Mastering event planning in higher education for a holistic student experience

University of San Francisco’s talking about higher education event
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Episode description

Ever wondered how your most memorable student events were made?

Well, in this episode of Great Events, host Alyssa Peltier and Stacey Sheppard are joined by Sam Bethel, University of San Francisco’s Digital Communications Manager, and they cover just that. 

They discuss how the University of San Francisco centralizes its approach to event planning and execution to ensure a seamless, branded experience from student orientation to alumni reunions.

Sam shares strategies for leveraging event technology like Cvent to streamline operations, encourage student engagement and participation, and foster lifelong university connections.

Here are some key takeaways:

  • Learn how USF's unique approach to centralized event planning fosters consistency and engagement across diverse audiences.
  • Uncover best practices for creating and implementing event templates that can be customized to suit different departments and needs.
  • Understand the importance of a holistic, 'care for the whole person' approach in higher education events and how it can be applied to corporate events.
  • Explore ways to measure event success beyond registration numbers, ensuring meaningful participation and long-term engagement.
  • Draw inspiration from real-world examples, like the successful career retreat at Google's office, to enhance your own event planning processes.

Whether you're an event enthusiast, creator, or innovator, Sam shares his tips on what makes a great event strategy and how they do it at USF.

Things to listen for:

00:00 Meet Sam Bethel, Digital Communications Manager at the University of San Francisco

05:46 Adopting Cvent for consistent university event branding

07:07 Creating an efficient, integrated system for university events

12:40 Data's impact on the student journey and activation

13:23 Enhanced university event planning with Cvent

Meet your host

Alyssa Peltier, Director, Market Strategy & Insights at Cvent Consulting

Stacey Sheppard, Senior Manager, Industry Solutions at Cvent 

Meet your guest host

Sam Bethel, Digital Communications Manager at University of San Francisco

Episode Transcript

Sam Bethel [00:00:00]:

Having a system like Cvent allows us to organize all this information, keep track of the registration, message, the audiences effectively, so they know where to go, when to go, and then for these required sessions, we can mark them as participants.

Alyssa Peltier [00:00:17]:

Great events create great brands, but pulling off an event that engages, excites, and connects audiences, well, that takes a village, and we're that village. 

My name is Alyssa.

Rachel Andrews [00:00:29]:

I'm Rachel.

Rachel Andrews [00:00:30]:

And I'm Felicia.

Alyssa Peltier [00:00:32]:

And you are listening to Great Events, the podcast for all event enthusiasts, creators, and innovators in the world of events and marketing. 

Hello, everyone. What has been going on in this wide, wide world of events? My name is Alyssa, and I will be your host for this week's episode of the Great Events podcast. Now, today we're going to do something kind of fun. We're going to continue a conversation that we started a couple weeks ago. Now, you'll see it in a former episode on the life cycle of a student. So in order to kind of kick off this conversation, I'm going to bring back to the great Events podcast my colleague, Stacey Sheppard, who is somewhat of a subject matter expert in the higher ed event space, and she's a Solutions Marketer here at Cvent who's going to talk a little bit more about our guest speaker that we have today. Welcome back, Stacey.

Stacey Sheppard [00:01:24]:

Thank you so much. Alyssa, you're not going to be able to get rid of me now. Done two of these, and it's too much fun. But thanks for having me back. And I'm really excited to continue a little bit of what we had touched on on our last episode on the lifecycle of student events with actually one of our customers from the University of San Francisco. So I am so excited to welcome Sam Bethel to the podcast, and I want Sam to introduce himself and share a bit of information around his role, his team, because his role is actually very unique to the higher ed space. And I think a lot of you that are potentially listening to this podcast are going to be interested in how things are set up at the University of San Francisco. Welcome, Sam.

Sam Bethel [00:02:07]:

Yeah, thank you, Stacey. Alyssa. It's great to be here. So, as you mentioned, my name is Sam. I work for the University of San Francisco. I'm the Digital Communications Manager for USF. I work on a centralized marketing team, so in the office of Marketing Communications, and I'm the system admin for Cvent at our university. So I work with clients partners all across campus to help them launch events, make sure that their events go as planned.

