March 2002 issue

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Seasonal demand

Geographic trends in the summer sector

Without a doubt, world events in 2001 will mean that some countries will see a significant jump in numbers this year, while others will suffer as a result of consumer fears. In addition, fluctuations in international exchange rates, plus the introduction of the euro in Europe, could be the wild cards affecting enrolment levels around the world. Fiona Wilkinson, of Bell International in the UK, predicts, "We expect fewer long-haul students from the Latin America region, especially because of the economic crisis in Argentina. The sterling exchange rate remains a challenging factor for British language centres. We're all awaiting the effects of the introduction of the euro [on business]."

China is frequently mentioned as a market with strong potential, with visa issuance in host countries often being cited as slowing what could be very good business. Mary Ann Szeps, Acting Executive Director of English Australia, points to Australia's student visa policy as obstructive to high levels of Chinese summer students. "China is emerging as a study tour market, but this is hampered by the difficulty in getting visas," she explains. Reporting a decline in European business, Timothy Blake of the London School of English in the UK ventures, "An obvious new market is China, and maybe longer term, central Asia."

Countries likely to benefit from their reputation for safety include Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. According to Carlo Groppelli of Italian agency, Atlas, "People want places as safe as possible. I think places such as Ireland, Australia and South Africa will increase their business." In Australia, Chairperson of English Australia, Alyson Moore, was quoted in an article in The Australian saying, "We will probably take some of the market share that has previously gone to the US and Canada, because we are perceived to be a safe destination."

South Africa could also reap a bumper harvest in 2002 from inbound international student travel, according to Mark Niekerk of One World Language School in Cape Town. He reports an emerging market in the countries surrounding Afghanistan, claiming that students are drawn to South Africa because the Jewish community in particular has a reputation for being very welcoming, as does the Muslim community, with the added advantage that the two cultural groups enjoy a high level of communication and ease with each other.

One market currently looking very vulnerable is the USA, and it is likely that Canada will also see an increase in business from students seeking a North American experience in a country known for safety. Valerie Richmond, Director of Aspect in Vancouver and President of Capls, says, "More people will come to Canada. For example, Mexico is looking more towards Canada for the North American experience." There are, however, contradictory predictions. Alan Turner, Principal of St Giles International in the USA, believes that "the USA will be a hot destination" in the future. He adds, "I believe that more people have sympathy with the USA and I also believe the American nation has become softer towards other nationalities in general."

How have client requirements for the traditional summer vacation programme developed over time, and what programmes do language schools now offer for the seasonal client? Jackie Winspear reports.

According to Inessa Yugay of Intellect agency in Kazakhstan, the most popular summer programme among her clients is of four weeks duration and comprises 20 lessons each week, followed by activities. Irina Hristova of Integral Educational programmes in Bulgaria echoes this assessment, saying, "The most popular courses are where 20 hours of language training is combined with a good number of excursions - and a reasonable price for an attractive location, of course. Courses with less intensity are viewed by parents as pure excursions."

Value for money is, as ever, a key factor in securing any type of summer booking, and schools report that more is being demanded of them for the same price. In the UK, Chris Hiscock, Marketing and Administration Director of Marymount International School, reports, "Parents want to ensure that kids are kept busy 24 hours each day, which means more planning for sports and visits." Providing constant diversions means more work for schools, which is a challenge if they are to remain commercially competitive. "Value for money is getting more and more important," agrees Timothy Blake of the London School of English in the UK. "Generally, people expect a higher and higher level of service, with more ancillary services provided. Unfortunately, it [does not appear that] they are willing to pay extra for this."

Along with value for money, clients are looking very closely at quality. This emphasis on quality is one of the most important trends for summer programmes, according to Zoe Takoulas of the European College System agency and school in Greece. "Clients have become more conscious of the quality of the package they purchase," she states. "They expect to be offered a diversity of services, such as sporting activities, and safety has become paramount. Finally, while they want a package which is structured for them, they like to have a range of options [available]."

