What applicants expect from on-campus and virtual university open events

open events

The pandemic meant universities had to be swift and agile to deliver new virtual university open events – and they did so incredibly well. A few years on, it seems virtual is here to stay, so how can events teams make the most of a hybrid approach?

We’ve been tracking how students feel about both virtual and on-campus open days in our Navigating Changing Options surveys.

The majority of applicants have been positive about the usefulness of virtual events:

Applicant respondents who said virtual events were useful
October 2020 – 60% of 2021 entry; 70% of 2022 entry
Feb/Mar 2021 – 82% of 2021 entry; 78% of 2022 entry
March 2022 – 79% of 2022 entry; 84% of 2023 entry

Virtual events were a reactive necessity, so the higher education sector may not have had the luxury of time to fully test and optimise them before offering them to applicants. It is great to see that over time, as events teams have finessed their online events, the perception of virtual event usefulness has improved.

Now that the covid chaos has calmed down, we all have a chance to re-examine virtual open days and think more critically about their purpose compared with on-campus events.

Our July research¹ found that 78% of 2023 entry applicants planned to attend an on-campus open day in the future and 45% planned to attend a virtual open day – so it looks like there is still strong applicant demand for both options.

Further applicant research² from earlier this year, reveals there are some key differences in what applicants expect from each event format, so let’s take a look:

Best timings: when to host on-campus and virtual university open events

When we asked applicants in March 2022², 58% of  2022 entry respondents (Year 13s at the time) and 23% of 2023 entry respondents (Year 12s at the time) had already attended an on-campus open day.

For virtual events, this was 57% of 2022 entry and 28% of 2023 entry respondents.

The following graph shows the best times to host these events, according to applicant responses from both year groups:

For both event types, the best time is the summer holidays after Year 12. A high proportion of respondents also thought events held anytime starting from the Year 12 Summer Term to the Year 13 Autumn Term were appropriate.

The difference is that applicants think virtual events should be held earlier than on-campus events.  You can see in the graph that interest starts to spike from the beginning of Year 12, whereas interest for on-campus events is mainly between the Summer Term in Year 12 and Spring in Year 13.

The Summer Term in Year 13 was the least popular – presumably because this is after the application deadline and conflicts with A-level exams.

Event purpose: on-campus events are about experiences and a sense of space, virtual events are for fact-finding and convenience

We also asked 2022 and 2023 applicants: “What do you want from virtual/on-campus open days?” (select all that apply)².

Taster sessions and course information were very important to respondents irrespective of event type, but the other top responses show a stark difference in applicants’ mindsets and goals:

Virtual events

  1. Specific course information – 74%
  2. Dip in and out of different sessions – 55%
  3. Taster lecture/workshop – 55%
  4. Ask questions – 55%
  5. On-demand content – 54%

“I don’t think virtual open days are good ways of conveying information about universities’ ‘soft’ qualities, but can be useful for course content and confirmed info” (2022 entry applicant)

On-campus events

  1. Get a feel for the city/campus – 76%
  2. Taster lecture/workshop – 71%
  3. Specific course information – 68%
  4. See the accommodation – 68%
  5. Meet current students on my course – 68%
  6. Meet academics that will be teaching me – 67%

“to see the layout of the rooms the lessons will take place [sic]” (2023 entry applicant)
“A full tour of the area” (2022 entry applicant)
“A warm welcome experience” (2022 entry applicant)

What this all means for your event strategy


Overall, Summer open days may be better targeted at Year 12s, since interest is high in the Year 12 Summer Term and the Summer holidays after Year 12, but much lower over the same periods in Year 13.

For autumn events (and on-campus events in particular) the interest is much higher from Year 13s than Year 12s. However interestingly, when we look at the Year 12 Autumn Term, twice the proportion of applicants thought it was a good time for virtual events (32%), compared with on-campus events (17%). Therefore for virtual open events in the autumn, target both Year 12 and Year 13.

Virtual events

At virtual events, applicants want to be able to access the information they need, when they need it. Their preference is to dip in and out at their own convenience – so instead of just having fixed dates and full-day schedules, consider creating regular bite-sized, on-demand content and Q&A sessions that are well signposted in your website navigation.


Be aware that for on-campus events there may be external factors preventing attendance (especially given the cost of living crisis):

“The only problem is getting there – transport to further Universities can be difficult ” (2022 entry applicant)

For on-campus events, applicants prioritise making human connections, experiencing the teaching and getting a sense of the physical environments they will be spending their time in. The key for these events is to be memorable, foster a sense of belonging, and let applicants fully immerse themselves in their surroundings.

In simple terms: at virtual events, you need to satisfy applicants’ minds, but on-campus you need to win their hearts.

What to do next

WEBINARS: We’re hosting a webinar panel on 20th September 2022 with the University of Leicester and the University of Liverpool which will be all about creating a sense of belonging for students and applicants. You can sign up here.

We also recommend watching our Post-pandemic recruitment events webinar on-demand. (You can also view the slides here). This session includes additional recent research on what students want from open events – particularly, the kind of video content they would like to see before attending in-person events.

RESEARCH: This is just a snapshot of the powerful insight available in our Navigating Changing Options applicant research. UPP clients have exclusive access to these NCO reports as soon as they are published. (Request your NCO reports here).

If you do not have an UPP package (or your UPP is due for renewal), you can access our student sentiment reports or talk to us today about getting an UPP package live as soon as possible.

Find out more about how we can support your open day goals.
Book your campaign or submit an enquiry.

Get in touch:
0800 999 3222


¹Navigating Changing Options, Wave 8, July 2022
²Navigating Changing Options, Wave 7, March 2022

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