Stacey Sheppard [00:02:34]:

It's quite a unique approach, having a bit of a centralized role within your team and your role within the university, which I do want to get into a little bit later. But as we kick off this episode and talk a little bit about your events program, Sam, I wanted to give you an opportunity to share a little bit more about the University of San Francisco's events program and your strategic approach to events. You know, you had mentioned to me in other conversations that you have a bit of a unique mission statement or core value that really drives how you're looking at the student perspective in a more holistic way. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Sam Bethel [00:03:11]:

Yeah. Cura personalis. So this means care for the whole person. It's a Jesuit principle. The University of San Francisco is a Jesuit university. It's a value principle that informs a lot of the decisions that are made at the university, including the kinds of events that we host. So we really are looking at it holistically, like you said. So we have a lot of different kinds of events on campus, which means that we have to have a ventec that is really flexible and does a lot of different things well.

Stacey Sheppard [00:03:41]:

Yeah, you definitely need a unified approach. Right. With one central team, you certainly can't, you know, have each person be, you know, planning or organizing in different ways, streamlining, that really just saves all of us a lot of time and headache. So tell us a little bit more about your team. You know, you had mentioned that you sit on the marketing and communication team. How does that impact the way that you plan events across campus or even interact with other departments and other teams?

Sam Bethel [00:04:07]:

Sure. Well, because we're a centralized marketing office, we have the privilege of working with everybody on campus, from the smallest department all the way to the office of the president. So it means we're really well positioned to help folks, you know, all across campus. So we're building registration templates, event templates. We're training users on how to use the system, how to take advantage of all the advanced registration features. And we're also building registration pages ourselves and then reviewing other pages so, you know, we can make sure that events are published with consistent branding, that they're streamlined so folks can register without any issues. And that really just makes sure that the folks who are registering for the event have a seamless registration process.

Stacey Sheppard [00:04:54]:

Yeah, you know, you mentioned brand there, and I think that's such an important concept. And something that's top of mind for really anyone who's organizing events on campus, off campus is really just keeping that experience consistent. And, you know, you'd mentioned, you know, talking about the student experience from a much wider lens than most. And tying that back to the University of San Francisco brand, what best practices would you, you know, recommend to others as they're looking to streamline or create those same type of templates and maybe some of the impact down the line that those make?

Rachel Andrews [00:05:27]:

And I will say in the absence of potential centralization, right. Because we know that that might not always be the structure, but you might be able to fabricate that through the use of technology. Right. So I'll just add that in as kind of think outside of the University of San Francisco box for a second. How can we expand on that?

Sam Bethel [00:05:46]:

I think for us, one of the motivating, driving factors for adopting Cvent, we wanted to have our events, you know, we wanted them to feel like they were a part of the same design system as the rest of the university. Specifically at USF, we wanted folks who maybe students who are coming to the university that are registering for orientation to have the same experience that they will, you know, years later as they're signing up for their alumni reunion. Right. And so I think maybe at a less centralized university, really looking into events templates where the design, the branding is dialed in for your university and can be duplicated for other units on campus, it helps create that unified look and feel from event to event, regardless of who the event planner is.

Stacey Sheppard [00:06:35]:

I love highlighting as well that it really starts with that first interaction, that first experience, you know, regardless of if that prospective student does decide to enroll and become a student, that regardless their experience will be consistent from start, you know, hopefully to finish all the way through, through commencement. That's great. So, you know, we're talking a little bit about event tech. So I want to dig into a little bit more around your evaluation event tech for your program. You know, can you share a little bit about what went into that process and what you were looking for when evaluating the right event tech for your university?

Sam Bethel [00:07:07]:

Certainly so early on, some of the driving factors were creating that consistent look and feel from event to event, but then also creating some operational efficiencies. So we wanted a system, one system that integrated with our payment gateway versus having to manually process transactions from a bunch of different systems on campus. So that was sort of the starting point, the catalyst to look for an enterprise system. We met with stakeholders all across campus to kind of get their list of requirements from the must haves all the way to the nice to haves. And that list was long, as you might imagine, when you're talking to various stakeholders on campus, I think, you know, hundreds of requirements. And so we created that list, and then we sent a request for proposals to several vendors, and we demoed a lot of different tools. We ended up, you know, going with CBen, obviously, in no small part because of the flexibility that the tool has. When you are onboarding an enterprise system at a university, you need to make sure that it's nimble and can be flexible and can accomplish, accommodate a lot of different kinds of events.

