Make sure to note which social engagements need a formal RSVP and which ones are strictly invite-only.
Stay Focused and Use Your Data
You will receive a lot of invites to meet via email or via the online conference scheduler. Unless you know the partner personally, don’t assume that the invite is personalized (not to crush the illusion but…). Don’t be afraid to write back and ask for more information – for instance, if an agent from India emails you and requests a meeting, but you only work with undergraduate students, write back and ask him/her what percentage of his clients are undergraduate schools/students. Then you can make an informed decision as to whether this meeting is a good use of your time.
Use the PDF worksheet to answer the following data points about your 2016 or 2017 numbers (I promise this will give you so much insight if you can just devote an hour to this ahead of the conference).
- Total international population this year
- Percent of international students from each region of the world (Africa, Asia, Europe, etc)
- What were your top countries of origin this year? (Any surprises?)
- Any new markets that seemed surprising?
- Were there any significant application increases from particular populations? For instance, if your Chinese application has been steadily increasing, it may be worth investing in a new partnership to keep up the momentum. (The opposite is also sometimes valid, that a decrease could also mean putting in an investment in order to repair the loss.)
- Were there any significant enrollment or application decreases from certain populations? Discuss with partners to get their insights.
- And I truly mean their insights – this is not a “why aren’t you sending us students” conversation. Culturally, many agents may not volunteer new market information but if you ask them specifically they are a wealth of information. For instance, one of my most popular demographics shrunk significantly in a year. When I finally noticed this, I was able to go to my agents and ask for their feedback. It turned out that in that country, there were many parents who were now deciding to send their students to the USA earlier, for high school, and agents were now facing tougher competition to recruit the traditional international freshmen. These are important factors to consider as you enter your 2017 recruitment cycle, but it’s often only discussed after you sit down and look at your data.
Now, use the data above to drive your decision making process. Don’t be seduced by a marketing message if it doesn’t add up to your own observations. After I’ve done the above analysis, I’m now in a better position to choose sessions. For instance, a session about recruiting Bolivian students may have been glossed over as I had the mentality that “Oh, we don’t recruit in Bolivia” – but after doing this analysis, I noticed an unusual trend of increasing Bolivian applications recently even though we have not physically visited Bolivia. So this data can now help guide you to make the most out of the conference.
When you receive an email requested a marketing meeting, you can now ask yourself the following questions:
- Does this partner focus more on graduate vs undergraduate vs ESL recruitment? Are you specifically more interested in one of these areas?
- Does this partner work in a region of the world or in a market in which you have proven student success/interest?
- Does this partner align with your own goals and recruitment strategies for this conference?
- Are you in a position to sign new agreements with institutional partners (for instance, the message may be from an international university wanting to sign an MOU. But, your dean may have told you that no further MOU’s are being considered this year)?
If the answers are all no, you may want to consider why you are meeting and if this is a good use of your time.
Now, pull a list of your current partners – everyone you signed agreements with last year, such as agents, lead generators, advertisers. You could also ask Domestic Admissions (if you work in a separate office) for a list of partners they’ve used, just so you’re prepared at the exhibit hall in the conference. Vendors such as virtual campus tours or smartphone apps have often already forged partnerships with domestic offices, so sometimes you can simply adapt the current contract instead of engaging in whole-new negotiations.
Make a list of current partners you’d like to meet with, and send them emails – don’t wait for them to contact you. Remember, this is a great opportunity to meet face to face and to really get re-energized for the next year.
Look at the conference program and the list of exhibitors, or go through your emails (perhaps you were super organized and saved emails in a folder called “Future Recruitment”?) to see if there were any partners you turned down last year but still kept on your radar. Make a list of any new partners you’d also be interested in meeting, and send them emails. The sooner you do so, the sooner you have control of your schedule and you’re not running from coffee meeting to coffee meeting wondering why you scheduled 20 meetings all on the same day.
Be aware of your previous investments
Have at least a ball park idea (if you were not directly in charge of the budget) of how much you’ve investment in current relationships. An honest look at a 2016 partner who cost $11,000 but who yielded no students may be helpful, and knowing that your investment was not successful may give you some extra negotiating power if you’d like to renew the contract.
Success and failures
Write down your best partners and your weakest partners. Note: You define successes and failures. It’s not necessarily whether or not you yielded students from this partner in the past 9 months. You may have a long term commitment with a branding partner, or you benefit from the partner’s market research and see different benefits other than student enrollments. The purpose of this article is not to tell you how to define success or weakness; however, it is important that you write down your most successful partners and make a point to meet with them (so that you remain top-of-mind for them!) and it may be worth meeting with your weakest partners as well, if you have genuine questions or would like to discuss changes to the partnerships or ask for feedback on improvements.
- Email any contacts and store / organize business cards. Hopefully you jotted down some notes on the back of the card – be sure to read these in case you wrote down “must email them about XYX as soon as I get back”. Many people like to send “nice to meet you” emails to new colleagues, and the added benefit is that now you have an email record in case you lost their business card
- Send LinkedIn requests if you are a fan of the LinkedIn platform (I am!)
- Look over your conference notes while you’re still fresh and energized – did you promise to send someone specific follow-up information? Did you need to give an office colleague a heads-up that a partner may be contacting them?
- Review the list of partners you met with and make a list of new partners you’d like to move forward with. To be proactive, send them an email asking for a contract or next steps. The added benefit is now you can stop leaving a pile of conference brochures on your desk “as a reminder”.
- Download conference slides and handouts before the portal closes – this can be great to save in a folder labeled “Conference Name 2017” and you can download the information that’s pertinent to your office. This is often a great resource to review sessions that you couldn’t attend!
Looking to the future
Did you attend a session that inspired you? Perhaps a new program on campus, a social media strategy, a student volunteer management system, or a new sponsored Embassy program. Whatever it was, follow your passion! Write down new ideas of projects to implement for the 2017-18 cycle! You can return to this list in a few months as you start to make new goals for the year, or maybe make some of these “summer projects” if you have a quieter summer in the office.
Likewise, write down partners/vendors/agents with whom you met who weren’t a good fit right now but who you’d like to consider in the future (for example, perhaps the budget isn’t right or perhaps you know that next year is a better time frame). This way, when the new conference year rolls around, you can pull out your 2017 notes and simply transfer this list of names to the column “Partners I want to meet with”.
Have a great time at NAFSA!
NAFSA is a huge conference with wonderful benefits and a chance to network with thousands of like- minded professionals. With a little extra preparation, and gathering information, you can be focused and make smart decisions about how to spend your time! Don’t assume that just because when you started this job three years ago, you were told “Oh we have a lot of Colombian students applying” that this is still true. Do the data report and make a conscious decision to take control of your NAFSA schedule and to view each opportunity as a way to maximize your international recruitment strategy.
Will you be attending NAFSA? Do you have any more tips for us?