February 2008 issue

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Language plus

Demand for language courses that combine language learning with a sport, hobby or interest is still small but growing, but the importance of these programmes lies not so much in their uptake as in their ability to attract students to the schools and agencies that offer them. Gillian Evans reports.

One of the fastest growing sectors in the mainstream tourism market is activity holidays where travellers combine their vacation periods with anything from walking to more extreme sports like mountaineering. In the language travel market, demand for activity-led courses – those that combine language learning with a specific sport, hobby or interest – is rather less developed but this niche still constitutes an important area for language schools eager to stay ahead of the competition.

Katy Cossio at Ecela – which has Spanish language schools in Argentina, Chile and Peru where students can combine language learning with surfing, skiing, tango or wine tasting – says activity-led courses not only make them stand out among the jungle of Spanish language schools worldwide but also among the other methods of language training. “You can take language lessons at your own home, by internet, by a private teacher or local language centre but people choose to travel abroad because this kind of opportunity [of experiencing different activities] makes the language learning process more exciting and enjoyable.”

LAL Malta in Sliema, Malta offers three different activity-led programmes: English plus culture and history, English plus sun and fun, and English plus diving, and although the number of students who enrol on these courses is, according to Susan Wilson at the school, “very low”, they are highly significant to the school’s overall marketing strategy. “By deciding to offer activity-led programmes we are benefiting by having more options for our potential students to choose from, thus increasing our chances of selling more courses,” she explains.

This was also one of the reasons why Langues Sans Frontieres in Montpellier, France launched its English plus handball course in 2006. Andrew Kinselle at the company mentions “diversifying the product range, adapting a unique position in the market [and] helping cashflow through the low season" as the main reasons behind the development. As the language teaching industry has become more competitive it has also necessitated schools to differentiate themselves from other providers. Peter Hayes, Director of Inlingua Manchester in the UK, comments, “Rather than compete on price, risking sacrificing personal service and quality, we concentrate our efforts on offering a quality niche product that exceeds customer expectations.” Inlingua Manchester offers an English plus surfing and adventure activity programme in Cornwall, and an English plus “elite” football (soccer) course at two Premiership football clubs. Hayes admits that his own interest in soccer was the impetus behind the launch of the latter programme. “I know just how excited I would have been to have been given the opportunity to combine a language course with a football coaching cultural holiday based at a top club,” he confides.

What the client wants
While still relatively low, client demand for activity-led courses is on the increase. “Young people today have far more sophisticated demands and higher expectations than has previously been the case, and expect a whole range of products that fit their interests,” observes Hayes.

Ralph Sutton at Anglophiles Academic in London, UK, agrees. “Clients are constantly looking for new products,” he says. “Students are more likely to choose an English language course if it is supplemented by other activities that fit in with their interests and hobbies. As providers of English language courses we have to look for every possible means of creating new exciting reasons for people to learn English with us.”

Anglophiles runs a number of English-plus programmes including a music course where students arrange, rehearse and record music with music experts; English with a number of different sports, from skiing to basketball; and an English course at the David Beckham Academy in London and Los Angeles that combines language learning with soccer training at the academies.

For both schools and agents, another advantage of including activity-led programmes within their product portfolios can be the ability, through such courses, to target new client sectors. Hayes relates, “In addition to appealing to pure EFL markets we are now also attracting custom from those principally interested in sport. Football clubs abroad are now actively promoting our programmes as the inclusion of an English language tuition component adds value to a summer football camp in the eyes of the parents who are sponsoring [their children].”

Kinselle agrees that many parents like the idea of activity-led language programmes. “Parents look to stimulate their children with activities linked directly to their interests and hobbies,” he says.

New client types
Activity-led courses can also open up new markets for schools, as different nationalities may be attracted by different activities. West Coast International College of English in Bunbury, WA, Australia offers a comprehensive list of activity-led courses, including English and dolphins, which combines English lessons with volunteering at Bunbury Dolphin Discovery Centre. This course is particularly popular with Japanese students. “The Japanese are becoming more adventurous as a nation and seem to seek out new and exotic activities and [safe] locations," explains Jenny Byatt, Director of Studies at the college.

