In the mainstream travel market, online bookings are a phenomenal success, with many agreeing that the booking of travel products via the web is the most successful niche of all of the world’s e-commerce sectors. Online sites such as Expedia, Priceline and Orbitz help millions to navigate towards specific airlines and hotels, and also ensure competitive, lower prices and improved consumer satisfaction. But what of the study travel industry?
Opinion is divided as to the usefulness of school and university online application systems. Érico Milani at AG Study agency in Brazil is a great exponent of online application systems. “Online [booking systems] are a great tool to expedite student enrolments in language schools with which our agency has a strong working relationship,” he asserts. However, he adds that, for colleges and universities they prefer to discuss the enrolment with the admissions office staff prior to using any online system, “because the requirements for enrolment vary quite a bit depending on the students’ background such as test scores and/or previous degrees, work experience, etc”.
Nina Turzakova, ILS Manager at Coolagent/Europair in the Slovak Republic, also values online booking systems. “We like [online application systems],” she says, “because we can find all information all the time, [and] we don’t need to wait until schools confirm dates, prices, etc.”
The advantages of online application systems include reduced administration, instant confirmation of receipt of application by the institution and accurate and up-to-date course information, and as Erick Garcia at Intercambio agency in Brazil highlights, fewer clerical errors. “There are [fewer] mistakes on the names, dates [and other information] because there is less re-typing of the information after enrolment by the school,” he says, adding that response times are evidently much faster and confirmations are delivered swiftly.
Some application facilities on websites offer up-to-date information on availability, which according to Garcia, is invaluable. “Some more modern online systems can, for example, [let you] know if the accommodation is full for some specific date, or when [it] would be available.”
From an education institution’s point of view, providing an online application system for students is a necessity, says Chris Gambrell from UVIC in Canada. “Young students are comfortable using online application forms and expect this service,” she says. “It is fast and easy.”
StudyLink, which used to be the provider for IDP’s Global Apply Online System, has developed an online application system, which is currently used by over 40 universities, colleges and schools in various countries. According to StudyLink’s Jonathan Pratt, the system has a number of benefits for education institutions including faster application turnaround times, instant updates on application status and integrated provider and agent systems, which is invaluable for both advisors and education institutions.
“There is a growing need, particularly amongst institutions that use education agents, to drive operational efficiencies and reduce operating costs,” asserts Pratt. “StudyLink Connect is cited by our clients as allowing them to reduce time spent handling each application and focus more on the skill of assessment. The other main driver seems to be the need for a solution that makes all the systems work together as one CRM, student admissions, agent and pathway partner CRMs and direct online applications. This is the main role of Connect.”
Language school rationale
Many language schools that do offer an online application facility do not have one that is aimed at their advisor partners. For example, Wits Language School in South Africa has a website with a registration facility through which students are able to apply online. According to Trish Cooper, EFL Course Coordinator at Wits, 70 per cent of their bookings arrive through their online facility, and this has been growing in recent years. “The ratio of online bookings has increased considerably in recent years, both in response to improvements to our website and increases in Internet advertising,” says Cooper.
She explains that immediacy and reducing communication taskloads are central benefits: “One of the primary advantages is the ease of correspondence with international students we can follow up by email and do not need to contact students by phone or fax. Another advantage is that students can contact us at any time as we are not limited by office hours and the automated responses means that their queries are attended to immediately.”
Cooper believes their online facility has helped grow the school’s enrolments as, she says, “it makes the registration process considerably simpler, particularly for students who do not have a good grasp of English”. According to Cooper, their EFL unit has experienced a 100 per cent growth rate since the development of the website and the introduction of the online booking process as they have boosted their visibility and provided students with instant access to detailed information as well as immediate feedback to any queries or bookings.
But, while school application facilities may attract more direct bookings, this is not always beneficial to the schools, claims Gavin Eyre, Managing Director of IH Cape Town in South Africa. IH Cape Town only receives around one per cent of its bookings online, and Eyre believes that the online facility is something of a doubled-edged sword; although it speeds up the application process it also generates “lots of questions which would be better handled by an agency, especially to do with flights, etc”.
