March 2005 issue

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Busy season

The language travel industry in most countries has always experienced seasonal peaks in business. While the characteristics of schools' high seasons have changed according to student demand, the target of maintaining quality during these times remains the same. Gillian Evans reports.

For many schools and language travel agents, business is highly seasonal with peaks in enrolment occuring during the northern hemisphere's summer months. The swell in student numbers can be particularly challenging for schools, which have to be able to increase classroom space, accommodation and the number of teachers from one month to the next, and yet retain the same quality as during the quieter times. Because of the vital role that word-of-mouth recommendation plays in the market, agents have to be sure that their clients will be offered the best possible service at whatever time they send students to a school. Indeed, a good quality summer programme can result in rich rewards for both agents and schools.

Accord in France, which runs an additional adult campus and junior courses during the summer when the main school is fully booked, benefits greatly from its busy summer time, according to its Managing Director and Owner, François Pfeiffer. ''The reputation of quality of our courses and services brings us more and more requests for [study] periods other than the summer months,'' he says.

Study time
On the whole, the peak times in the language travel industry's calendar have emerged because of school and university vacation periods. The bulk of students are juniors and young adults, who have traditionally looked for short, fun packages with plenty of activities. Malta's language travel industry has largely developed on the back of its popularity as a Mediterranean holiday destination. Andrew Grech, Director of Studies at Geos Malta in Sliema, says, ''Most students in our peak months [from June to August] come here for a short stay and seem to be after a fun holiday in the sun with the opportunity of learning some English as they go.'' Similarly, Corinne Montanti at Alliance Française Marseille in France points out that their peak will always be during the summer, owing to their location by the sea and the favourable climate during this time.

Although popular summer holiday destinations remain at the top of the league table of high season locations, student demand has been changing over the years, with many more students wanting a more serious outcome to their studies. ''Students are looking more for a 'means to an end' type of programme,'' asserts Monika Benker, Manager of Four Corners Language Institute in Victoria, BC, Canada. ''What I mean by that is English that will assist them in a trade such as ESL plus IT or ESL plus teaching English.'' To meet this demand, Four Corners has developed a Tefl programme as well as business English and job skills. It also works with a local school that teaches computer animation. In France, too, Anne Chartier of Centre International d'Antibes (CIA) has noticed an interest among their peak-time clientele for programmes with a serious goal. As a consequence, CIA has launched a new Delf exam preparation course for juniors. Even Grech in Malta says they have experienced ''an increase among European clients showing interest in the Cambridge examinations, particularly the FCE (First Certificate of English) exam''.

Nationality change
A factor that can affect the characteristic of a school's peak-time intake is fluctuations in nationality. The summer programme at Pickering College in Newmarket, ONT, Canada has, in the past, attracted high numbers of students from Mexico, Spain and Korea. Last year, Korean numbers plummeted, and the effect of this was an increase in the average age of summer students at the college. Heather Blacklock, Summer Programme Coordinator, explains, ''We find that students from Asia, especially Korea, are usually younger and students from Spain/Mexico are generally older.''

Market developments in the student provider country can also change the character of the language travel high season. For example, Europeans opting for longer stays have changed the seasonal peaks at the University of the Sunshine Coast's language centre in Queensland, Australia. ''Our university language centre trends seem to be changing in that European student numbers were down in 2004 [from June to September], yet we seem to be attracting more longer-term students at times other than the northern hemisphere summer,'' reports Del Childs, Associate Director of International Relations, at the university.

2004 and beyond
Comprising a large proportion of younger learners, the high season is highly susceptible to security issues or global conflict, and in 2003, this led to some decreases in peak enrolment levels. However, the performance of the 2004 season for many indicates a market recovery last year. Esther Richards at English Study Centre in Swansea, Wales, reports that, in their area teaching mainly 12-to-19 year olds, ''confidence seems to be returning'' after a number of years of flat growth owing to the events of 9/11, BSE, foot and mouth disease, and the strength of the UK pound.

For Language Link in Moscow, Russia, summer 2004 was a good year, largely boosted by the school's promotional efforts, according to International Programme Coordinator at the school, Joanna Szostek. ''[2004] was our first experience of really pushing and promoting summer programmes,'' she says.

But 2004 was not an easy year for everyone. Intense competition from new players in the peak language travel season adversely affected some established providers. Gary Gervais, President of Heartland International English School in Winnipeg, MB, Canada, says that 2004 was ''a little slower than previous years'' and he puts this down to a rash of new schools opening in this market.

