Quality and value for money have always been the buzzwords of the industry, and in the current operating climate, a third factor is also important - innovation.
Business is out there, but once again the industry is up against challenging times. The outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars), predominantly in Asia, and the effect of the war in Iraq has resulted in some students being temporarily more reluctant to travel overseas at present. In a seasonal industry such as language travel, agencies that miss out on business one year may have to wait until the following year to recoup on lost sales, unless, that is, they are innovative and look at ways to attract more year-round business.
Agents agree that the market will always have highs and lows, but there are definite strategies that agents can employ, in their own marketing efforts and by working with their partner schools, to encourage more steady bookings year-round. As the industry develops and leans further towards long-term learning, the opportunities for continual cash flow increase.
Study tours represent one area of the market that remains linked to the summer months, with the majority of study tour clients being children and young adults on their first language learning experience overseas. Providers indicate that as more students gain experience of travelling overseas at an earlier age, demand for a tour-led trip will drop slightly. Nevertheless, study tours continue to occupy an important position in many agencies' portfolios, and the sector reflects the trends in the wider market for quality and value for money.
Language schools in New Zealand report that the value for money offered by its low exchange rate has been a real benefit over the last few years, and student numbers have increased by 50 per cent each year since 1999. Another key reason for this increase is the easing of visa regulations for the Chinese.
Although the price tag is certainly important to students, our Feedback survey of the UK proves that it is not cost alone that sways a student's decision about where to study. Of 330 students studying in the UK, 28 per cent were Chinese, and good satisfaction rates were recorded, despite 92 per cent of Chinese students finding the UK an expensive destination.
There are many factors, including reputation and employment opportunity, that can convince a student about where to study, but governments must play their part in attracting students too. The CEC Network in Canada has recommended policy changes to its government to encourage more international students to study in the country, while in the USA, there are concerns that the current immigration process is off-putting to students.
It is the job of an agent to highlight the many different possibilities and options to potential students. A Japanese agent reports this month that a fam trip organised by a state sector English language teaching association in the UK has already changed her approach when counselling clients.
In Brazil, even though the market suffered last year, agents continued to develop their product range and find new providers to work with. But once again, cost remains a central theme. One Brazilian agent called on schools to offer better prices during the current economic slowdown. This could be one way of schools working with agencies to maximise business potential.