June 2003 issue

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Keeping business going

The last few years have not been easy for language schools or language travel agents, with weak economies and fear about travelling having a negative impact on the market. With the war in Iraq adding to the tide of woes, there is more reason than ever for the industry to tackle seasonality and encourage bookings whenever they can. Schools and agents are rising to the challenge, constantly developing their range of products and services and extending their reach across different countries and sectors of the population to find students to study in the off-peak periods. Gillian Evans reports.

Language travel is a highly seasonal industry. It is closely linked to tourism, and is largely dependent on schoolchildren and university students restricted by their school and university holiday periods. Sylvia Paucar, of Academia de Español Mitad del Mundo in Ecuador, says of their market, ''The busiest months [for the school] are June, July and August until the middle of September, since it is vacation time throughout the world and people seek trips with study and tourist alternatives.''

This pattern is experienced by many destinations, but, however seasonal the business, the challenge for language schools and agents is to find ways to encourage students to study at different times of the year. As Kathleen Newcombe, at Embassy CES in the USA, says, ''Seasonality has always been a feature of the language travel business. Therefore, we have always viewed this factor as a tremendous business opportunity.''

Course development
The main method schools have employed to spread business throughout the year is by devising new courses that appeal to different target audiences. At British Study Centres in the UK, Andrew Roper explains that the start dates for some of their courses have been purposefully timetabled for the quieter times to benefit both the school and the students. ''Our [university] foundation year programme in Oxford starts in the low season,'' he says. ''It has been very beneficial for the school to have these long-term classes running at this time of the year. We can devote more time and attention to the particular needs of these students outside the hurly burly of summer.''

Malta is largely regarded as a fun short-stay vacation destination for young students, but this means the season is largely concentrated in the summer months. In a bid to spread business at the Education English Culture (EEC) Language Centre in Malta, Renato Valente looked at ways to attract a slighter older clientele with serious learning motives. ''Great efforts have been made to attract university students after completion of their academic studies and the start of their job assignments,'' he notes. Capitalising on the desire for vocational training, EEC launched courses that include work placements in the tourism industry, private companies and retail outlets.

The general global trend towards students seeking long-term courses with an academic or vocational aim has propelled the growth of student numbers outside the main season for many destinations, but most sources agree that the peaks remain. ''Seasonality has not changed dramatically over the last three years, but as we attract more long-term, academically bound students, the population year-round is larger,'' confirms Newcombe.

As well as long-term students, the business language traveller and the recreational learner are also key targets for language schools and agents keen to increase year-round enrolments. In the off-peak months, One World Language School (Owls) in South Africa offers a safari English tour package, while the International English Institute in New Zealand promotes rugby and snow sports during their winter season. Slight changes to existing courses can also make a difference, says Tracy Bray, PR and Marketing Manager at the British Institute in Florence, Italy. ''Our off-peak times are early January, March and late autumn. However, last year we changed some of our art history Renaissance Florence courses to include [components] that are popular during the summer and it worked. We had a noted success by adding these courses in the quieter times, proving that there are people looking to travel at all times of the year.''

New audience
While the launch of new courses and a spread of start dates during the year can contribute to an increase in a school's students from its main provider countries, they can also attract new nationalities. For example, EC House of English in the UK has introduced an academic year course, which attracts mainly Japanese, Czech and Korean students, and a 50-plus course, which is popular with Danish and Finnish clients. In Ecuador, Paucar is eager to break into the Scandinavian market, and has launched a number of small group courses, including basic Spanish for travellers, to attract backpackers who travel to the country.

At Wellington College of Languages in New Zealand, student numbers drop in February as this is when students enter university. Chris Mahoney, Director of the college, says they may well look to develop other more leisure-oriented language courses to iron out the rise and fall of student numbers. ''I expect [our business] to become less seasonal as we develop our courses and as more people opt to come to New Zealand for short courses which have a recreational element to them,'' he says.

Of course, certain characteristics about a school's location can mean that its intake is always likely to be more seasonal than at other centres. Linguanova is situated in Livorno, Italy, which is by the sea, so the busiest months for the school are July and August, coinciding with the peak vacation months.

