March 2011 issue

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Summer takes shape

Summer is peak time for language providers. Although the profile of a summer student is typified by the younger learner, there is a growing number of adult learners keen to utilise their summer vacation time for a course that combines language acquisition with fun and interesting activities. Jane Vernon Smith reports.

For many language schools, especially those in popular holiday destinations, summer programmes are the mainstay of their business. Therefore, a successful summer season makes a crucial contribution to the year’s overall business performance, and, in assessing the 2010 season, providers have been largely upbeat.

Recovery has been the theme at a number of schools. For example, at The Ardmore Group’s Berkshire College, where, notes Director of Sales & Marketing, Louise Franklin, 80 per cent of business is accounted for by summer programmes, “We saw an impact of the global crisis in 2009… However, sales were back up to good levels in 2010.” In Ireland, too, Dublin-based Alpha College of English, saw summer numbers rise, according to Managing Director, Stephen Shortt – particularly in respect of junior programmes – while at Carl Duisberg Centren in Radolfzell, Germany, Director Petra Heintze also records an upturn in participants.

In the USA, David Charnaud, Academic Director at International House (IH), New York, believes that trends resulting from the economic crisis are making the country more competitive in this market. “The USA is traditionally seen as a luxury destination for summer camps,” he comments. However, “Parents who would have assumed they couldn’t afford to send their kids across the Atlantic are now finding that it is a realistic choice.” Certainly, numbers at US school, TLA-The Language Academy in Fort Lauderdale, support this view. “We experienced a 35 per cent increase in our summer programme intake,” reports Director, Marco Pinna, while noting that this segment represents 30 per cent of overall business.

In neighbouring Canada, ILSC, based in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, saw enrolments at its Montreal Camp increase by 25 per cent compared with 2009, according to Marketing Coordinator, Lucas Bertoli. In 2010, it also began offering its Summer Youth Programme in Toronto and Vancouver, as well as at its new San Francisco campus.

Elsewhere, some schools fared less well, but this is often attributable to localised difficulties. In South Africa, for example, the football World Cup caused “a huge spike” in airfares, according to Emre Bilge, Centre Sales Manager at LAL Cape Town, which had a dampening effect on enrolments. However, “We feel that South Africa is not that well known for summer programmes, but [it] does have huge potential for growth,” he underlines, “which we hope to see in the near future.”

Age is but a number
Traditionally, summer programmes have been almost synonymous with courses for juniors, and for good reason. “Adults can take a language course at any time of the year, but some juniors only have the opportunity during the summer time,” observes agent, Rubén de Haro, of Languagecourse in Barcelona, Spain. Meanwhile, older clients often prefer to attend during quieter periods. As Barbara Loosli, Managing Director of Swiss agency Linguista Sprachaufenthalte, notes, “Business courses are not usually booked for the summer, on account of the high number of younger students.”

Given these facts, it is not altogether surprising to hear that Brazilian agency, CIA do Intercâmbio, receives 100 per cent of summer bookings on behalf of juniors, according to Director, Christiane Alecrim. There is, nevertheless, also a significant market for courses for young adults at this time of year, as Elinor Zucchet, Student Support Manager at Spanish agency, Language School Worldwide in Barcelona, highlights. Here, juniors represent only around 10 per cent of summer bookings, she notes. However, most of the rest are young adults and students, many of these travelling with scholarships from the Spanish government.

At Alpha College, Shortt reports that, while summer-specific programmes do not account for a large proportion of overall business, “We have, over the past few years, been providing some niche group courses [that] attract the 17-to-20 [age-group]. In particular, we have been offering very intensive preparation courses for French students, and BEC preparation courses for closed groups.” As a result, while the average age of students attending the adult school year-round is 28 years, during the summer it drops to around 22 to 23 years, explains Shortt, as a result of the many university students and graduates enrolled at this time. The school has also recently expanded its courses for overseas teachers. Correspondingly, at Wits Language School in Johannesburg, South Africa, EFL Course Coordinator, Trish Cooper, reports that its most popular course over the summer months is the Ielts preparation course, although this is not marketed specifically as a summer programme.

Despite the preponderance of juniors and young adults, summer courses that target the 30-plus age-group are growing more and more popular, adds Loosli, especially with clients who need to take their holidays in summer, but who do not wish to join a class of younger people.

Adult versus junior
Some locations lend themselves well to attracting adults during the summer months, and a growing number of providers do target a more mature market. One such is Italian language school, Istituto Il David. The school’s clientele range in age between 20 and 70 years, and older people book summer courses mainly for touristic reasons, comments Director, Carlo Lipparini. Based in the culture-rich city of Florence, Il David last year [2010] began collaborating with two seaside schools – Orbitlingua in Orbetello, southern Tuscany, and Porta d’Oriente in Otranto, southern Puglia – to promote dual-location programmes. The price is exclusive of excursions and other leisure activities, which are optional extras, since these adult clients usually want more freedom to organise their free time, Lipparini explains.

