Every year in UK universities HR professionals from some of the world’s leading businesses spend hundreds of thousands of pounds hosting on-campus student recruitment events.
In recent years, as the competition for top graduate talent intensifies, these events have become more impressive and expensive. But if there’s no such thing as a free lunch, neither is there any such thing as a straightforward buffet.
On-campus recruitment presentations generally follow a tried-and-tested format. First there is a presentation by an HR professional or recruitment specialist, then a buffet in which the students are encouraged to network with staff from the host organisation. It's at this point that all the previous good work the company has done to foster relations with the young people can often be undone. It’s all a question of drinks.
Cabinets of cabernet
To maximise attendance these events usually take place after office hours, so a member of university staff is usually drafted in to chaperone the proceedings. And it is from this vantage point that I have gained a unique insight into a previously undocumented and under-researched aspect of student behaviour: I’ve discovered that students don’t drink red wine.
They can’t abide the stuff. Hand a student a glass of red and as soon as your back’s turned it will be straight into the pot plants. Red wine is to 20-year-olds what Haribo is to octogenarians. They just don’t get it.
That’s because red wine is one of those things you can only appreciate as you get older – think Gardeners’ World and Radio 4.
Mountains of merlot
But try telling this to recruiters. Even now, buffet after buffet bought and paid for by graduate recruiters is awash with the stuff, with most of it going untouched. Soft drinks, mineral water and the occasional bottled beer will be practically zooming off the shelves. Monsieur vin rouge, on the other hand, will be out there on his tod – unappreciated, unloved, uncorked. He’ll still be there in the morning before being unceremoniously boxed up and returned to the caterers.
‘Red, red wine, it’s up to you’
But why, if you’re a graduate recruiter, should something as banal as student drinking habits matter to your on-campus hiring strategy? It’s because things like this reveal how much you take your customers’ preferences for granted. Buffets are never just buffets; they’re a visual display of how well you understand your target audience. A buffet is a visible, edible representation of your brand. The same goes for the drinks you serve.
Those 10 green bottles standing in a row are a clear message that someone hasn’t done their homework.
Assume nothing, question everything
It also makes you wonder what other assumptions recruiters make about students' likes and dislikes. And how do we know that young people actually want alcoholic drinks when attending employer presentations? What sort of signals does alcohol send to prospective recruits?
Perhaps if we’re honest, the reason red wine is still served at student buffets is because we like red wine. It’s what we like to drink so we assume they must like drinking it too. That they clearly don’t should make us pause, particularly when planning engagement strategies.
The discovery that students don’t drink red wine also demonstrates that finding out what your target audience wants and prefers doesn’t always have to involve costly surveys or time-consuming focus groups.
Sometimes all you have to do is count the empties.
Paul Redmond is director of student life at the University of Manchester