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August 2005 issue

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Building business

In 10 years, the study abroad industry has evolved, sparking new associations, government interest and a variety of workshops dedicated to building business opportunities for companies active in the sector. Jane Vernon Smith reports.

As the language travel industry has expanded, workshops have played an increasingly prominent role in the industry calendar. Since the British Tourist Authority (BTA) launched its first workshop in 1969 (taken over in 1991 by Arels and now run by English UK), the landscape has changed. In 1984, Ialc hosted its first workshop. In the 1990s, there was a dramatic increase in events; the first Icef workshop took place in 1995, MEI (now MEI~Relsa) organised its first event in 1996, while Turespaña, Italian in Italy and Hothouse Media's Alphe workshops all date from 1998.

There is little doubt that workshops are here to stay. As Pavel Joukovski, Director of Delius-Terra Agency in Belarus, points out, "The personal face-to-face contacts are hard to underestimate." Moreover, agents and schools can save both time and money by seeing many contacts from around the world in one location within a short space of time.

However, as a result of burgeoning provision, some question whether the market is reaching saturation point. Inevitably, increased choice will allow participants to have the final word on what they require from a workshop and hence, as Ialc's Jan Capper remarks, "The market will decide whether more workshops are viable and which ones will survive and grow."

Ialc itself appears to be getting the formula right, judging by its 35 per cent increase in agent attendance this year. "For the first time," says Capper, "we had to close registrations and turn agencies away." English UK's Deputy Chief Executive (Business Services) Richard Truscott, also reports a positive trend, noting that since 2002, English UK bookings "have shown a steady year-on-year increase in the final figures". Meanwhile, the continuing expansion of Alphe, from one event in 1998 to seven this year, speaks for itself.

Agents generally attend several events annually, selecting them based on their current needs. The fact is that, although there is clearly a limit to the number of events that agents can attend, different workshops offer different benefits - in terms of location, nationalities attending, types of institution represented, cost, size and general character. Some workshops, including those run by Icef and Alphe, are international both in terms of the language schools and agents taking part. Others - generally run by language school associations, such as Fedele of Spain - tend to limit schools' participation to their own nationally-based membership, although the English UK workshops have, for some years now, been opened up to all schools that meet their quality criteria.

At Hartford Partners in Russia, Leonid Natapov reports that, in selecting its attendance at between one and three workshops annually, his company tries to opt for different "brands". For others, location is of prime importance. "If we need options in Canada, we look for workshops in Canada," explains Geovanna Campos of Nomadas Travel Mérida in Mexico. "This year we decided to attend a workshop in Russia, because we want to meet schools from Europe. The trip also gives us the opportunity to visit schools [nearby]." Country-specific workshops tend to be favoured in such circumstances, and here, English Australia (EA) has a clear point-of-difference in that its event is the only workshop to take place in Australia.

At the Center for International Education and Careers in Germany, Eva Benning claims a preference for "big workshops where we can meet a great number of schools and universities". By contrast, Joukovski anticipates a trend towards more specialised events that are more limited in terms of numbers. The advantages of a smaller-scale event are to be felt in the atmosphere, which is a key point for Alphe attendees, says Director, Scott Wade. "The Alphe events aren't large, the biggest being Alphe UK at 300 people. This allows an amount of intimacy necessary for relationship building," he says.

Likewise, the EA workshop "is large enough to provide good diversity among participants, yet at the same time it is small enough for everyone to get to know each other well," highlights EA's Sue Blundell.

However, the size of an event is considered by many to be less important than the "quality" of those attending. According to Truscott, feedback from agents and educators following the 2004 workshop indicated that quality of contacts was the most important factor. Clearly, the better the "quality" of participants, the better the opportunity for networking and for personal and professional development, which are the top objectives of Annette Karseras Sumi of Training Across Cultures, a newly established Japanese agent. For educators, the quality of agents is also of prime importance.

Organisers are well aware of this requirement, and most operate a selection procedure. Some workshops, like Ialc and Fedele, consult their member schools to help ensure that the agents attending meet the desired criteria. Alphe, meanwhile, in cases where agents are not already well known to its staff, requests agent references from their educator partners and also checks brochures and websites. Meanwhile, at English UK, Truscott affirms that, "Attendance is by invitation to guarantee quality and to ensure that the fair is an event where serious business is done."

Familiarisation (fam) trips often go hand-in-hand with workshops, either preceding or following on from them. Their availability is a major consideration for Adriana Cantú of Cursos de Idiomas en el Exterior in Argentina, who points out that they "offer the chance to have an insight into particular areas and institutions that would be hard to achieve by oneself." For Natapov, too, fam trips are very important. "Most probably in the near future, we will not attend the workshops that do not provide such possibilities," he warns.

Price is another frequently mentioned consideration. "It is very significant for us the price of the workshop and the airplane ticket," comments Sylvia Malinger, Director of Uruguay-based Soluciones Profesionales. While schools normally pay all their own costs associated with attendance, agents are generally subsidised to a greater or lesser degree. The Fedele annual workshop is totally free to agents, including flight, accommodation and all activities, says the association's Astrid Verlot, while other events cover hotel costs once in the country.

Timing can also be crucial. Agents are clearly more likely to attend an event that takes place during the low season, but this, of course, varies by region. On the other hand, as Mike Wittig of US agency NRCSA confesses, "No time is a good time."

An aspect stressed by organisers is the overall experience. Blundell explains, "We try to make sure that the [EA] workshop is not just a business opportunity, but a memorable 'experience'. We choose the venues and activities for our social events very carefully." Wade notes that Alphe takes pride in knowing its clients. "We don't hire in outside staff, rather we take our own team to each event," he says.

It seems that workshops are developing and earning their keep as the lifeblood of the industry. Their diversity seems positive and is furthering professionalism in the sector.


Unique selling points

In order to maintain a leading edge, workshops are constantly evolving and introducing new features. One of the main talking points among agents this year is online appointment bookings. Geovanna Campos of Nomadas Travel Mérida in Mexico draws attention to the electronic scheduling system provided at the CEC agent workshop in Montreal, but laments that it was available only for schools. Meanwhile, the online booking system introduced by English Australia (EA) at its 2005 workshop was a resounding success, according to Sue Blundell. "Literally everyone raved about it, saying how much time it saved them," she enthuses. English UK is also now offering a similar system for bookings between educators and agents prior to the event, while Alphe will follow suit in 2006. Icef declined to respond to questions about its events.

Another innovation at EA's 2005 workshop was the addition of a fourth night's free accommodation for agents. As Blundell explains, because the workshop is so intensive, EA was concerned that some agents were leaving without seeing anything of the host city. The extra night means that agents now benefit from a half-day city-tour to give them a feel for the location.

There is also a trend for workshops to expand their focus. Blundell comments that EA now allows institutions to also promote their pathway partners in other education sectors.

In this competitive marketplace, workshops organisers are clearly working hard to give agents what they want. Language Travel Magazine asked a number of agents whether there were any features or services not currently available that they would like to see offered at workshops.

Unsurprisingly, many would like to see more or bigger subsidies for attending agents. Campos in Mexico would like to see more airfare discounts, while Steve Kao of Nietzsche International Education in Taiwan says that a complimentary air ticket could prove a persuasive incentive for agents. He adds, "an escort shuttle service from the airport to hotel [could] be good".

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