One of the things which is quite difficult to deal with in a consortium is the question ‘What is it?’” comments Rick Johns of the Heart of England Language Schools Association (Helsa). “[Helsa is] often considered by agents as a language school in [its] own right, and gets asked for price lists and course dates. When told that Helsa doesn’t actually offer any courses, some naturally get confused. The concept of an organisation representing schools at any level can be a difficult one to grasp.”
So, what exactly is a marketing consortium, and what does it do? As Johns points out, a consortium is, by its very nature, a gathering of like-minded members. What brings them together may be geographical proximity, or it may be involvement in a particular sector of the language travel industry. “Working together allows institutions to reduce costs, which means they can make their marketing budget stretch further,” explains Guy Pascoe of New Zealand school consortium, Education Wellington International.
For those consortiums that are linked by geographical location, joint marketing efforts by consortiums not only help contain costs, but also help to raise the profile of the local area as a whole, Pascoe notes. He elaborates: “When students/agents think of New Zealand, they tend to think of Auckland and Christchurch, and our local institutions miss out on a lot of potential students. By telling a regional Wellington story, we are able to help raise the profile of the region and attract students.”
Many other consortiums have a similar motive, as Ian Palmer of another New Zealand-based consortium, Education Northland, concurs. “We come from a ‘less fashionable’ area of New Zealand for international students,” he admits. “Working as a group, we have focused on raising the profile of our region.”
This approach equally holds good for established destinations. As Joanna Morris, Marketing Officer at Perth Education City (PEC) in Western Australia, points out, “The major challenge [for us] is for Perth to remain visible in a crowded market… By working together, the institutions can create a greater awareness for WA, address any negative perceptions and present a united image of Perth as a modern, vibrant city, and, as a result, increase enrolments.”
Having identified a joint purpose and decided to combine their efforts, consortium members have to decide the best ways to work together. Not all of these are always marketing-related, or indeed visible to agents or potential students. English UK North (formerly English in the North), for example, arranges professional development for members and others. Similar to many national-level associations, PEC liaises with local, state and federal government agencies to raise and lobby issues on behalf of its members. Equally important for some is to secure the funding necessary to achieve a good level of promotion. Indeed, says Palmer of Education Northland, “Our main focus has been on establishing an operational plan in order to access funding from our local council in order to further promote the region.”
When it comes to marketing strategy, Johns of Helsa warns that not all marketing is well suited to group use. “One of the things we learned early on was that the only marketing activities suited to consortiums are those [that] do not give rise to a conflict of interests. For example, if a consortium takes a stand at an exhibition abroad, and is manned by a few member schools, they are likely to put self-interests first and consortium interests second. It’s only natural. As a result of this, we have tended to concentrate resources on things [that] work well, and these are, without doubt, inbound fam trips.”
Johns elaborates that a consortium is the perfect vehicle to run such events big enough to have the clout of the collective membership, but allowing each school to show its wares independently. In the course of time, Helsa has moved from running one fam trip each year to three or four currently, all of which are free to participating agents. Not only has it expanded the number of trips, but it has also been active in encouraging agencies to undertake repeat trips to allow different staff members to experience them.
Most agree on the usefulness of fam trips, and thus they feature prominently in the marketing strategy of many other consortiums, including PEC, US organisation, Study Oregon and English UK North. For New Zealand consortium, Education Southland, relationship-building with overseas agents includes both travelling overseas to meet them at home and hosting them in Southland, says Chief Executive, Rex Capil. Meanwhile, English UK North combines fam trips and inward missions with giving presentations and running workshops overseas. Group Spokesperson, Richard Day, meanwhile, disagrees with Johns on the role of stand-shares at large exhibitions and fairs, noting that these “can also be very effective”.
Agents are, naturally, a major focus for consortium marketing, and, aside from fam trips and visits, consortiums engage in varying levels of day-to-day liaison with potential and existing agent partners. Many hold a database of agent contacts and send out regular mailings. A group website is another widely used tool, which, according to Day, is very cost-effective in reaching a wider audience.
At Education Southland, Capil reports that he acts as coordinator and a point of contact, serving as a conduit between agents and member institutions. He also sends out an e-newsletter to agents every six weeks, and contacts them regarding forthcoming visits and to develop relationships. This facilitating role is much appreciated by agent Alex Leung, Director of Academic Access in Hong Kong. Leung notes, “Through the coordinator, we can get hold of a clear picture… and easy access to the required information [regarding] the… educational institutions represented, and this helps us a lot in advising students and parents to find [the] most suitable one in the region.”
He comments further that the development of a close relationship with the consortium, built on trust and confidence, means that much time and resources can be saved. Currently, he works with two consortiums in New Zealand, but says he would welcome approaches from others.
In the US, Study Oregon Chairperson, Aimee Akimoff, is also a believer in the importance of relationship building, claiming that the relationships formed through the organisation’s hosting of agent visits has directly resulted in a number of recommendations for member institutions. A further benefit of Study Oregon membership is the credibility it provides. Akimoff reports, “Study Oregon members are allowed to state that the institution is a part of the consortium. This has actually helped some of our international students get their student visa.”
Perhaps because results are often intangible, many institutions shy away from the idea of collaborating with what are, fundamentally, rival schools. However, those who have taken the plunge tend to be upbeat. “There is strength in unity,” asserts Pascoe. Meanwhile, the advice from Capil is, “Collaborate, or struggle to gain market penetration. It is a competitive global industry,” he adds, “and critical mass and economies of scale gained by working together creates a much better and more economic way to do business.”
For those who still retain concerns about the wisdom of collaborating with rival schools, Johns has one last word of advice: “Don’t!” He explains, “When Helsa was first formed by the Heart of England Tourist Board [with three initial members], we were naturally suspicious of each other. However, the barriers have long since come down, and we share information on all levels, from ‘how to (or how not to) run a language school’ through to ‘where did you get your white boards from?’ The main thing about working together is that it gives you a huge amount of self-confidence. It is also a huge amount of fun.”
English UK North (originally English in the North): was formed in 1994 to raise the profile of the North of England as a destination for English language learners.
Helsa (Heart of England Language Schools Association) was established in 1992 in order to raise the profile of the region. As it has succeeded in this task, the main focus of activity has moved towards promoting the member schools.
Study Oregon is a collaborative venture of Oregon colleges, universities and English language schools that provides information to students wishing to pursue undergraduate and graduate degree studies, vocational/technical training or English language programmes in the state.
Perth Education City is a consortium of public and private universities, colleges and schools in Perth, which provide education services to the international community, and aims to raise the profile of Perth, both as a destination and as a provider of quality educational services. Founded in 1987, it currently has 41 members, and is funded under a joint industry-government initiative.
Queensland Education and Training International is a unit of the Queensland government that focuses on all sectors of international education to provide strategic coordination through policy, market strategy and professional development support.
Education Northland promotes schools and tertiary institutions within the region to international students.
Education Southland promotes the region as a quality educational destination and aims to provide a framework to support the sustainable growth of the international education sector.
Education Wellington International is focused on marketing the region as a destination for international students. Covering all education sectors from primary schools to tertiary providers, it includes six of Welllington’s seven language schools.