The sun can also draw students to certain countries during the off-peak season. Francois Manuel, of FM Sport agency in France, reports that Malta is one of their popular off-peak destinations ''because this is one of the rare short-distance countries where [students] can learn English and get some sun''. Europeans who want to escape the winter are also attracted to Queensland during its tropical summer in December and February, says David Hurford, at Regent Australia English Language Centre in Australia.

Similarly, South Africa's climate is a big plus for language travellers, particularly those from Western Europe looking for winter sunshine. Van Niekerk argues that, as the country becomes better known as a tourism destination in general, the language travel season is spreading. ''In the main, the South African market tends to be seasonal, in that students from Europe come to South Africa in their vacation period in winter,'' he says. ''However, students from other continents have realised that South Africa, and Cape Town in particular, has an extended summer season of warm to mild weather, and therefore, we do not experience the seasonal fluxes as much as schools might in other areas of the world.''

Karen Halley, at Friends in the World agency in Brazil, says that as language travel has become better known and more widespread in Brazil, the peak times have changed. ''Last year, our busiest months were January, March, April, June, July and August,'' she reports. ''It used to be March, April, May, September, October and November, just before the school holidays. It is difficult to explain why [this shift has occurred] but the market is changing slowly. I guess interest in educational programmes is getting more popular.''

A location's reputation may also help it attract more year-round business, suggests Roper, of British Study Centres, which has schools in Oxford and Brighton. He says the Oxford school is far less seasonal than their Brighton branch. ''I do think Oxford - and by association Cambridge - has more year-round appeal than most other destinations because of its academic image. London, too, has enormous year-round potential. There's always something going on in the capital that people want to see or do.''

Other issues such as economic decline in certain countries, civil or political unrest and war also have an enormous effect on schools' enrolment patterns. ''In the past, we have had South Americans during the wintertime but this market is now very difficult,'' confirms Sue Camilleri, of EC House of English in the UK.

Money talk
Money can be an incentive for students to study out of season, although agents and schools are divided as to how effective discounts really are. At Friends in the World agency, Halley says, ''According to students, one of the most important reasons to travel off-season is that flight tickets are cheaper.''

A method employed by some schools to elongate their peak period is offering discounted prices or special offers. ''In order to try and bridge the gap of seasonality, we have introduced a low-season price. This runs from September round to the end of May,'' explains Camilleri. ''Obviously this is to make studying in the quieter times cheaper and, therefore, more attractive. So far, this has proved quite popular,'' she adds.

Schools in typical vacation destinations, where the average length of stay may be very low, tend to use discounts to encourage students to extend their stay. ''We offer an off-peak discount to students who seek our services for a long-term period, say three months and over,'' confirms Valente in Malta. Similarly, Linguanova offers a five per cent discount to students who stay for more than four weeks, and 10 per cent to those who study for over eight weeks.

British Study Centres in the UK uses discounted prices to improve enrolment levels for particular courses at certain times of the year. For example, students who enrol on the First Certificate of English course, starting in January, receive a 25 per cent discount, while students enrolling on the foundation year programme in November/December, with a view to start in January, receive up to six weeks of free tuition.

But not all schools offer discounts. Some, such as the International English Institute in New Zealand, do not make such offers ''because we don't need to'', says Director, Barry Bolton, while others feel it is inappropriate for the language travel industry. Emma Williams, from Societa Dante Alighieri Siena in Italy, says they do not offer discounted prices because, ''we are concerned about giving an image of a school that is too linked to the commercial aspect of the tourist trade''. Hurford at Regent in Australia says, ''We do not offer any off-peak discounts as the product we offer is the same value irrespective of the season.''

But for their part, agents are in agreement that discounts are helpful. ''I think that the very important aspect is lower prices [during off-peak times]. This attracts students, especially during months close to the high season,'' says Ales Barta, at Alfa Agency Brno in the Czech Republic.