Ireland’s Alpha College of English has made similar observations regarding the motivation of older summer-season clients. Hence, in 2010, the school launched a new Travel Talk programme for the over-50s, who are “particularly interested in developing language skills associated with travel, entertainment and culture”.

Schools that are successful in attracting older clients during the summer season are likely to be those that offer a range of extra-curricular activities that meet their interests; they may also have different accommodation requirements. “Our older clients tend to look for activities that suit their interests, like going swimming, playing hockey, tennis, golfing, cooking, gardening [or] attending music concerts,” explains Bertoli of ILSC. “Often, with the older group, sporting activities take priority over tourist attractions. At times,” he adds, “older clients may request to stay in university residences, as opposed to homestay accommodations.”

Meanwhile, the traditional junior market is constantly evolving. Generally speaking, the clients are always looking for a good balance between lessons and social programme, according to agent, Zucchet. “So, the provider should offer quality lessons, but also an exciting, complete and affordable activity programme.”

Adopting a new methodology?
At the same time, it is seen as important to have something new to offer. According to Franklin, clients are always looking for “something a bit different – [a] change of location or new sports courses, excursions.” However, she notes, “We are rarely asked to change anything regarding the academic part of the course.” Caterina Calci of Italian agency, I Viaggi del Toghiro, meanwhile, identifies a demand for “a more serious programme with more supervision,” and French agent Catherine van Dale, Programme Manager at Centre Easylangues, observes that clients are increasingly looking for work experience, along with their language studies. Another evolving segment of this market is family programmes, in which parents accompany their children on a language programme and share in some of the same activities.

Providers have been working to keep up-to-date with these demands, with a variety of new programmes and course changes for 2010 and 2011. Alpha College in Ireland boosted its activities profile, launching a new Champions English programme for juniors last summer, which, notes Shortt, “kicked off with an English & Soccer camp with Athletico Madrid coaches”. 2011 will see further development of its offer, with an English plus Archery programme featuring coaches from the Irish Amateur Archery Association. Then, at Camp Beaumont, a UK specialist in junior language and adventure holidays, a range of new themed programmes has been announced for 2011, notes PR and Social Media Manager, Charlene Katuwawala, including a radio presenting course for budding broadcasters, a cheerleader school, a Stagecoach performing arts course and a special agent programme.

In France, Volodia Maury-Laribière reveals that Silc has added extra options, such as cooking and drawing, to its summer activity programmes, and in Germany, a new programme, German and Dancing has been introduced by CDC, the primary aim being that “the juniors shall have fun!” stresses Heintze. At LAL Cape Town, Bilge reports that the vacation English programme for young learners now includes three full-day activities per week, instead of two, with the additional option of evening activities every night. Furthermore, it has launched a new Travelling Classroom programme, where “students will travel around South Africa, seeing various sights, while also including English tuition,” comments Bilge.

In addition to an increased emphasis on English-plus-sport courses, Twin Group has introduced programmes offering full days of classes alternating with full days of excursions, comments Head of Summer Centres, Colin Spicer. Ardmore Language Schools, meanwhile, is increasing the number of its adventure centres for 2011, adding four new UK locations where students can combine their language studies with activities such as abseiling, canoeing, quad biking and zip wires. At the same time, it has also opened new US centres in San Francisco and Washington DC. In the USA, IH New York has also expanded, with a second summer camp in Manhattan, which, notes Charnaud, it expects to become its most popular programme in 2011.

Destination and nationality trends
Based on agent feedback, the UK remains a popular choice of summer destination for a number of reasons. As Spanish agent de Haro points out, “The offer is very wide and varied, especially in southern cities”. Added to this, comments Alecrim in Brazil, is the possibility of visiting other European countries during their stay. Proximity and cost are also important factors for many students. According to Zucchet, students are tending to opt for destinations that are closer to home, and spending less money on airfares. Nevertheless, she notes that Canada and the USA were both very popular for Europeans. For van Dale’s clients, the USA is the second most popular destination after the UK. “It is more expensive, but it is more a dream holiday for our applicants,” she explains.

In terms of the nationality profile, western Europeans continue to feature most prominently on summer programmes, with Spanish, French and Italian commonly among the top three. According to Lipparini, western Europeans normally account for approximately 80 per cent of students on Il David’s summer programmes, by contrast with around 50 per cent on other courses. However, according to Siân Choma-Peters of Absolutely English (formerly part of the Ceran Group) in the UK, demand from Russia and other Russian-speaking countries is on the increase, leading her school to apply quotas.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, in South Africa – where the summer season coincides with the European winter – at Wits Language School, Cooper notes that the majority of summer clients come from the Democratic Republic of Congo and China. At LAL in Cape Town last year, the top nationalities during January and February were Brazilian, Turkish and Bosnian. Looking only at adult clients, Colombians, Swiss, Germans, French and Koreans featured strongly, alongside Brazilians, Bilge observes.