Sam Bethel [00:08:19]:

We work with so many different people, and the requests we get, there's huge variants.

Stacey Sheppard [00:08:23]:

I was gonna say, how do you go about prioritizing those, especially because everybody's event is the most important event to them, right? They have already prioritized this. So how do you guys go about scrutinizing that?

Sam Bethel [00:08:34]:

Yeah, certainly. I mean, that's kind of part of the fun of our jobs, certainly. But we really do empower our event planners on campus, so we make sure that the folks are trained, can use the system, so that they can build out their registration pages, their website. We're always happy to help where needed and, you know, we can review pages, but we really want to make sure that our event planners are empowered to build out their events directly.

Stacey Sheppard [00:09:01]:

Yeah. Well, now I want to hear about some of these events. Do you have any examples? And I might just tee this up for you. I know we want to get into your new student and family orientation. I think it's a great example of everything that you've shared so far around how you evaluated event tech and the importance of that experience, starting at an event like orientation. So I'd love to hear a little bit more about that event and how these event tech has really, you know, supported your team and supported the students and their engagement across campus.

Sam Bethel [00:09:32]:

I'm happy to give you an example or to talk about orientation. I have other examples, too. Orientation is a great one, though, to start with, because really, that's, I mean, the first major interaction that our students have on campus. So it's an important one. But orientation is a multi day event. There are multiple sessions, optional sessions, required sessions, and we have parents and family members who are attending. There are different sessions for that contact type. Having a system like Cvent allows us to organize all this information, keep track of the registration message, the audiences effectively, so they know where to go, when to go, and then for these required sessions, we can mark them as participants.

Sam Bethel [00:10:18]:

That's data that we can refer back to and make sure that they are, you know, going through and, you know, making sure that they're checking all the requirements.

Rachel Andrews [00:10:26]:

Are you measuring that in any way, Sam? You know, is there any kind of tie back to student progress or student engagement or what that means, even in terms of alumni donations? I don't know. I'm thinking about the whole life cycle.

Stacey Sheppard [00:10:38]:


Rachel Andrews [00:10:38]:

Do you tie that to events at all?

Sam Bethel [00:10:41]:

Oh, certainly, yeah. I think one of the most important KPI's that we take a look at is participation. Obviously we're focused on registration numbers, certainly, but because we have the on arrival so we can check folks in to events, we're really focused on the number of students who register, but then ultimately attend the event. And we can use that data to look at over performing, underperforming events and see what lessons we can glean and that helps inform best practices. So how we can really, like ensure that we're getting the students who registered to actually go in and participate in.

Rachel Andrews [00:11:16]:

These events and active and activated within the community of the university, I assume.

Sam Bethel [00:11:21]:

Exactly. It's all about building community and we want to make sure that we make the barrier to entry as low as possible.

Rachel Andrews [00:11:27]:

I want to go back to something that you said on all your different audiences. Right. And I traditionally come from a very corporate leaning event marketing background. Right. But the way you were describing, even through oriented, you have all these different audiences that you're supporting, the new student, the parents, whomever. Right. You're thinking about all of those unique experiences and what they need out of it. I'm new to the higher ed space.

Rachel Andrews [00:11:49]:

This is very akin to what goes on in any traditional marketing sense, where you're thinking about optimizing experiences for a very personalized approach and what that individual needs. So just something to call out. Not necessarily a question, but interesting that you're leveraging event technology in order to do that.

Sam Bethel [00:12:07]:

Yeah, certainly. And it requires, again, like a flexible tool because our audiences are so different from one to the next. So it really does require that flexibility.

Rachel Andrews [00:12:18]:

So nice that you're able to gather all of those requirements and see all of those audiences holistically within the space that your team sits. Right. Again, to stress how a decentralized approach may not be as advantageous as it seems. While agile and nimble, you know, speed is always good when you're decentralized, you don't necessarily have the ability for growth like you do in a centralized plan.

