January 2006 issue

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Getting the message out

Marketing is an essential component of any business venture, as it is crucial to maintaining profile in an often crowded marketplace and attracting new clients. Together with a strong, diverse portfolio of products, a good understanding of client needs and strong customer service, marketing is one of the main ingredients to continued success. Jane Vernon Smith reports.

Illustrating the direct correlation between high investment in marketing and good business performance, Joseph Taheny at IES-Intervega Education Services in Turkey reports, "Business picked up considerably in 2005. Our marketing budget was the largest ever [last year] and the results have reflected this." In Taiwan, Jason Hou, Director of the Study Abroad department at Kojen English Language Schools, says, "My company keeps meeting new schools and trying to find new programmes with [marketability]."

Many agents regard word-of-mouth recommendation as their most effective marketing tool, and this highly prized commodity has the additional virtue of being free. The power of past-client endorsement is clearly evidenced in the experience of Link Viagens Culturais in Brazil; according to Cecilia Galli at the agency, as many as 75 per cent of clients either return themselves or send friends and relations to the agency. Meanwhile, at Swiss agency, AD Voyages Langues et Cultures, Antonella Drompt confirms that they currently have around 45 to 50 per cent of clients returning, which they hope to increase to 60 to 70 per cent.

Yet, even for those able to command such figures, there is a significant proportion of clients that needs to be wooed by marketing activities or risk being lost to rival agencies, and language travel businesses employ a mix of different techniques to achieve this.

Maintaining media presence
Advertising in all its different forms is a tried-and-tested formula used to draw in new customers, and this is frequently backed up by mailshots to both existing and potential clients. Keeping an up-to-date list of likely new or repeat customers is essential to ensure mailshots are effective. These can be put together from web-based enquiries, seminars to schools, competitions, etc.

While the success rate for random mailing is notoriously low, well-targeted campaigns can yield excellent results, as Helena de Jaramillo of Representaciones Academicas in Ecuador illustrates. She reports that their mailing campaign has been their most successful marketing venture of the past year. Mailings are well suited to promoting special offers and discounts – but these are however promotional techniques to which many agencies are reluctant to resort. For Ozdemir Icin of Network Educational Services in Turkey, discounting is perceived as a threat, rather than an opportunity, as it is for Kian Hwa Le of University and College Placement Agency (UCPA) in Indonesia, who has recently had to face an influx of new agencies using this method to help establish their businesses.

Another way to stay in the public';s consciousness is to email newsletters regularly to a mailing list, mentioning new products or client feedback. Press advertising also remains a significant element in the marketing mix. Taheny in Turkey reports that they have increased their press advertising. "We began a very successful weekly quarter page newspaper advert and monthly full-page editorial with one of Turkey';s major newspapers," he relates. "We diverted resources towards this and an upgrade of our website and reduced our radio advertising."

Mexican agent, Lucia Mellone at Cosmo Educacion, also reports a re-focusing of their advertising activities in the last year, with increased advertising space taken in the travel section of the leading Mexican newspaper, Reforma, which has a wide readership among students and professional people. "It gave us an excellent result," she claims.

For Erich Thaler of Student Recruiting Berlin in Germany, press advertising is "an excellent tool, as long as space is booked in relevant local media and these [publications] are distributed free to students." In Switzerland, Drompt also targets local press, including the magazine published by the local high school.

Expos and exposure
Not all companies, however, are persuaded of the power of advertising. "I think the client does not believe very much in an advertisement that is paid for," says Hatim Taha of Golden Travels in Saudi Arabia. Taking part in exhibitions, hosting a seminar or workshop or inviting representatives from international universities and colleges to speak directly to clients, he believes, are all much more effective.

A more personal form of promotion undertaken by language travel agents is the hosting of seminars, often at local schools or hotels. For Mellone, this is an annual exercise. "Every year, we go directly to private high schools," she says. "We always arrive with new products, programmes or with promotions. Giving promotions of language courses or an incentive [offers] us a great opportunity to [promote] new schools and gain more interest for schools that we work with already." Thaler agrees that this type of promotion is widely appreciated by students, who gain a great deal of useful information.