In Canada, Tamwood International College’s Whistler centre combines English with a number of sports activities including snow sports, mountain biking, golf and tennis. Tamsin Plaxton at the school reports that they attract high numbers of Swiss students on their skiing, snow boarding and mountain biking courses, but more recently they have experienced growing interest for their skiing programme from South America. This, she says, is “probably because skiing is starting to become more popular among the upper income segment of the population in those countries and because Whistler has been doing a lot as a resort to promote itself in these countries”.

It is not only different nationalities that activity-led programmes can attract, but also a different age profile. “Once only the preserve of young adults, activity-led programmes are becoming more attractive to older clients,” states Plaxton, who continues, “One new development we are seeing by offering activity-led programmes for both adults and kids in the same location is that fathers are now travelling with their kids and enrolling their kids in the Tamwood summer camp while they take English classes or English with golf or tennis.” She explains that with so many divorced parents there are now lots of fathers who are looking for an innovative way to spend a two-week break alone with their children.

More generally, interest-led programming can act as the carrot with which to tempt students through a school or agency’s door. “The glamour of these packages definitely helps attract students to us, but then students usually just study general English with us, and pursue outside activities independently,” relates Byatt. “We are pretty happy with this trend because our core business is English and the effort of running English plus programmes is considerable,” she adds.

Gimmick or valuable experience?
The benefits to the student of taking an activity-led course are obvious. As Meyer puts it, “[Students on language plus courses] are doing what they love away from home, making their period of stay more worthwhile, improving their skills [and] having the opportunity to practise their English.”

Plaxton agrees, saying that students can return home with more than just improved language skills. “Someone can come to study English at Tamwood and go home not just proficient in English but also in skiing, or snowboarding, or in mountain biking. They might also go home with a national certification to teach one of these sports,” she relates.

Meanwhile, Kinselle points out that when students are exposed to the language in an informal environment such as that provided through sports or hobbies, they “sometimes don‘t even realise they are learning”.

For Langues Sans Frontieres, their English plus handball programme has set them apart from other providers and proved extremely popular: the course, which was launched in 2006, doubled its enrolments in 2007. Hayes agrees that the market looks set to expand. "We believe we have interpreted market indicators that tell us this niche is set to grow as ever-more discerning young clients (and their parents) look for that which better and more closely meets their specific interests and needs,” he asserts.

In such a competitive market, it’s important not to be left behind. Sutton sounds a warning for schools and agents alike, “If we don’t innovate, someone else will!”

Active marketing

Activity-led programmes should be an enticing niche for agents wanting to expand their business: they attract a wider clientele; they often have a higher margin than that of general English courses; and the clients are usually less price sensitive than those interested in a standard course.

However, some agents have been slow to take up the challenge. Tamsin Plaxton, Marketing Director, at Tamwood International College in Canada, offers her explanations for why this might be. “I would suspect that the sales process is more involved and it takes longer to close a sale when selling an activity programme than when selling a standard English programme, the target market is harder to reach, and as it is a niche market, it is smaller than the market for standard language programmes.”

Susan Wilson, Sales and Marketing Assistant at LAL Sliema, in Malta, says that, in their experience, some agents believe that students do not want to be restricted to only one activity and relates that, “By [agents] including these courses in the their portfolio, they are increasing their chances of selling by offering a wider variety of courses to suit all tastes. Activity-led courses help uncertain students decide on how they would like to spend their free time in Malta.”

Jenny Byatt, Director of Studies at West Coast International College of English in Bunbury, WA, Australia, points out that some agents do not feel comfortable selling a package including activities that they have not tried themselves. And those who do market these courses often call and email to ensure all details are correct. Although activity-led courses may involve more work to represent and market them accurately, West Coast International College negotiates with its activity partners to provide commissions on the activities to the agents. "English plus programmes are intrinsically appealing to particular clients and enable the agent to make the same amount of money while providing the client with a unique package that makes the client feel special," claims Byatt.

