Agents play an established and integral role in the language travel marketplace, yet the question needs to be asked: just how much do language training centres appreciate the work of their agents in counselling and orientating their students?
While some schools stress that 'our agents are the most important link between us and our students', and others attest that any future market growth should be enjoyed by schools that 'sustain solid relationships with agents that are promoting quality institutions and delivering satisfied clients', there are clearly different approaches towards maintaining agents in the recruitment process.
Practices regarding the issue of agents and direct bookings vary widely among language schools . At one end of the scale, some schools acknowledge that they encourage as many direct bookings as possible, while at the other end, some school managers claim to do as much as they can to incorporate agents in the booking process.
One Italian agent makes the point that price is a fundamental factor in whether a student might choose to book directly with a school or not. If students do not realise that agents can better prepare them and accurately counsel them for their study trip overseas - as well as arranging additional requirements such as the flight and visa - then they might choose not to pay service fees charged by an agency.
If schools are serious about the benefits that their agencies can offer them providing well-oriented students and coordinating flight times with the school, for example then they need to address the pricing issue in collaboration with their agents, enabling them to work with the same net price, where possible.
Agents, for their part, need to promote their advantages to clients as much as possible, to ensure students realise that booking via an agency can make their life easier and, as one Swiss agent points out, give them an easier communication channel should something go wrong with their trip.
Working through national agency associations is one way that agents try to spread the message to consumers that they not only offer a professional counselling service, but also know the best way to arrange extras such as flights, visa and accommodation options. In Belgium, three companies have formed a national associaton and are keen to promote this message in the marketplace.
National associations have other advantages, as they can establish dialogue with schools on a global level, via association-to-association discussion about industry issues, which is something that Korean association, Kosa, recently attempted.
On the schools' side, national associations are merging to cross-sector groups representing the broadest range of interests possible within one association. English UK is launching in May while the new direction of the Canada Language Council is to include as many language schools as possible within its remit. This grass-roots activity should facilitate even easier channels of communication between agents and schools and build on the strong and profitable relationships that already exist between many individual players in the industry.
As our Feedback survey of UK tertiary institutions reveals, there are some sectors of the educator industry that might benefit from closer collaboration with agencies and a greater understanding of the added value - and business - that they can offer.