Education fairs or exhibitions that attract many students and their parents can also be fruitful for agents. Profesores Asociados in Bolivia recently increased its participation at local high school student fairs with noticeable effect, according to Max Frydman at the agency. Some agencies, such as Intellect Agency in Kazakhstan, organise their own fairs. Intellect';s Zalina Rassimova explains that they even helped Domar Travel Education in the Ukraine create a similar event to their Kazakhstan Educational International Fair. "We are glad that it was successful and our experience and ideas helped them to create this event," she says.

A relatively new avenue for many agencies is PR-led appearances on the TV or radio, whereby an agent will be invited to talk about overseas education, gaining free media exposure. This is a more subtle way of building and enhancing a reputation, which has become quite widespread in Indonesia, according to Hwa Le. And in Vietnam, Dao Lien Huong of IEC edits the new Overseas Study Guide programme on television. Hosted by Miss Vietnam, this programme "gives great impact and interest to the viewers here", Huong claims.

Personal connection and sponsorship
Because of the high value attached to personal recommendation, networking in its varying forms – for example, working with government agencies and large commercial companies to arrange group programmes – is an important element for many agencies. For Huong, this type of personal connection represents around 10 per cent of total marketing efforts, and has been the most successful venture over the past year, resulting in 80 students a year going to Switzerland on a hotel management course.

She explains, "Our most successful marketing venture is the joint efforts between us, the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce and Techcombank, and HTI in Switzerland to launch a training programme for the Vietnamese tourism sector. The Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce selects 80 students per year to send to Switzerland for further training on a hotel management course. The students can get [a] loan from the bank and interest is paid by the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce."

Sometimes, agents are able to secure scholarships or other forms of financial assistance from organisations they work with in this way. Frydman mentions that they have established "important agreements with organisations which allow for financial aid to our [clients]". He adds, "Our [school partners] have responded to the efforts we are making on behalf of our students by allocating advertising budgets which are used to produce locally-made posters, stickers, flyers, etc, with their logos prominently displayed alongside our easily identifiable logo."

Sponsoring the advertising activities of agencies is a controversial point for some language school staff, who like to see assured results linked to any financial outlay on top of a commission payment. But some agencies do indeed ask for a contribution towards marketing promotions or a website feature of a school, for example, and report a good outcome from such a venture.

Internet activity
Internet marketing is often seen as being at odds with the personal touch expected of language travel consultants. This has meant that some agencies have been slow to take up the marketing opportunities offered by the web. In Brazil, where Link Viagens Culturais has just established its website, Galli observes, "We still find that confidence is a big marketing issue, so personal references and personal contact is more and more important." Similarly, although UCPA in Indonesia has invested in a website, Hwa Le says that it doesn';t help a great deal. "Clients need to know who they are dealing with. They have to see the consultants, the premises of the agent, before deciding sometimes," he affirms.

But despite these reservations, there is little doubt that the Internet plays an important role, even in some of the most resistant of cultures. For example, Mike Santoso Iman at Indolink Hutama Sentosa in Indonesia notes that Indonesian students do refer to websites of schools and colleges that have been offered to them. The challenge is for agents to cultivate their own websites in such a way as to provide an added-value service for their clients and grab people';s attention in the first place. Taha in Saudi Arabia says in his case, "We consider the discussion board [on] our website to be the most successful [marketing] technique, because it is very frank and everybody is free to write his own opinion about our services."

A new company dedicated to improving the accessibility of websites for agencies and language schools is Internet Advantage, operated by René de Jong, who also owns the Don Quijote chain of language schools in Spain. He explains, "Internet Advantage helps companies to get their website into the top 10 search results for the keywords relevant to their business. If you are not in the top 10 search results, you virtually don';t exist." He says that the easiest rule to follow when it comes to establishing a lively web presence is not simply to have an online brochure. "Find out what else is of interest to your customers and include new content to make future clients come back to your site." In terms of maintaining a high rating on search engines, using the right keywords and being linked from other relevant sites is important.

