CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Although college homecoming tends to be all about school pride, out-of-town alumni’s enjoyment of homecoming events depends almost as much on their fondness for the college town as for the institution itself, University of Illinois researchers found in a new study.
In surveying more than 350 out-of-town alumni who attended homecoming events at three Midwest universities, U. of I. alumna Hongping Zhang and her co-authors found that place dependence – participants’ attachment to the community surrounding the university – significantly influenced their overall satisfaction with the homecoming experience.
Alumni who were not only strongly emotionally attached to their school but perceived the college town as being a unique and desirable tourist destination rated homecoming events as much more satisfying, the researchers found.
More than half of the study participants said the college town in which their alma mater was located was very important and meaningful for them, too, agreeing that it “was the best place for spending one’s student life” and/or the best place to participate in the activities that they enjoyed the most.
For homecoming marketing messages to resonate with the broadest number of out-of-town alumni, the researchers suggested that these campaigns should evoke both the target audience’s fondness for the university as well as their affection for the college town, highlighting its unique characteristics and appeal as a tourist destination.
However, marketing campaigns aimed at luring out-of-town alumni to participate in homecoming events tend to focus on their emotional attachment to the school alone, using the thrill of the homecoming football game as a magnet for drawing them back to campus for homecoming activities, according to the researchers.
“The combination of the sacred atmosphere created by the football game and alumni’s emotional bond with the university become the unique selling points for homecoming events,” said Zhang, who conducted the study as part of a master’s program in recreation, sport and tourism at the U. of I and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Florida. “Homecoming triggers feelings of nostalgia for the time people spent as students at the university and a spirit of community.”
Alumni who return for homecoming activities are juggling multiple identities simultaneously – that of an alumnus of the university, as participants in specific events and as tourists. However, their identity as an alumnus plays a profound role in their satisfaction with their visit, Zhang said.
“It’s critical for event organizers and local businesses to use themed elements that evoke this identity and stir patrons’ emotional connections with it,” Zhang said. “Businesses and convention and visitors’ bureaus might display decorations and products related to the football team or the school’s history.”
As with sporting events in general, the homecoming football game and alumni’s emotional attachment to their college team promote a shared identity with other fans, a temporary escape from fans’ everyday lives and emotional attachment to the place where the game is held, according to the study.
The university campus and football stadium “not only tangibly support the game but also increase its value to participants by injecting the emotional elements,” Zhang said.
The most popular activities that the alumni in the study participated in during homecoming were attending the football game, spending time with old friends and visiting memorable local restaurants. A majority of respondents also visited local bars and shopped at the college town’s stores, but it was the availability of natural environments such as parks and rivers in or near the college town that most strongly influenced their overall satisfaction with their visit.
Co-authors of the study were U. of I. recreation, sport and tourism professors Joy Huang and B. Christine Green, and Xiamen University professor Shangzhi Qiu. The study was published recently in the Journal of Sport and Tourism.
The U. of I., which is believed to be the first U.S. university to hold a homecoming celebration, held its first homecoming event in 1910. The university has missed only one year since – 1918, when public health concerns about the Spanish flu pandemic led to the cancellation of the homecoming festivities.