When marketing language plus sports programmes, agents often find themselves having to target a different client sector however. Andrew Kinselle at Langues Sans Frontieres in France says their English plus handball programme is marketed at handball clubs throughout France and in leading handball magazines and websites, and they are reaping the rewards of such a targeted campaign. “We have a high number of returning students, and more and more word-of-mouth bookings – for example, one student who attended at Easter 2007 returned in summer 2007 with three of his friends from the same handball club in Toulouse!”

For agencies to try the same targeted approach means extra time and expense to invest, although the pay-off might be worthwhile.

Peter Hayes, Director of Inlingua Manchester in the UK, says “a lot of our agents have found that by approaching local amateur football clubs with an active junior department has been a very effective way of recruiting students for our programmes”.

Although activity-led programmes themselves may not be fast-selling products, they definitely have a beneficial impact on the rest of an agency’s business. “The product is attractive and different,” says Plaxton, “so while the agent may not sell as many activity programmes as they do standard English courses, they will find that just by offering such programmes they get more enquiries and that may lead to more sales of other programmes and products.”

Location draw

Some locations, such as Australia and New Zealand, are heavily marketed as adventure destinations, which benefits activity-led language course providers. For example, from its inception, West Coast International College of English in Australia has developed activity-led English courses, as it capitalises on the international image of Australia as one of the world’s adventure capitals.

“The motto of our college is: ‘It’s not just a language it’s a lifestyle’, and we want students to be able to incorporate what makes the southwest [of Australia] famous into their English studies,” says Jenny Byatt at the school, adding, “With beautiful weather to enjoy and lovely locals to meet, why would students want to spend all day every day inside the classroom?”

South Africa is also well known as an adventure tourism destination and many English language schools put their recent success down to their safari, diving and surfing courses (see LTM, April 2007, page 24). Shane Global in Cape Town, South Africa offers a range of very different activity-led courses, including English plus African fashion design or aromatherapy, as well as English plus golf and volunteering, and it is in these different areas that Andy Meyer at the school believes there will be growth in the future. “We think that [the English plus] sector may grow as students become more aware of the many opportunities that exist in Cape Town. The image of South Africa has traditionally not always been in other fields except game farms and beautiful nature scenes so we believe that this market may take off in future years.”

Ecela in Argentina has had direct experience of a tourism trend benefiting the school’s Spanish plus tango course. “Buenos Aires has become more popular [since] the peso crashed in 2002,” explains Katy Cossio at the school, “[and] the city is welcoming more tourists each year and therefore interest in tango is growing.”

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Malta Tourism

Alphe Conferences
Quoc Anh IEC

Beijing Easyou
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Mandarin House

      de Idiomas (CPI)

Bell International
English Studio
inlingua Vacation
Kaplan Aspect 
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      Africa, UK, USA)
LAL Language and
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Malvern House
Rose of York
St Giles Colleges
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Study Group
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      Spain, USA)
Queen Ethelburga’s

Alliance Française
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SILC - Séjours
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Carl Duisberg
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International House
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Lichtenberg Kolleg

Prime Speech
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ISI - International
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Kai Japanese
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EC - English
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Malta Tourism

Language Link

EAC Language Centres
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University of
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Cape Studies

Idiomas ¡Sí!
Pamplona Learning
      Spanish Institute

Swedish Learning
      and Living

EF Language
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      (Australia, Canada,
      China, Ecuador,
      England, France,
      Germany, Ireland,
      Italy, Malta, New
      Zealand, Russia,
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ALCC - American
      Language &
California State
      University Long
Kaplan Aspect
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      Ireland, Malta, New
      Zealand, South
      Africa, UK, USA)
Rennert Bilingual
University of
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University of
      California San Diego
University of
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Zoni Language
      Canada, USA

Quoc Anh IEC