*Not a million, but it's a lot. Tours are important and have a lot of moving parts!
As you no doubt know, your school tour is super-important in your efforts to recruit new families to your public school. This is when families who are seriously considering your school (they've checked your website, looked at school review sites, spoken with others families) want to come kick the tires and see for themselves. If you are just testing the waters of public school marketing, this is one of the first tasks I'd recommend doing. It can have a huge impact.
Every school is different, from their personality and values (branding!) to their faculty and neighborhood and as such, so is every school tour. That's okay. For lots of tour aspects, there is no one right way to do things. The following is a list of tips, rather than a rigid blueprint, that will hopefully guide you along your journey of evaluating and improving your own unique school tour. Some may seem incredibly obvious or common-sensical but I have seen enough to know--maybe you too!--nothing is too obvious to mention.
1. Know your Brand. Ideally, you've thought a bit about your brand. If not, read these five tips for school branding. You need to know precisely what your school is about and how you want to portray it because this will inform every aspect of your tour. You must be deliberate in your presentation so parents know what distinguishes you and also that they can trust you.
2. Know What you Can Control. Working with your school administration is key throughout any tour revamping. Which parts does the District require? Which parts does the principal have control over, and which parts is he or she willing and open to changing? Accept what you can't change, but know that all may not be lost.
Example: The principal at a school I was helping wanted to completely control every aspect of the tour and sadly, the tour was not good. Current parents consistently received feedback from prospective families that the tour was a big turn-off. The parent group diligently earned the principal's trust and got the go-ahead to update and improve the info packet parents received at the end of the tour. They did a good job so were then able to work with the principal to change other aspects, as well. It was not perfect, but they came a long way to the point where the tour was no longer a liability.
3. Check out the Competition. You should definitely tour the schools in your neighborhood. You will always learn something, even if it's not at all what you expected. You'll see how they run their tour and what they cover and you'll also learn what other parents are thinking.
Sad Example: I toured a nearby charter school to see what the buzz was about and the administrator actually, unsolicited, ridiculed all of the traditional public schools in the area (30!) saying they all provided a terrible education. Ouch. That was not what I wanted to hear. I'm still glad I went, as I got to see how he wove in stories of student success throughout the tour and always stayed true to his brand (Elitist! Ha!).
4. Consider All Aspects. When you consider your school's tour, remember it's more than just the hour and a half the families are on campus with you. You must think about all aspects, from the initial contact you have with them when they sign up, to the follow-up after the tour. Also, think about what the families will see when they are touring, beginning from entering the parking lot. Try to see your school with fresh eyes. Here are some tips for fixing up your school's exterior as well as an interior spruce-up.
5. Tour Sign-up. This can be done in a number of different ways, whether via SignUpGenius or over the phone. The most important part is that it's efficient, informative and welcoming. Upon signing up, let families know the address, basic directions, parking situation, expected duration, where on campus to meet, and any other helpful details. Send an email reminder the day before, too. No matter your school's brand, you want to come off as having your act together. A disorganized school definitely is a turn-off to parents.
6. Sign-in. Have a separate sign-in for touring families, asking for email and phone (if you don't already have) and how they heard of your school. This will be helpful for marketing tracking, as well as follow-up communication. You can also ask what grades they are interested in seeing.
7. Occupy Them. As you know, parents sometimes arrive early for a tour. They sit around in the lobby and wait. Capitalize on this extra opportunity to win them over by providing them with some literature to read. Read about how you can engage parents before the school tour starts. Indeed, families will be looking around, studying your lobby. Also consider the lobby's overall condition and revamping the school's lobby walls. And yet another common-sense reminder: consider lobby goings-on when in the presence of prospective families. It's not the time to gossip or express frustration about the job, etc.
8. Tour Leader. Sometimes who leads the tour is completely outside of your control. If so, perhaps you can send them a link to this post. ;) Ideally, the tour leader dresses professionally, is prompt, welcoming, genuine, extremely knowledgeable and is good at speaking. Common sense, I know, but the range I've seen makes me know it's not a given. The tour leader will forever symbolize your school to touring families and immediately signals what the school is all about. Touring parents are hungry for any and all clues that can help them make a judgement about your school. Note: If your school administrator is not leading the tour, do make sure parents get a chance to interact with him or her at some point during the tour.
9. Parent On Board. Try to have a knowledgeable, enthusiastic current parent attend the tour if possible. As you know, parents value what current parents have to say. They can mingle with parents beforehand, learning about families and addressing concerns that perhaps otherwise wouldn't be mentioned during the tour. On a recent tour, the parent volunteer had signed all of the families up for the school's newsletter and raved about the PTO's facebook page. It was terrific! They can also add believable stories and observations from their actual experience. These parents can add an authentic presence that is invaluable.
