How Disney and Servicescape Motivated One University to Transform their Visitor Experience

Paige Booth, St. Edward's University

Paige Booth, St. Edward’s University

Paige Booth had a problem. A brand problem. It was the insidious kind. One that lay beneath the surface slowly eating away at her university’s brand without her really knowing it. Fortunately, the St. Edward’s University (Austin, TX) Vice President of Marketing & Enrollment Management happens to be a good listener and open-minded.

Paige was neck-deep with her team building St. Edward’s recruitment and brand communications on pillars of personalization and care for the individual. But not all of the internal indicators were aligned and demonstrating those brand attributes. By chance, a St. Edward’s business school marketing professor shared a class exercise they were working on based on the “servicescape” concept– the psychological impact a physical environment has on customers and employees in the service industry. It’s a term and field of study coined by Mary J. Bitner and Bernard Brooms, dating back several decades.

For Paige, an ardent fan of The Disney Institute approach to customer service, the exercise inspired her to embark on a new mission that would measurably transform the university (for results, see below).

“Servicescape is a concept that demonstrates your brand to all of your ‘customers’ whether they’re prospects, current students, faculty, staff or visitors. It’s more of a customer point of view,” Booth said. Her team started on an internal journey, looking at public spaces from the perspective of outsiders, and armed themselves with two questions:

  • How do you want to be perceived?
  • What kind of image does this public space project?

St. Edwards University, Austin, Texas

Start Small, Start with Yourself

Booth started with the basics and no budget, because as she puts it, “decluttering and the removal of personal items – those are completely free.” Her team became secret shoppers scouring St. Edward’s public spaces with eyes wide open and they became amazed at how their perspective changed when they looked at the university’s spaces through the lens of a “customer.”

“Walk through any hallway in academia* and you see discarded chairs sitting in the hallway (*note – this problem is so rampant that a Tumblr account now honors the “Sad Chairs of Academia” across the world).

An example of the Sad Chairs of Academia Tumblr

“You see boxes waiting to go to storage. You see fliers that have been there since 1985. Stuff just hangs around and becomes part of the landscape and you don’t even notice it anymore, but ‘customers’ notice it right away when they’re new to your space.”

The marketing team started with their own space as they coincidentally had the opportunity to remodel and move into a new office.  They immediately implemented a servicescape mindset. The driving question behind every decision in designing their presence in the new marketing space was “how do we want to be perceived by our campus client partners in terms of professionalism, creativity and responsiveness?”  Next, they used this process to engage, educate and collaborate with different departments on campus to spark conversations about how marketing could help them rethink their servicescapes as well.

Set the Bar

Booth believes in setting the standard you expect others to uphold. A logical starting place beyond their own marketing space was St. Edward’s admission office since it is “the front door to the university.” The heart and soul of Booth’s servicescape “ah-ha” happened here. “We spent years developing recruitment marketing materials that portrayed us as a distinctive, personalized liberal arts university. When you’re outwardly saying ‘we’re small, we know your name, you are an important person to us’ and yet the first space you step foot onto doesn’t match that brand promise, it’s an issue.”

When you’re outwardly saying ‘we’re small, we know your name, you are an important person to us’ and yet the first space you step foot onto doesn’t match that brand promise, it’s an issue.

The admission office at St. Edward’s University is located in the iconic, historic Main Building perched high atop a hill in the middle of campus. It’s a beautiful sight. Yet, your impression when you entered the admission office was anything but the cozy, personal touch that is St. Edward’s.

“You had to work to get to a human, who was at the end of a waiting room gauntlet with a shabby rug, vintage mauve couches, and outdated artwork.  The experience pretty much went against everything we stood for as a brand,” said Booth.

St. Edward’s Admissions office – “Before”

St. Edward’s Admissions office – “After”

With a limited budget, Booth’s team transformed the area by moving the reception desk to the front of the room and added new lighting, artwork, and furniture. Additionally, they added a credenza in the hallway so that visitors could access literature even when the office was closed.