Milani concurs. “If the student books directly, in some cases, the students feel that they can handle all aspects of the enrolment process, but then find out that our agency provides all the necessary services for travel reduced student air fare, travel student health insurance, foreign exchange, etc.”
Michelle Gialanze at the International School of Languages at the University of Malta also reinforces the fact that many students want to receive additional consultations or advice, either face-to-face, or via the phone or email. “We have found that students do not wish to book online, they prefer to browse and then ask for more details through the ‘info@’ facilities,” she relates.
Agency point of view
For language travel agencies, the use of school online application systems that are aimed at students is not always a time-efficient alternative to email requests. “We don’t mind the online booking systems and often use them when we want to book something for ourselves,” says Anastassia Romanenko of Insight-Lingua in Russia. “However, the majority of the schools have these systems only for direct clients and such bookings need to be accompanied by an email to the school telling them that this student is coming through [us].” She explains that online application forms generally require a considerable amount of information. “Some online booking forms have too many questions and we often find that a school is satisfied when you [email them with the] name, date of birth and passport details of the students and the information on his/her chosen course, dates and accommodation,” she relates. “Basically it’s a five-to-six line email message against a two-to-three page booking form.”
Agents also complain about the fact that some online application facilities are not user-friendly. “I don’t like [online application facilities],” asserts Elena Tejedor at Aula ingles in Spain. “I’d rather fill in a booking form.” She says that in her experience some online booking facilities “do not load well and have too many screens to follow”. Zeta Efthymiou at Skylines agency in Greece shares Tejedor’s dislike for such systems, saying that she only uses online application systems if “the procedure is absolutely clear and secure”. And Petra Wagner at Easy Sprachreisen in Germany adds, “We do not use online booking systems of schools at all; it is easier to send an email.”
Convenience of service
While online application systems may be funnelling some bookings direct to schools, some advisors believe that they serve to highlight the importance of agencies. “[Online systems] facilitate enrolment in an language school but will not replace the overall package an agency has to provide to make the educational experience complete and worry free,” asserts Milani. Tejedor agrees: “Customers prefer a personal relationship in the end.”
A well-planned system, however, might appeal to both client types. The ease of use of online application systems is crucial for attracting both agents and students, however. Gambrell warns that agent usage of UVIC’s portal has fallen since the system was updated over a year ago, with a system that is totally automatic, but more complicated, with clients now having to create a user ID and password.
According to Gambrell, UVIC’s number of total online applications has dropped from 60 per cent before the new system was introduced to around 20 per cent today. “Our current system is more complicated and I think discourages students from registering,” she says . “Our English language centre is part of the Division of Continuing Studies [at the university] and a system which may work for the local audience is not perhaps the best option for international students.”
Gambrell continues, “If developed correctly with the customers’ needs in mind, [online booking] is a very effective method of registration. I think there is great potential for agents’ portals where they can check details on their students such as payment, dates of commission payment, etc.”
While StudyLink offers this type of system, Pratt says that there is “slower uptake amongst agents/advisors with very fixed processes slight ‘addiction to paper!’.” He continues, “[Companies] with an innovative and progressive management seem to be the fast adopters regardless of country [of origin], although Internet access and speeds of course play a part in adoption. The mind set of the counselling team and management are the main drivers for adoption [of the application system].”
On the whole, both education institutions and study travel advisors are lagging behind when it comes to online application solutions, compared with mainstream travel businesses. “Choosing to study overseas is probably the most transformational and highly involved purchase a student will ever make,” says Pratt. “And yet whilst the generation of students making the purchase has become ever more sophisticated, the educational institution systems and processes have remained heavily reliant on paper and are still relatively slow compared with other industries like financial products.”
Pratt sees the future developing more in line with mainstream travel agency booking space where airlines and hotels rely on direct and agency-based bookings, while the agencies take on more of a long-term consultative approach to guiding a student through qualifications towards their career goals. “We hope [this] will lead to better customer service in terms of faster application turnaround times, better communication during the process and real move towards a paper-less admissions process,” he concludes.
