When lockdown orders canceled 2020 recruiting fairs and online events rushed in to fill the gap, few could have predicted that it would take two years for in-person events to fully bounce back.
Now, in 2022, The MBA Tour has launched its first face-to-face recruiting events since the start of the pandemic. We spoke to the Director of Events at The MBA Tour Maggie Andrews about the decision to return to in-person delivery this spring and what the first in-person events have been like for schools and candidates.
Risk vs. reward: Why return to in-person events now?
According to Maggie, the fall of 2021 was the first time that the long-standing desire from universities to return to in-person recruiting began to match up with their logistic possibility.
“Candidates were starting to experience Zoom fatigue; they wanted that face-to-face connection, and they were starting to feel safer in gatherings,” she recalls.
The risks were still present: in the fall of 2021, COVID-19 restrictions and protocols were changing constantly, with 50% of polled universities unsure of when – or if – travel would resume. Then, the Omicron variant began to spread, and the situation became more uncertain.
However, by early January 2022, no schools to date had canceled their commitments, and 60% of candidates indicated readiness to attend.
After carefully weighing their options, The MBA Tour decided to go ahead with increased COVID-19 safety protocols in place, canceling events in the few cities where restrictions would be too tight to go ahead.
But they could not just put on the same events as they had before the pandemic – it would take more to incentivize candidates this time around.
The value proposition for in-person events has changed
“Virtual events offered us such an amazing opportunity to reach candidates we never would have been able to reach with in-person events,” says Maggie.
With the costs and inconvenience of travelling to a physical event removed, The MBA Tour were able to deliver a broader range of candidates than ever before. Schools were thrilled because it allowed them to reach more applicants, and applicants were pleased by the events’ convenience.
This accessibility also brought with it unexpected changes.
“Before the pandemic, one of the main values of attending an MBA Tour event for candidates was to meet with a very large subset of business programs in one place at one time,” Maggie says.
“But the increased adoption of virtual products and tools across the last two years has made business schools more accessible for candidates. They can get video-based information sessions all the time, even set up meetings one-on-one with recruiting reps.”
This means that candidates now expect in-person events to offer added value that they couldn’t get from an online session. To exceed these expectations, The MBA Tour re-strategized its offering.
Adding value to the in-person experience
The first step was to remove as many barriers to attendance for candidates as possible, strengthening COVID-19 safety protocols and even offering $10 Uber vouchers for candidates traveling to the event.
Once this was done, it was time to bring in active incentives – from free LinkedIn headshots to 10-minute resume clinics with schools, to complimentary GMAT products and test prep materials.
One of the most effective drivers for attendance was also the simplest.
Previous to the pandemic, the last hour and a half of each event would be given over to an “MBA fair”, with exhibitors standing at tables and candidates moving from table to table learning about their programs.
They rebranded the MBA Fair as a Networking Mixer, introducing food and beverages to the event and making the atmosphere less formal.
“We leaned into all the things that can’t happen or aren’t as natural in virtual,” says Maggie.
“It’s brought such a change in the energy and feeling of those mixers – they feel much more like an opportunity to network, and candidates stay much longer than they would have previously.”
“High impact” connections with candidates
Given the more intimate size of the new in-person events, the switch to a “mixer-style" networking format has also given candidates a better chance to really connect with schools.
“What’s been overwhelming to me in the last 6 in-person events we’ve run this spring is the enthusiasm on the part of the universities and the candidates,” says Maggie. “The interactions they’re having are so genuine and positive.”
This sentiment is echoed by the universities themselves: a representative from Boston University said that the meetups excelled in both quality and quantity.
“[We had] excellent conversations with candidates who were far enough along in the process to know what to ask,” they said. “They were pretty high-impact.”
The College of William & Mary agreed: “The candidates were higher-quality and better prepared than other engagements this season.”
What does the future hold?
The result, then, is that in-person events have returned – but not as any of us have known them before.
They are also now part of a more diverse offering, with online events like the more topic-driven Spotlight Events delivering a breadth of applicants to schools, while in-person events provide deeper conversations with committed candidates.
“We really do have a product and an offering for every school,” says Maggie. “We’re able to guide schools into the products that will best serve their needs.”
As the world moves tentatively out from under pandemic restrictions, Maggie expects the innovations that the pandemic necessitated are here to stay, with virtual events supporting the deep, focused connection that can be achieved in-person.
“Virtual will always have a place in our product mix because we’re able to reach such a broad range of candidates that we weren’t able to service before,” she says.
“But the biggest takeaway is that the events feel as good as, if not better than 2019. The enthusiasm is on a different level now.”
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