The results were encouraging. Visitors were greeted promptly and had a gracious space in which to wait for a tour or an appointment.  And admission staffers felt more proud of their work area.

Doubling Down

Last year, when St. Edward’s decided to renovate the Main Building, it became evident that bringing prospective students into this building during construction would not provide an optimal visitor experience. They decided to direct admission visitors to the student center and transform a classroom there into a welcome center experience.

From the moment you walk in, you are greeted and taken on an experience that includes walls adorned with current branding, a selection of high-end video experiences and a comprehensive and cohesive red-carpet introduction to St. Edward’s University. Not to mention, the student center is a great place to grab a cup of coffee, check out the bookstore and see real students, for that all-important test of “fit.” Information sessions are held in the welcome center and campus tours depart from there.

St. Edward’s Welcome Room

St. Edward’s Welcome Room

Servicescape is more than just the impact of physical space, it also includes a social side. How staff behaves is equally as important to live up to the brand promise.  I’ve written about this concept before – something so simple as the way you greet a prospect and their family can profoundly impact their opinion of your institution.

Measurable Results

Fairly or unfairly, higher education marketing is often criticized by colleagues as being hard to measure. So, Paige Booth’s willingness to share quantifiable metrics should help you bolster your case on your campus. Prior to the servicescape impetus to move and improve the admission welcome center, St. Edward’s measured prospects’ experiences during the information session and campus visit. Not surprisingly, the before and after difference was significant. Consider the following:

  • The response to “Was the information session interesting, engaging and helpful?” increased by 20%
  • The overall on-campus visitor experience rating increased nearly 8%.
  • Campus tour guides enjoyed the halo effect of the improved servicescape: The perception of the professionalism of the tour guides increased 13%

If this case study is resonating with you, take the St. Edward’s case study and use it as fuel within your marketing team. I asked Paige to advise fellow higher ed marketers on the first three steps to implementing a servicescape success story on your campus.

First 3 Steps To Implementing a Servicescape Success Story on Your Campus


1) Become the leader, by becoming a realtor in “your own home”

Anyone can do this. Don’t wait for someone to lead it. Start by putting yourself in the mindset of an outsider. In the same way a realtor looks at your house and says “Why do you have that there?” or “Take down your kids’ drawings on the wall,” it’s imperative you role play as a “customer” on your own campus. Start with one, isolated public space of importance and start writing down recommendations. It’s a great team exercise for everyone to do, compare notes and begin to create some early, cost-effective wins.

2) Social environment matters as much as physical environment

If you’re talking about a visitors’ center, remember how you answer the phone or how you greet people or respond to questions is just as much a part of living the brand promise as the physical environment. And, these changes are absolutely free. Live the visitors’ experience and think about every touch point and how you can improve it so it reinforces your brand. The social piece goes hand-in-hand with your ability to re-imagine the physical space.

3) Become a secret shopper

Go online and search for inspiring photos. Drive to area colleges and walk around to see what they’re doing well and obvious ideas for improvement. There is something about looking at other colleges that brings to light ideas of “do’s and don’ts.”  Booth also recommends calling on colleagues when you travel for conferences or work and meeting with them to share best practices and challenges. Borrow from other industries, like health care, that are focusing heavily on customer experiences through branded spaces.

A big thank you to Paige Booth for sharing her perspective, insights, and results of applying a servicescape mentality to St. Edward’s University. If you’d like to dig deeper on servicescape best practices, you can check out St. Edward’s servicescape guidelines which they generously made public here.

For more information on this topics, check out the following StoriedU posts:



About Jay Sharman

Jay Sharman is the CEO and founder of TeamWorks Media, a purpose-driven marketing company in Chicago’s West Loop. TeamWorks helps not-for-profit and higher education clients combine purpose and profit by creating innovative marketing strategies... More about Jay Sharman »

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