Popular Rock & Worship Roadshow Places GCU at Center Stage
By Doug Carroll
GCU News Bureau
ONTARIO, Calif. — The 5½-minute video comes about a third of the way into a four-hour concert, after a frenzied set by the rap-rock band Family Force 5.
The image of Bart Millard, lead singer of MercyMe and a flannel-shirt type of guy, is seen on a huge video screen at one end of 11,000-seat Citizens Business Bank Arena, where the Rock & Worship Roadshow has pitched its tent on a Sunday night to a packed house.
As Millard speaks, footage of Grand Canyon University commands the audience’s attention, providing a powerful introduction to the Phoenix campus. Millard talks in a neighborly tone about the school’s welcoming environment and doesn’t make a hard sell. The vibe is warm and casual.
“Grand Canyon University isn’t for everyone,” he says toward the end of the video, “but it may be the right place for you.”
In a matter of seconds, enrollment representatives from the University, stationed prominently at one large booth on the arena’s floor and another on its concourse, are besieged by concertgoers ranging from high schoolers to working adults. During the set of the next band, Kutless, the curious remain three and four deep at the floor booth, asking questions and filling out contact cards.
Amid the crush of people, this thought occurs to an observer who has heard plenty of in-concert pitches over the years: Maybe Millard has it wrong.
Maybe GCU is for everyone.
“This is how we bring our campus to them,” said Scott Fehrenbacher, GCU’s senior vice president for faith-based marketing, pleased by an evening that has created interest in the University from nearly 800 people — about three times as many as the tour’s Ontario stop generated last year.
GCU has been a major sponsor of the 5-year-old tour for the past three years. Because of a lower-than-low $10 ticket price, Rock & Worship’s nine acts frequently play to near-capacity crowds, as they did in Ontario and the previous night at US Airways Center in Phoenix. The 20-city tour, headlined by MercyMe (biggest hit: “I Can Only Imagine”), began Feb. 7 in Wisconsin and will conclude March 10 in Fresno, Calif.
The fan-friendly tour presents an ideal opportunity for GCU to talk
to students and families seeking an affordable, private college education at reasonable rates. The Christian music scene is a “micro niche,” Fehrenbacher acknowledges, but it’s one that the University has come to own simply by knowing the audience and nailing the message.
“The secret sauce has been finding brand advocates our audience trusts,” Fehrenbacher said, “people like Bart Millard and Lecrae. These are people who have advanced that trust for us, because of the relationship they have with their fans.”
GCU’s mini-army of more than a dozen in Ontario included Fehrenbacher and staffers Bret Ceren and Clint Van Wuffen, along with Jeff Ogne and seven other southern California admissions representatives. Trevor Roberts and Spencer Fehrenbacher of the University are traveling full time with the tour, and three undergraduate students also helped at this particular stop, putting on the show within the show.
“It was awesome,” said Bijan Mahlouji, a freshman majoring in Christian studies, who had his hands full working one of the booths. “People seemed genuinely interested. They seemed familiar with who we are, and they asked questions as if they wanted to go to school (at GCU).”
Manning the booths during a concert isn’t all that the GCU team does. Two hours before the doors opened, there was a VIP reception for 130 high school students who already had indicated a serious interest in attending GCU. That was followed by a reception for a few dozen youth pastors.
Ogne said awareness of the University has skyrocketed since he graduated in 2010.
“I had a number of conversations with different families asking questions of deeper interest,” he said after the show. “The brand is building, and there’s a consistency of message. The video talks about the actual cost (of attending GCU), so there’s no ambiguity. It’s a stronger call to action.”
Remaining dates for Rock & Worship Roadshow Feb. 28: Boise, ID March 1: Portland, OR March 2: Seattle, WA March 3: Spokane, WA March 8: San Jose, CA March 9: Sacramento, CA March 10: Fresno, CA
DaJarie James, a sophomore majoring in sports management, also noticed a certain sophistication of awareness. What used to be a frustratingly common question about the school — “Is it at the Grand Canyon?” — is seldom heard anymore.
“I kept getting asked about the spiritual life on campus,” James said. “There were a lot of questions about campus life, and they were wondering what I think about the school.”
Scott Fehrenbacher said the number and quality of students are an indication that GCU has “penetrated easily on a regional basis” in California and other Western states.
“In the Christian community, GCU is a national brand now,” he said. “Parents say they’re comfortable with us and they trust us. … Three years ago, we didn’t understand this audience and they didn’t understand the University. But we started it and stuck to it, and now we have staying power.”
Contact Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or firstname.lastname@example.org.