Stacey Sheppard [00:12:40]:

So it's interesting, as we continue talking through this, it's so eye opening to hear just the impact of what one system means in terms of this data, but then in terms of activating that data. Right. And it's all about that attendance. We hear this all the time, that there are actually some very measurable data points that you can tie back to whether that student or prospective student had just attended one event and the likelihood they are to become not only an engaged student, but potentially also an engaged alumni. It's so interesting to see that throughout the student journey that we're here to talk about. And I'm curious, Sam, if your team's looking at that in any way or you can share any unique insights that you've seen from truly the data telling the story of the student journey.

Sam Bethel [00:13:23]:

Yeah, I mean, certainly it ties into another event that I was just working on this semester that I think was a success for the university. So I. I worked with our career services center on a career retreat at Google's office in San Francisco. And this is an event that Career Services has hosted in the past, just not in C Vent. So I met with the event planners and we talked through some pain points and I learned that it was logistically very difficult event for them to manage. And so by hosting the event in C vent, we were able to address some of those issues. So we created, you know, a capacity automatic waitlist. We sent out reminder emails.

Sam Bethel [00:14:04]:

We had on site check in. Really took a lot of the guesswork out for the students. We met our capacity, but then we had a really high turnout rate for the event. And I think the back end process was so much more efficient for our event planner. So it was a win all around. But, you know, events like that help build that connection to the university. So when students are able to get a job after graduation, they have that connection to the university and, you know, they're more likely to, you know, stay in touch with the university community, attend future events.

Rachel Andrews [00:14:36]:

Can I ask a dumb question? Why is that so important to the university? You know, why is that continual connection? I think I know the obvious answer, but for those obvious, you know, for those that are lesser obvious or lesser known to the higher ed space, what is that value to the university?

Sam Bethel [00:14:50]:

Well, you know, we have a number of events open to alumni and, you know, it's about building community, engaging with, with our alumni. And I think that relationship is really important, but it's also about cultivating donors as well. So the stronger that the relationship is with our students and as they become alumni, the more likely they are to continue supporting the university even after they graduate.

Rachel Andrews [00:15:17]:

Got it, as I suspected, right? Follow the dollars.

Stacey Sheppard [00:15:21]:

It's such a unique way to create more value for your students. Right. By showcasing those relationships, the way that the community can come together with the university and provide them more value as part of their education.

Sam Bethel [00:15:33]:

Yeah, exactly. That's what said.

Rachel Andrews [00:15:35]:

Sam, this has been such a great conversation. I wanted to circle back to the first thing that you said. What was the ethos, the Latin verbiage that you kind of called out in the beginning? Cause I feel like that's such a perfect way to wrap this conversation for us. Yeah.

Sam Bethel [00:15:47]:

Cura personalis means care for the whole person.

Rachel Andrews [00:15:50]:

I love that. I think that's really important, not only just in the higher ed space, but for any event that you're hosting. Think about that entire attendee experience, who they are as an individual. Not just them in their business life, not just them as a student, but everything that they need from your event experience. So with that, Sam and Stacy, thank you so much for joining this week's episode of great events. Loved having you, and we'd be very, very excited to have you back. So, always leave with an invite to come and return.

Sam Bethel [00:16:15]:

Thanks so much.

Rachel Andrews [00:16:16]:

All right, we'll see you all next week. Bye. Thanks for hanging out with us on great events, a podcast by Cvent. If you've been enjoying our podcast, make sure to hit that subscribe button so you never miss an episode.

Rachel Andrews [00:16:31]:

And you can help fellow event professionals and marketers just like you. Discover great events by leaving us a rating on Apple, Spotify, or your preferred podcast platform.

Felicia Asiedu [00:16:40]:

Stay connected with us on social media for behind-the-scenes content updates and some extra doses of inspiration.

Rachel Andrews [00:16:48]:

Got a great story or an event to share? We want to hear from you. Find us on LinkedIn, send us a DM or drop us a note@greateventsevent.com.

Alyssa Peltier [00:16:57]:

Big thanks to our amazing listeners, our guest speakers, and the incredible team behind the scenes. Remember, every great event begins with great people.

Rachel Andrews [00:17:06]:

And that's a wrap. Keep creating, keep innovating, and keep joining us as we redefine how to make events great.