10. Initial Greeting. Every effort should be made to individually greet and find out about the people taking the tour so you can tailor the tour content accordingly. Plus, this is a great way to make participants feel recognized and not just an anonymous part of the crowd. Find out about their children's ages, any concerns about their learning, and what brought them to your school's tour.
11. Meeting. At some point, either before or after the actual tour of your campus, you should have some sort of sit-down with the parents. It can be formal, in a conference room with a powerpoint presentation, or it can be an informal chat in a classroom. Not all schools do this, but I recommend it. It can be a nice, personal way to connect with parents.
You can talk about a variety of subjects. You can discuss your niche (brand); test scores and other academic markers; awards or accolades; curriculum; the progression of schools; the performance of the district; schedules; specials; programs or offerings that make your school unique; and facts about staff/administrators. You can include some success stories, too, and talk about alumnae who have gone on to succeed. You get the idea. Consider showcasing a brief student performance if possible. You will refine your presentation over time, as you learn exactly what information parents want to hear. And of course you will always tailor your presentation to your audience that day.
Example: A school I toured included in their tour presentation a very brief performance by a 5th grader (their oldest grade) to showcase an example of how much their students can achieve. It was a language-immersion school so she spoke to us in Spanish for about a minute. It was great to see a student in action, it only took a couple minutes, and was the most memorable part of the presentation. We were all very impressed and I'm certain I'm not the only parent who went home and told friends and family about that little girl.
Example: I toured a nearby school that conducted a tour of the grounds and nothing else. There was no effort to get to know any of us touring parents or our concerns. It was so impersonal I felt like I didn't matter at all. Now, on the other hand, intense pressure and hard-core sales tactics are bad, too. At the end of a new charter school's tour, they handed out registration forms with our kids' names already filled in. They handed us pens and led us to desks so we could complete registration and wanted us to sign up for a date when our children could take the entrance exam. Yowza!
12. Tour Length. This is up to you and how much you have to show and tell but be mindful of parents' time. An hour and half is a reasonable rule of thumb. You will see what works for your school.
13. What to Highlight. Tailor both what you talk about and where you go to who you have on tour. And remember, you don't have to show every place on campus and you do not have to explain everything on campus. A school principal leading a tour once pointed out empty classroom buildings on her campus, leading us all to believe the school was on the decline. We never would have known the buildings were empty!
Consider places that make your school unique and that are points of pride. If none come to mind, then pick the best-looking places. Also consider where you shine and competitors falter. For example, if a competitor school has tiny fields and yours are expansive, take families to see your fields. Don't mention a competing school's deficit, but do explain how research shows large fields are better for children's development because they have more creative recess opportunities and physical education resources which leads to better academic performance. For extra credit, include that research in the go-home folder.
14. Content. Always mention the benefits of features and not just the features. For example, deliberately mention the names of curriculum you use and why they're good. Also, you want to include stories about student success whenever possible. So you want to have stories of students who have succeeded using the curriculum. These stories are what will be most remembered, and shared, by parents post-tour. At each stopping point during the tour try to have a story at the ready of student success (whether individual or collective). Also get comfortable managing your school's negatives. Over time you will learn typical parent concerns and interests.
Example: When the tour gets to the library, you always mention the reading program, called ReadIt. You describe how it's different in that it uses phonics to increase vocabulary recognition thereby increasing reading levels. You can describe how your own child/child's classmate/a third grader named Joe struggled with reading and was crying all the time about reading at home but four months after his teacher helped him delve into reading with ReadIt, he jumped four reading levels. He even finished the first Harry Potter book by the end of the school year.
15. End of Tour. Have a definite end. Hit the classrooms first, accommodating different families' needs, and then proceed with the rest of the school. Run the tour like a boss and be assertive. You may get requests to see certain things. That's fine to some extent but don't let the tour go off the rails. And don't let the tour go on too long and then slowly die when people peel off because they have to leave or they were only interested in second grade and they saw that. You don't want the last feeling people have at your school to be, "When is this going to end?" or "How can I leave?"
16. Take-home Folder. Send your prospective families off with more than just registration information. The sky's the limit, but it might include: a list of current parents to contact with questions; stats that brag; test score info; current parent testimonials; FAQ's; PTO information; social media/newsletter information; and a school checklist, where you list objective criteria (where you know you shine and your competitors falter) for parents to use in evaluating schools.
17. Follow up. Checking in with parents post-tour is so important. An email tor handwritten note thanking them for visiting and reminding them to contact you with any questions is great. You can also invite them to an upcoming school event if it seems appropriate. Suggest they follow you on social media, as well.
Whew! I hope your school tour is awesome and becomes a wonderful representation of your school and what it offers. Kudos to you for tackling something so big. Please remember that no tour is perfect so don't get disheartened if you can't fix everything. Any improvement is time well spent. If you have any suggestions for the list, let me know! And if you're wanting to tackle other recruitment tasks, read about five tasks you can do now. Good luck!