The issue of safety, and of students being occupied and supervised at all times, is now more important than ever. Hiscock says that structured programmes are deemed very important by parents, who in many cases pay for and select the language course for their child. Parents and other clients want to see intensity in the language instruction provided, and new experiences in the activities offered. Dirk Van Nieuwenborgh, of Lines in England and France, has also observed demand for more rigorous programmes. "Parents are looking for serious, even more expensive programmes, as long as their children are well looked after, learn a lot and are in professional hands."

Desired activities are as diverse as ever, with fashionable new elements being added to old favourites. Saori Sumi, Chief Counsellor at International Hello Link in Japan, says that students want "a lot of fun activities" to choose from, and cites the most popular as being tennis, golf, art, water sports, cooking, gardening and aromatherapy. Excursions to key areas of natural beauty, historic importance or social significance in the host country are always popular, and increasingly, such excursions become part of the lesson rather than entertainment. Mark Niekerk, of One World Language School in South Africa, relates, "The massive variety of flora and fauna [here] is a huge attraction for students. We build what [students] see [during excursions] into classroom work."

Whether the clients are older students booking for themselves, or parents making decisions for younger students, the issue of quality of teaching is increasingly in the spotlight. In most cases, added value means underlining the qualifications and background of teaching staff. In addition, as new teachers enter the profession, so teaching styles develop, and in turn, raise expectations from parents and students. Hiscock says, "What we've noticed is a trend in development of teaching style. Each year, the style gets more interactive, more fun and more educationally challenging. It's far more interesting than the old ‘chalk and talk' method of teaching."

While demands are becoming more specific as client expectations develop - an evident market evolution for this mainstay product of the industry - at the same time, language providers are also seeing an expansion of their summer programmes business into the "mature" market, as a baby-boomer population, comfortable with international travel and the concept of "lifelong learning", seeks to combine a vacation with a deeper cultural experience. At the University of Malta's International School of English, Charles Chetcuti reports, "We are finding that there is a slight increase in the 50-to-60 year old age range." It is older students who show more interest in meeting local people, says Chetcuti, noting that no such provision needs to be made for younger students, apart from involvement in scheduled activities and excursions. Older summer students expect activities too, although these may be more geared to their specific interests. At the Scuola Di Lingue e Cultura Italiana Porte D'Oriente in Italy, Barbara Dmitri reports that most summer students are in the 25-to-30 or 50-to-60 year old age range. Along with language tuition, these students are looking for sessions in areas such as Italian cooking and Italian film. "Students love to talk about the Mafia!" she jokes.

The traditional summer programme is now seeping into other spheres, as many students want a language course with extras. The older age ranges may be interested in programmes where they can combine work experience with language, to enhance professional opportunities at home, while for younger students, language plus work programmes are sometimes considered more worthwhile than a "language vacation". Abby Penlington, Marketing & Public Affairs Officer at UK English language association, Arels, testifies, "There is an upward trend [among summer students in the UK] in studying business and professional English courses." Ulrike Heitzer, from Inlingua Sprachschule München in Germany, adds, "We have noticed increasing requests for au-pair jobs in combination with language training, besides the demand for exam courses with internationally-recognised certificates." Niekerk confirms that the English at work programme is one of the most popular summer courses at his school in South Africa.

Observing buying trends in this market, Fiona Wilkinson of Bell International in the UK and Malta, says, "English for professional people is attracting a growing interest. The market is very discerning, and intensive and skills-based courses with high tutor support is [a client] priority." Another trend that has become more conspicuous in the past year or so is the number of younger students now travelling in the summer months. If business picks up as confidence in air travel returns (see page 24), it is likely that bookings this summer could come from a wider range of the population. Yugay in Kazakhstan has definitely noticed the trend towards bookings from younger students. "Nowadays, we can see young learners aged eight or nine as prospective clients," she says. "It means that people are keen to educate their kids as early as possible, giving them an opportunity to mix lessons and leisure during the long summer holiday."

In the UK, Hiscock has also noticed this trend, and he suggests that it is due to parents realising the value of early learning experiences. "There are more younger students coming through," he says. "Parents know now that the earlier you learn a language, the easier it is." In the USA, Sandy Hill, of Academic Adventures in America, agrees, adding, "I think young people are maturing earlier and their parents feel comfortable sending them abroad."