For those agencies that have already established their own sites, the web is increasingly respected as a marketing opportunity. As Taheny reports, "The internet is becoming more and more important for both the initial client contact and [for] provision of information." IES students are now able to obtain immediate quotations for their choice of course from the company';s website. And in the Dominican Republic, Altagracia Pimental of ODTE observes, "We believe that one of the reasons for our increase in sales is that we have made information requests available through our website – this is a new step for us. The web provides us with an interactive forum for our clients, it is easy and fast."

De Jong believes that the Internet will not erode the validity of agencies, which offer service and security. "Type in ‘Learn English UK'; [into a search engine] and you get over 27 million results," he says. "The investment in time to find out the differences between so many schools is enormous." The future, however, will see more agencies recruiting students from a website, or being judged on their Internet presence. Currently, Malta, Sweden, Denmark, the USA and the Netherlands have the highest Internet usage per capita. De Jong notes, "In absolute terms, the English speakers are first, but Chinese speakers are now the second [biggest online] population on the planet, based on native language of surfers."

Taha in Saudi Arabia underlines that their online discussion board and service called "Ask Your Academic Adviser" has generated more walk-in clients for the agency. "[Through this site] we have received a very good reputation, and many VIPs, executives and organisations have knocked on our door to study abroad," he reports.

Some agencies are online-only, and these agencies also undertake intiatives to ensure they remain high up in search rankings and become a site of choice. Overall, however, while web marketing in the industry is in many countries reaching a new level of maturity, old ways are, nevertheless, not neglected. "We rely very much on the Internet, but simultaneously, we do not ignore other promotional tools," asserts Taha. For, while Internet marketing will inevitably be very much a part of the future, many would agree that nothing can beat good, old-fashioned personal contact.

Timing a marketing campaign

When it comes to choosing when to conduct marketing campaigns, "timing is very important" according to Hatim Taha of Golden Travels in Saudi Arabia. While the summer season is the busiest time of year in terms of bookings for the agency, he emphaises that it is nevertheless essential not to neglect marketing during this period. As he explains, summer business is characterised mainly by short-term bookings of between four to 12 weeks, while outside this period more serious students undertake bookings for longer periods of between 24 to 52 weeks. The value of this "non-peak" business is such that time must be made for undertaking some promotional campaigns during the busy summer language travel season.

In general, the timing of marketing campaigns is tied in some way to the annual student schedule. Thus, with the end of summer, talks start for organising the upcoming winter holiday season – and this is also the time for agents to make a splash with their marketing, according to Erich Thaler of Student Recruiting Berlin in Germany. He notes, "For students who would like to register at a German university, there are always two dates to observe for submitting all their documents: 15 January and 15 July." Marketing is therefore timed so as to avoid the period just before these dates, so that the administration staff [at the agency] are not so stressed, with the added benefit that early planning also helps students to save money.

For Antonella Drompt of AD Voyages Langues et Cultures in Switzerland, the major marketing thrust takes place at the end of January for the summer market, with a general mailing timed to go out around mid-February, after the main ski vacation period. In Turkey, Network Educational Services also carries out heavy seasonal campaigns, according to Ozdemir Icin, although he notes that marketing continues all year round.

This approach is echoed by Mike Santoso Iman of Indolink Hutama Sentosa in Indonesia, who says, "The good time to do promotion [in my country] is September to October or March to April." However, year-round, the agency carries out campaigns, focusing on different subject areas. For example, in October the focus is on Masters programmes, while in November, promotion targets nursing programmes. Similarly, Dao Lien Huong of IEC in Vietnam reports that they operate an annual plan, with the same promotions at the same time each year. In this way, the message is constantly reinforced. Australian-based agent Chitose Takeshima of Macs Link affirms, "My key word is ‘duplication [of the message] or, simply, ‘recycling';."

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