“Real” interaction - latest research
Research in the USA has revealed a growing frustration with some online booking sites and a need to interact with actual humans when planning vacations, which has resulted in a shift among some travellers away from the web towards traditional travel agencies.
Nevertheless, online booking of leisure travel in the USA is estimated to have grown by US$80 billion in 2010, and will grow by a further US$86.6 billion in 2011 to reach US$110.7 billion by 2014. According to Forrester Research, more travel services are becoming available online, for example tours, summer rentals, retreats and travel workshops. Trends in travel bookings appear to be going towards a mix of traditional agents and online services, as the division between online and offline agencies become even more blurred.
As it is, most travel websites have around-the-clock customer service to assist those who have problems or questions, and many brick-and-mortar travel agencies use online travel sites to price their itineraries.
The study by Forrester showed that in the first three months of 2010, 28 per cent of leisure travellers in the USA who booked their trips online said they would be interested in switching to a traditional travel agent, a 23 per cent increase from 2008.
Another report by the same research company found that the number of leisure travellers who actually enjoyed using the web to plan and book their vacations dropped from 53 per cent in 2007 to 46 per cent last year. The reasons for these drops are the growing frustration of travellers with some online booking sites, which fail to simplify the increasingly complicated travel process or to meet their specific needs.
StudyLink Connect case study
StudyLink Connect is a ‘cloud-based’ solution that connects education institutions’ student admissions systems with its agent and pathway partners via a series documented API (application programming interface). It captures application data using digital smart application forms from agents and direct from students and feeds this directly into the student admissions system via the API or delivers a single typed PDF application form with attached supporting documents to the admissions inbox.
The system allows educational institutions to reduce data entry and focus on application assessment, provide automatic status updates to students and agents, review the application pipeline live from any PC, and provides detailed reporting and secure offsite storage of applications through the system. Students access the system through the online application page or a link from the institution website and agents through the dedicated agent portal. The agent portal has additional functionality not required by or available to direct student applicants. This year, StudyLink is launching a revised admission portal and agent portal, which will even cover institution-agent communications attached to each application, moving more towards a basic CRM (customer relationship management) function.
Australian National University in Canberra is one of the many institutions that uses StudyLink. “Now that we have almost 80 per cent of all applications from international students arriving through Connect, it is rare to see a paper application from an agent or directly from students anymore,” reports Rohan McCarthy, Deputy Manager, International Student Recruitment. “We can quickly access the full application with scanned documents in the system. In the past, filed applications and documents could take at least a day to obtain.”
Over 300 education agency branches now use StudyLink Connect to submit applications to ANU. For agents, the advantages of using Connect include the fact that there is no application fee for online applications (there is still a charge for all paper applications); and instant student receipts as soon as the agent lodges a student application, a student number is issued.
Online booking @ agency website
The study travel marketplace has changed considerably in recent years with the advent of a raft of online-only language travel agencies. However, more and more, the “brick and mortar” agencies have been following suit and adding online enrolment facilities to their websites.
Intercambio in Brazil has offered online bookings on its website since 2005, and now around 70 per cent of enrolments are made using this portal. Erick Garcia at Intercambio believes this has grown in recent years because of the increasing usage of the Internet and the growing confidence in security for buying online.
Easy Sprachreisen in Germany has also offered an online booking facility to its clients since 2006, through which it receives about half of enrolments, but according to Petra Wagner at the agency, this has not increased. “We had at the beginning a more sophisticated and very cost-intensive online booking system,” she relates. “It included a calculator with all the different prices of low and high season, etc. However, clients tended to request a handwritten email on top [of that] to make sure there was no mistake and a person controls it. So we changed our online booking system to just an online registration form as this is much cheaper to maintain since clients seem not to trust just a ‘web-machine’.”
Although online enrolment certainly offers web-savvy clients the opportunity for instant enrolment, Garcia in Brazil points out one downside: He says their website, complete with booking facility, provides people with “as much information as possible direct to the client, without the need to contact anyone”. However this does mean that it is open to everyone. ”Most of your information gets open to the public, especially other agencies and schools that can copy in months your work that took years to develop, such as school prices, accommodation contracts.”