For schools, providing services and support for younger students does bring another level of demand. Yugay suggests that agents need to be doubly sure of the quality of programmes and the care students receive on summer programmes when dealing with clients in the younger age ranges. She adds, "This means that we will need to select schools more carefully and spend time trying to provide children with necessary services."

Niekerk says that a key selling point of his school's programmes is the close relationship it has with the local community, and 90 per cent of students are placed with host families. Accommodation preferences vary, as residential options, especially when students stay on campus, can also be popular among the summer clientele. In the UK, Hiscock reports success with provision of either a residential option, or if students prefer, a host family. In the USA, Hill says that in general, clients are divided equally between those who want a full programme of tuition and activities, and those where the student will have one full-day excursion per week, but more immersion in the life of a host family. "The parents who select this latter option often feel that their children might improve their English by spending more time with their host family," she says.

Summer programmes can often encompass closed group programmes catering for parties of 30 or more students travelling to the school together. But the question of whether there is a trend toward students travelling as part of a group from the same country, or as individuals, is becoming increasingly complex, as Hill illustrates when saying that while host family group programmes remain the most popular, there is increased interest in the mixed nationality programmes offered. "This pleases us as we think mixing students from different countries and cultures benefits students and the families who host them," he says. "It motivates the students to speak English with one another, since English is the common language."

Hristova observes that finding the right balance between location, price and nationality mix has been a significant challenge in the past few years, and says, "It seems that schools who accept big groups of one nationality are more open to price negotiation." There may be a trend towards more clients travelling as part of a larger group for safety reasons, but schools need to note that clients are often keen to learn in mixed nationality groups. It seems that in 2002, the need for agents and schools to be clear in how they sell their programmes, and how they accommodate clients, will be more important than ever. As Hristova says, "You have to explain the differences [in group travel] very carefully to clients."

With schools and agents working hard to ensure consistent standards of safety, quality and value for money, along with meeting the specific tuition and activity requirements of thousands of diverse clients, 2002 looks set to be a promising year for those who are travelling internationally to learn a foreign language and enhance their vacation experience or educational opportunities.

Safety & security - the true industry picture?

Summer programmes are the mainstay of the language travel market, but that also means they are likely to bear the brunt of any decrease in bookings experienced across the industry this year, in light of the global downturn in travel. Agents and schools alike are hedging their bets as to how business will be affected over the summer. According to Sandy Hill, of Academic Adventures in America, "It's really difficult to judge [summer 2002] business at this date."

Since September 11, the issues of safety and security, particular in air travel, have been scrutinised throughout the world in the hope of returning consumer confidence to its previous level. There is no doubt that the travel and tourism industries were severely impacted by the events. However, it seems that, in certain markets, the language travel business has been little affected or is rebounding. Irina Hristova, of Integral Educational Programmes in Bulgaria, says, "Things will be difficult this summer, as we will face the new problem of security. But looking back to last summer, people did have some concerns about foot and mouth disease in the UK, [but] the children still travelled. It seems that people are more prepared, nowadays, to accept a new threat, [although] we don't know if [this way of thinking will continue]."

Zoe Takoulas, of the European College System in Greece, says, "I believe that, internationally, business will be affected by a decrease in the number of people willing to travel long distances. However, generally speaking, demand [from outbound students] hasn't been affected. We [deal with] students interested in studying in the UK. They are not going to the US and therefore they don't consider [the threat to be] that close."

Ulrike Heitzer, of Inlingua Sprachschule München in Germany, is also optimistic about student numbers this summer. "We have not noticed a real decrease of students [after September 11]," she says. "I think the attacks did not have a deep impact on the German language market and I don't expect the German market to suffer in summer 2002."

Other agents, including those in Brazil and Japan who typically reported drops in enrolments last year as a result of the September 11 events (see Language Travel Magazine, February 2002, pages 10-12), are adopting a "wait and see" attitude. Many maintain that students may have postponed, rather than actually cancelled, their study plans.