It seems that, in terms of what students are looking for in respect of course content, there are very few differences that may be linked to nationality preference. However, “It does appear that the further the students have travelled, the higher their expectations are,” according to Katuwawala. Similarly, Franklin observes that groups travelling from more distant locations, including China and Mexico, like to add cultural weeks to the end of their course. “They want to get as much culture of the area as they can,” she underlines.

Repeat bookings
Clearly, it is important for providers and agents alike to listen to student feedback, since valuable repeat bookings may be lost or won thereby. These repeat bookings can represent a significant proportion of overall business – for Linguista Sprachaufenthalte in Switzerland and Languagecourse in Spain, amounting to around 15 per cent. Moreover, according to Turkish agent, Canan Sulac of Setur-Study Abroad, some students return as many as five times.

In cases where a student makes a repeat booking directly with the school, rather than through the original agent, agents can sometimes lose out, according to Calci. However, many providers are happy to acknowledge the part played by the agent in such cases, and Spicer reports that Twin Group pays different rates for repeat business.

With the lure of repeat business, it is little wonder that providers are so pro-active in constantly reviewing and revising their programme offers. Achieving the right balance is the key to laying down future success. As Alecrim observes, “It’s a great programme to offer. The clients will come to you later to do other programmes, for sure.”

Recruiting for summer

Although many language schools offer summer programmes that are run quite separately from their year-round programmes, most market them via the same channels. For many, like ILSC Greystone College in Canada, this means focusing primarily on agent partners. As spokesman Lucas Bertoli explains, “We’ve created a Youth Program Guide brochure, with a downloadable pdf version available on our website, as an effective tool that features youth programme information for both our summer and winter programmes.” At Camp Beaumont in the UK, marketing of summer programmes includes post, email and the company’s website, and, again, does not differ too much in this respect from its year-round programmes, comments PR & Social Media Manager, Charlene Katuwawala.

However, where marketing of summer programmes does sometimes differ is in the use of social media platforms, such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Given the high proportion of junior students on summer programmes, providers often target some of their marketing specifically to the young, and this has emerged as one of the most effective means of reaching this age group. ILSC is “constantly taking advantage of opportunities to use our social media platforms to engage our audience and find out what their needs and interests are”, according to Bertoli. These include its YouTube Channel (www.youtube.com/ilsctv), its Facebook page, Blog and Twitter account.

Camp Beaumont also has a strong profile on both Facebook and Twitter, contributes Katuwawala. “This is growing daily, alongside our YouTube and Flickr profiles. Social media is a great awareness-driver, and can only get stronger the more we use it,” she believes.

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of language schools are engaging with these media, or planning to do so. “We found in 2010 that we started to get some enquiries and bookings directly from the teenagers, rather than their parents, possibly because they are more IT-savvy,” comments David Charnaud of International House, New York. “So, for 2011, we are thinking about how to reach out directly to this market, including the use of social networking sites.”

So far, these tools have been less successful in reaching adults than juniors, as Absolutely English’s Siân Choma-Peters reports. “We have a Facebook site for young learners, which is popular; we also have a site for adults, but [this is] less frequented,” she observes. As today’s students become the adults of tomorrow, however, the power of these media is sure to grow.

Cause for complaint?

Complaints about language programmes tend to be the exception, rather than the rule, as Elinor Zucchet, Student Support Manager at Spanish agency, Language School Worldwide in Barcelona, is at pains to point out. “On the whole, we do not receive many complaints,” she says, “as our partner schools provide an excellent service and very often manage to solve the problem on site and right away.”

However, when complaints do arise concerning summer programmes, it seems that most relate to accommodation, rather than course content or extra-curricular activities, as Zucchet confirms. And this may be a reflection of the higher demand experienced during the summer season. “As most of the language schools need additional accommodation options in the summer,” she observes, “quality control might not be as strict as for other accommodation offered year-round.”

Other advisors report similar findings. While again emphasising that complaints are rare, Rubén De Haro of fellow Barcelona agency, Languagecourse, states, “As far as I can remember, [any complaints are] always related [to] the accommodation (homestay). I know that, during the summer, schools ‘hire’ more families to cope with high demand, and I think the quality bar goes down a bit.”

For Martha Nelly Rozo, Director of Go Study & Travel in Colombia, homestay accommodation also tops the list of complaints, because, she notes, “in some cases, the family isn’t aware of what’s happening with the children, or they don’t pay much attention to them.”

Food can also be a bone of contention and, while noting that many schools offer various types of meals, Canan Sulac of Turkish agency, Setur-Study Abroad, highlights that cultural differences can sometimes lead to students being unhappy with the food offered in homestay accommodation, during the first weeks. However, the schools help the students to overcome these problems, he points out.

For Barbara Loosli, Managing Director of Linguista Sprachaufenthalte in Switzerland, the top three areas for complaint are “food, waiting times for buses and accommodation”. However, this is not necessarily always a reflection of poor provision. Courses being quite expensive, “sometimes the expectations [of] clients are too high,” she observes.
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