When Larry Burns visits Detroit, making the hour trek north from Toledo, his friends there often greet him with the same question.
"Are you staying the night?"
Burns can make it home faster than his friends living in Detroit suburbs, but there's a lesson he learned from his uninformed friends. Some residents of Detroit proper look at Toledo as a distant land, a viewpoint that seemingly was reflected in the University of Toledo's enrollment numbers from southeastern Michigan until Burns and his marketing department championed an initiative to heighten awareness about the university in that area.
An annual plan costing about $350,000 and built on advertising at professional sports venues in Detroit has aided UT in nearly doubling the enrollment of students from southeast Michigan in the six years since Burns came aboard.
Burns, who in 2006 left his post as vice president of institutional advancement at Medical College of Ohio to become vice president of external affairs at UT, viewed Detroit and its surrounding communities as an area largely ignored by his predecessors.
Projections for this fall show 1,678 undergraduate students hailing from southeast Michigan, an area that claims counties Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair, Washtenaw, and Wayne. Nearly half of that total -- 860 undergraduates -- were on campus in the fall of 2006, a number that has increased every year.
Retention rate is high, Burns said, with about 80 percent of freshmen continuing to their sophomore year at UT.
"We looked at where we were spending efforts -- not so much money, but efforts -- and southeast Michigan was ignored save for Monroe county," Burns said.
Important to his pegging Detroit as an opportunity for growth was population. Southeast Michigan is made up of about 4.7 million people, according to 2010 census data, compared to about 650,000 in Toledo metropolitan. Equally important to popularizing UT was the use of athletics.
A Detroit Tigers fan at Comerica Park this month stretched over the wall in left center field -- above an advertisement for the university -- to catch a home run ball and earn an appearance on ESPN. A SportsCenter anchor turned to his sidekick, puzzled as to why a sign for UT appeared in the stadium.
"Right down the street," the other anchor replied.
That's precisely the message the university is trying to deliver.
UT, along with its partner 97.1 FM The Ticket, raises $30,000 in financial aid per year for our neighbors to the north. Combined with money taken from the school's general scholarship fund, between $4,000 and $5,000 is given to most southeast Michigan students to decrease the gap between in-state and out-of-state tuition. Under a reciprocal agreement, residents of Monroe county pay in-state tuition at UT.
"The fact that they developed financial aid for out-of-state students is really a measure of their commitment," said Bob Sevier, senior vice president, strategy for the higher education marketing company Stamats, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
An average of about 37,000 fans per Tigers home game this season -- which should touch just short of 3 million over 81 games -- will see a 52 feet-by-3 feet advertisement showing UT's Web site domain name plastered on a wall behind the visitor's bullpen in right field. UT dished out $125,000 to the Tigers this season, which also netted them a 40 feet-by-60 feet sign on the back of the center field scoreboard. Another advertisement, a 10-second static logo display, is located on a scoreboard at Joe Louis Arena, the home of the NHL's Red Wings.
The sign, which is hung for 30 games a season, is part of a marketing package costing $87,500 in 2011-12. UT does not do business with the NFL's Lions, although an image on the back of the Comerica scoreboard of a female student trumpeting UT's 90 percent job placement in sales is seen by fans filing into the adjacent Ford Field.
A partnership with the sports radio station, 97.1 FM, channels UT's message through airwaves. UT paid $50,000 for 738 mentions during Red Wings broadcasts last season and $75,000 for Tigers productions. UT was promised 1,109 mentions over the 2011 and 2012 baseball seasons.
"A lot of it is the company you keep," Burns said. "Major League Baseball and the NHL are well respected brands that have iconic, cross-the-board fan bases."
Billboards in and around Detroit have come down in recent years, this after UT reduced its overall marketing budget. Its budget for 2012 is $2.2 million, with about 16 percent earmarked for southeast Michigan. Most of the remaining funds will be spent in Toledo, Columbus, and Cleveland.
Sevier, of Stamats, said UT's using Detroit's athletic teams to advertise is a good start but might not be enough. Marketing through other avenues -- media outlets, billboards, and at youth hang outs -- would draw in a larger and more diverse audience. UT pays $18,000 to advertise in the playbill at Detroit's Fisher Theatre, an investment aimed at attracting a more affluent demographic.
"There's two things to keep in mind: The size of the media buy and how long you can sustain the media buy," Sevier said. "In an ideal world you want a multi-facet campaign."
In attracting more students from the north, Burns aims for UT to increase its overall student body population and ultimately reach a position where it is more selective in its admissions process.
Moreover, geographical diversity "makes our university a more engaging educational place." Burns strives for UT to become a "destination" university, similar to how many high school students in Ohio and Michigan view Ohio State, the University of Michigan, and Michigan State. The overall student body population at UT grew every year from 2006 to 2010 before dropping from 23,085 to 22,610 in 2011.
Burns, who grew up in the Detroit suburb Grosse Point, said he hasn't seen his marketing efforts positively affect UT's athletic teams, a notion in which men's basketball coach Tod Kowalczyk disagrees.
Kowalczyk, in 28 months on the job, has landed four recruits from southeast Michigan.
"The marketing by the university and specifically by Larry Burns has tremendously helped awareness and has helped the athletic department in recruiting southeast Michigan," Kowalczyk said.
Nine UT football players hail from southeast Michigan.
Work is not done. The contract with the Tigers lasts two more years, and Burns is interested in using the space on the back of the Comerica scoreboard to showcase a star Rocket athlete.
Eric Page, a Springfield graduate and a standout receiver for the Rockets, might have occupied that spot this year had he not left school for the NFL, Burns said. Central Michigan, which rented the space prior to UT, featured quarterback Dan LeFevour.
A "Tie One On" campaign to benefit prostate cancer, similar to the event UT staged last year at a men's basketball game, is in the works with the Red Wings. Negotiations are underway to re-up UT's contracts with the Red Wings and 97.1 FM.
Down the road, maybe less than a year from now, Burns and his team hope to begin making inroads in Pittsburgh the same way they did Detroit. Located four hours from Toledo and with Pennsylvania high school students facing relatively high in-state tuition, Pittsburgh appears to Burns to be a promising market to grow UT's name.
"We think that's the next Detroit, if you will," Burns said.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade