April 2005 issue

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Adding value

Members of regional or ''special interest'' groups of schools can have the edge over competitors as they are able to market themselves more effectively and efficiently, as Bethan Norris finds out.

The motives behind setting up a regional or special interest group of schools are similar for many of the groups that exist around the world - increasing targeted exposure to a greater number of potential students is usually top of the list. Carolyn Blackmore, Chief Executive of Quality English (QE), confirms, ''Our aims were and still are to increase the QE brand subscribers' sales.''

With competition between language destinations becoming fierce, some language schools view combined marketing efforts as essential to highlight the unique attributes of their region, or membership, and stand out from the crowd.

Education Wellington International (EWI) was set up in 1996 as an initiative by Wellington City Council to promote education opportunities in the city. ''The joint marketing projects provide a more strategic approach to marketing which is the only way that a small country like New Zealand can possibly hope to compete internationally,'' says Marilyn Davies, Executive Director of EWI.

Davies adds that since its inception, EWI has expanded its remit to include the wider region around Wellington and now works closely with the area's economic development agency, Positively Wellington Business. The group works hard to develop personal contacts between its members and target markets through the use of ''business mentors'', whom Davies describes as ''someone who has direct experience of the target market, speaks the language and is possibly an ex-pat from that country''.

Tina Chow from the International Public Secondary Education Association (Ipsea) in Canada, whose members are secondary school districts in British Columbia, agrees that marketing strategies are a key concern for the group at the moment. ''Our group is currently in the process of putting together a new business plan to step up our activities in all areas, particularly in the area of marketing initiatives,'' she says.

One way that groups add value to their marketing efforts is by assuring quality standards. QE members must be accredited by an appropriate authority and are also personally inspected by the Chief Executive of the group. ''Being a QE school is another selling point to agents and it is an 'added extra' in terms of quality,'' says Blackmore.

The young Association of Spanish Schools of Galicia in Spain (Agaes) also believes in assuring standards. ''All member schools are committed to comply with a Code of Guarantees and a Quality Charter, and benefit from the stamp of Agaes, thus guaranteeing the quality standards in teaching,'' says Ramón Clavijo from the group.

In the case of the Texas International Education Consortium (TIEC) in the USA - a group of 32 public universities in Texas that was established in 1985 to increase international student enrolment on university campuses in Texas - new products have also been developed that combine members' various areas of expertise.

The Texas Intensive English Program (TIEP), a division of TIEC, offers the University Express programme, ''a comprehensive, accelerated and individualised academic preparation course of study designed to help students meet the challenge of US university standards,'' according to Terry Simon, Director of the programme based in Houston, TX. Fourteen TIEC member universities have developed a Toefl waiver arrangement for TIEP students who have successfully completed the programme.

Simon claims that TIEP has been successful at maintaining enrolment levels, even during recent difficult times. ''At a time when enrolments in other US-based English programmes continue to decline, enrolment at TIEP has been stable for more than a year,'' he says.

Groups and agents

Agent usage among regional and special interest groups varies widely and can take a number of different forms. Spanish group, Association of Spanish Schools of Galicia (Agaes), which was established in 2003, has not yet explored the concept of working with agents directly. ''It is the member schools that [work with agents directly],'' says Ramón Clavijo. ''We feel agents are more willing and confident to work with schools that are members of a group that guarantees a quality standard.''

Other groups, however, have adopted a distinctly more hands-on approach to this marketing opportunity. ''The Texas Intensive English Program (TIEP) Director makes overseas trips each year visiting approximately 20 agencies each week,'' says Terry Simon from TIEP.

At Quality English, agents are such an integral part of the group's marketing efforts that a network of ''authorised QE agents'' is being developed listing agents who enrol students at QE schools.

Education Wellington International is another group that values good agent relationships. ''Being small is beautiful - we can adapt quickly to changing customer needs - so long as we manage out international customer relationships with care,'' says Marilyn Davies. ''Our continuing concern is to ensure that all agents we work with are given the level of support needed to promote our region.''

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