Grech mentions that competition in Malta has caused a discounting war among providers eager to fill their classrooms. ''Student numbers [in 2004] were probably our highest yet but due to intense competition from other schools and prices being driven to rock bottom, this year was not one of our most profitable.'' The squeeze on price is widespread, with Szostek attributing their success in part to their discounting strategy. She states, ''The risk of introducing summer discounts paid off.'' Increasingly, clients during the peak months are price conscious, and yet expect a lot for their money. As Dirk van Nieuwenborgh, Director of Lines, which runs summer language programmes in the UK and France, says, ''This is an increasing but demanding market.''

Agents seem to agree. Michael Joop at ICCE in Brazil observes, ''We have seen more [price] promotions going on and these are well received by the Brazilian market, enabling more students to do these kind of programmes.'' Catherine Torres at Via Lenguas in Mexico says, ''Students want to stay longer, they are always looking for promotional discounts, and seem more serious, indeed.''

Extending the season
Schools are keen to extend their high season into the shoulder months, and the main way in which this can be achieved is through product development. CIA in France, which experiences high demand from young learners during their peak months of April, May and June, has developed new junior programmes. ''We have spread out the period of our junior programmes until mid-September and created an Easter and autumn junior programme,'' comments Chartier.

Similarly, Language Link has introduced additional courses during the Easter vacation period aimed at university students. ''We have developed both Easter and summer revision programmes to meet the demand from university students who come to us for extra academic Russian practice,'' explains Szostek. ''For more mature students who are interested in getting to know Russia itself at the same time as language learning, we have also developed a 'cultural-educational' programme at Easter and summer.''

The peak season also changes organically as the market develops. Grech reports that their high season between June and August has been the same for some years. Now, he says, ''The peak season seems to be slowly creeping forward. In previous years our peak month was August but [in 2004] it was noticeably July.''

With the recovery of the high season in 2004, many providers are confident about their 2005 summer season. At Four Corners Language Institute, staff are preparing themselves for a bumper year. Benker says, ''We forecast the same or even better [than business in summer 2004] in 2005. [At the end of 2004] we already had an increased volume of requests for both individuals and student groups.''

Quality at all times

With student numbers swelling in the peak months, language providers must ensure they have the flexibility to provide a good quality product even when their provision is under strain. This is even more important in today's market, as, according to Anne Chartier of CIA in France, their peak clientele is becoming more exacting. ''Students are more demanding in terms of accommodation, quality of courses, food [and] services. They easily complain when they are not satisfied,'' she says.

For Geos Malta, Andrew Grech at the school, says, ''The main problems [during the peak months] are large numbers [of students] in each class, shortage of host families and a lack of teaching staff in May and June.'' The teacher shortage at the beginning of the season at Geos Malta occurs because most of the school's part-time summer teachers are university students and, therefore, unavailable before the end of the academic year in June. Grech says that thinking ahead allows them to find solutions to these issues. ''We try to overcome these challenges by envisioning what they will consist of beforehand and taking necessary action to prevent them,'' he says. ''This may include opening up other centres to cope with the extra numbers or offering better wages and working conditions to host families and teachers than our competition, to ensure availability when needed.''

Forward planning is also vital for English Study Centre in the UK to overcome any seasonal problems. ''The only difficulty that arises from time to time is a shortage of good host family accommodation,'' says Esther Richards at the centre, ''and we address this by active recruitment of new families during the winter months.''

Chartier says, if they receive complaints from students in the peak season, it is sometimes to do with the distance between the host family and the school. According to Chartier, they place those who book early with families nearby, while late bookers are left with accommodation slightly further away. But she adds, ''We inform late bookings about the distance.''

Some students may also be dissatisfied with the maximum class sizes of 15 for juniors or 12 for adults, even if they are informed of this beforehand. Another area of displeasure, according to Chartier, is sometime noise at the residence or the standards there. She believes these issues are best dealt with through dialogue. ''We meet with the students of the residence once a week in order to discuss with them about such [issues].''

According to Monika Benker from Four Corners Language Institute in Canada, they deal with any peak season challenges by combining resources with other schools in the area. ''Sometimes there is a lack of physical space and a shortage of teachers,'' she explains. ''This is overcome by working together as a team and we help each other out in areas that are needed. There is a strong ESL community here in Victoria.''

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