''To offer promotional packages with low prices is a good way to encourage students to take a language course at a different time,'' agrees Halley. Angel Juanpere, of Easy Idiomas in Spain, adds that, while schools can help agencies attract clients at different times by offering discounts, in his experience, the discounts must be ''really large'' for them to have any effect.

So, is the language travel market of today more or less seasonal than it was in the past? For many schools, it is less seasonal. Roper says that their foundation year course, the continuing popularity of the Cambridge exams and increasing interest in other exams such as Toefl, Toeic and Ielts have encouraged year-round business.

Nevertheless, Camilleri maintains that seasonality can still have a negative effect on suppliers, particularly the smaller schools. ''I believe that seasonality is still a problem for the language travel industry as a whole,'' she says. ''Some large chains, who have ample capital behind them, can offer very cheap prices and attract large numbers of students out of season but this can make it more difficult for the smaller operators.''

For agents, the key to building off-season business is being able to offer more attractive prices, a selection of language courses combined with activities, long-term academic oriented courses and courses for different target audiences, such as executives and third-age clients. ''The most successful [businesses] are those looking for the next opening in the market,'' concludes Roper.

Off-peak strategies for agents

While the downtime in the language travel calendar might mean fewer bookings for agencies, there is plenty of other work to get on with. ''We use the quieter months to promote programmes and also to participate in events, workshops, organise promotional material and sometimes to participate in fam trips,'' reports Ales Barta, at Alfa Agency Brno in the Czech Republic. Angel Juanpere, of Easy Idiomas in Spain, says most of their marketing is conducted from February to May, while other months are spent ''planning, printing [brochures] and [attending] fairs''.

However, like schools, agencies are keen to spread their business throughout the year to ensure a steady cash flow - and once again expanding their range of courses and locations can help, as Barta reports. ''One way [of expanding off-peak business] is to offer different countries and gain advantage from the summer season of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. We encourage our clients to visit countries like South Africa, New Zealand and Australia during our winter. The second way is to target a group other than students. Managers, executives - these are clients who choose their courses year-round.''

Karen Halley, of Friends in the World agency in Brazil, believes that the off-peak time is ideal for promoting niche products. ''Seasonality is a marketing opportunity if you take advantage to promote special programmes to specific markets, for example, to promote programmes to third-age [clients], special packages combining language courses with arts or sports to people who are on vacation, off-season teacher training, etc.''

Andrew Roper, of British Study Centres in the UK, reports that there are promotional activities that agents themselves can devise. ''Our partners work extremely hard to attract business off-season,'' he says. ''One enterprising agency I know offered their clients free flights to the UK with bookings over a certain number of weeks. The offer produced a number of bookings we wouldn't otherwise have received.''

But not everyone has found it easy to generate low-season business. Juanpere, at Easy Idiomas in Spain, says they have tried to extend their business by offering executive programmes and long-term courses at other times of the year, but to little effect. ''We do recommend off-season courses, but the market is very inflexible,'' he says. ''Most people cannot choose [when to study] and have to study in the summer.''

Quintino Garcia, of Studytour in Brazil, recounts a similar experience. He says his agency has designed a number of special off-season promotions, but ''the market did not respond well to them''. He adds, ''Most of my clients are students and they can only travel during their vacations.''

Growth segments

According to the European Travel Commission, the following areas are growth segments in the tourism industry in general. They also offer agencies and language schools potential to expand their business year-round:

Senior citizens
- in contrast to youth travel, this sector has witnessed uncertain expansion in recent years and is threatened by lack of suitable services from transport and other suppliers

Business travel
- has potential for growth depending on marketing, such as group-based packages for special events, conferences, trade shows, incentives, and mixed work and vacation benefits

City centre visits
- especially for sporting and cultural events, will expand, especially in the form of more short trips

Winter sunshine holidays and cruises
- will develop faster than summer or beach vacations and traditional winter sports

A wide range of new combination products
- for combined business and pleasure trips, with sports and hobbies linked

Adventure holidays
- and trips to far-away places will appeal to a growing clientele, including senior citizens

Rural tourism
- there is growing interest in ''getting back to nature''

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