October 2009 issue

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The role of agents

Direct student-to-school bookings have sometimes been a rather thorny issue for language schools and agencies. At a time when mainstream travel agencies have been closing down or switching to online businesses, Gillian Evans assesses the longevity and value of education agencies within the distribution network.

The issue of schools courting direct student bookings has always been something of a flashpoint for schools and agencies, and the Internet once fuelled fear of the demise of the language travel agent’s role in student recruitment. This has, however, been hugely exaggerated, with the language travel agency of today emerging in a stronger position than ever.

Language schools throughout the world, which are looking to enrol a wide range of student nationalities, know the value of building up agent relationships. John Taplin, President and Chief Executive Officer at Global Village (GV) Calgary in Canada, says they value their agents as true business partners. “Global Village has always been a very ‘agent friendly’ group of schools and will continue to be so,“ he says. “We recognise that agents provide a variety of services. They are truly partners, whom we value. GV respects that agents make investments in businesses, and that international students will go to them as primary sources who can speak to them knowledgably in their own languages about destinations and schools.”

There are, of course, many advantages of using agents. “An agent knows the market and knows the client which is an immense advantage,” explains Giorgia Biccelli of Linguadue in Milan, Italy. “An agent can counsel professionally, can interpret the client needs and give him/her further solutions to their request, and an agent can mediate with the school in presenting the client needs.”

She adds that Linguadue also appreciates an agency’s role in logistics such as visa, travel and insurance arrangements, but ultimately, it is their student orientation which makes agencies an indispensable partner: “As a school we can see how different it is to deal with students who have been informed properly and have received professional assistance from their agency before their arrival. It is an important asset for the school.”
Avril Taylor, Director of Short-Term Programmes at the English Language Centre and Division of Continuing Studies, part of the University of Victoria, Canada, argues that using agencies can save the school considerable time. “Agents are able to provide support to students, which means that we do not have to spend as much time corresponding with the students,” she asserts. “They help the student to prepare documents and many also give information about Canada before the student arrives.”
Shane Wilkinson, Managing Director of Bournemouth Business School International in Bournemouth, UK, adds that class mix can be helped by a good agent mix. He says they can, “to some degree control numbers in classes and ratios of nationalities by using agencies and we can develop a presence or profile in new markets even without visiting those countries”.

Marketing activities
Among the schools surveyed for this article the vast majority relied heavily on agents for their student bookings, typically reporting that between 40 per cent and 98 per cent of bookings were generated through their network of agents.

However, some language schools that use agents do market their products directly to students. For example Chelsea Curtis, Director of Austin English Academy in Austin, Texas, USA, reports that they market directly to students through various websites and “a limited number of printed publications”. In addition, the school receives students directly from its parent company, Aston Educational Group, which has branches in China and Vietnam.

Others, such as BridgeEnglish and BridgeDenver in Denver, CO, USA have recently shifted their marketing focus onto agents. Currently the schools derive 40 per cent of their students from agents while 60 per cent are direct bookings. The schools’ Director, Richard Brown, says there has been a shift towards more agency bookings in recent years. “We have actively been seeking to do more business with agents, attending fairs and networking as much as we can – we’ve recently joined Ialc, for example.”

Many other schools, such as Linguadue, target only agents in their marketing campaigns. “We do not have a marketing policy in which we advertise directly to the final client, we do not attend student fairs or advertise in magazines which target students directly,” asserts Biccelli. “We feel we would compete here with the agents’ work. In this respect we rather support our agents’ promotion perhaps joining them in a student fair or evaluating with them a joint promotional advertising campaign in their home country.”

To encourage agency bookings, language schools often offer discounts to agents. Gayle Forler, Director of Marketing at LSC Language Studies Canada which has a number of schools in the country, explains, “Direct bookings do not benefit from any sales incentives but pay full price. Students who come to the LSC website are actively encouraged to register through agents.”

Wilkinson says they never offer discounts on their website but regularly offer discounts to their agents, and Langports English Language College in Australia operates a similar strategy. Marketing Manager, Kate Swanson, says, “We sometimes provide exclusive offers to our agents, which are not available to direct bookings, to provide them with a point of difference when promoting our college.”

Tourism trend parallels
To some extent, the language travel industry has mirrored trends in the mainstream tourism market. In recent years, the travel market has been dominated by the Internet and low-cost flights, which have driven the trend towards independent travel. But although online bookings for simple flights or accommodation are popular, if the bookings involve lots of different components, or more complicated elements, people tended to book through an agency. This is borne out by the results of a survey conducted by responsibletravel.com, which revealed that 98 per cent of those who took part in the survey could make a flight booking online, but only a third could book an international rail ticket online.

A clear trend in language travel is the move to more sophisticated products – Biccelli mentions the trend towards study abroad for academic and further education purposes or work experience, which are appealing to an ever increasing range of countries. The role of the study abroad agency looks assured as these types of products require expertise and market evaluation.

Swanson says that her school welcomes short-term direct bookings from places like Germany or Japan as they are often “very straightforward and the students have researched what they want thoroughly on the Internet before making a booking”. However, student bookings from Brazil, for example, are often more complicated and likely to be for long-term study. “The students are always looking for assistance with visas or a guaranteed work placement and often think they will get a better deal by coming to the college directly,” she recounts. “Many long-term students have complicated requirements and, if they have not travelled before, often need an agent to help them with a range of issues from visas to selecting the correct course for their needs,” she relates.

“I think many students also feel more secure using an agency in their country.”

Future of agencies
It is clear that agency bookings remain important to language schools the world over, although there is an acknowledgement that short-term “easy” bookings are increasingly likely to come in directly, and no school will turn away a direct booking, even if they suggest the agency route.

But the majority of clients will still look to agents for face-to-face advice, says John Barnett, Principal of Cambridge Academy of English in Cambridge, UK. “I expect the level [of direct bookings] to increase slightly as the Internet becomes an even more powerful and trusted tool. However, we seem to be living in a world with lots of anxieties and concerns and I do feel that agents do a great job allaying the fears of parents and students around the world, thereby enabling people to make that important step and book a course at our school,” he says.

Biccelli agrees, adding, “Educational travel is not to be compared with travel in general or tourism, there are more complex aspects to education and thus the client will always need professional advice on it.”

Agencies need to build brand loyalty among customers, which should usually be easier than for an overseas school – and they have to offer added value at comparable prices to remain essential. This, of course, is what they already offer – accurate and efficient counselling in a native language, a range of products and orientation for clients and parents. As Jackie Verrall at English Language Homestays in the UK puts it, “Reputable agents will always hold sway.”

Internet opportunities

When it comes to the Internet and its role in direct bookings, it is something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the Internet has enabled agents to widen their marketing net, while on the other, it has facilitated direct student-to-school bookings.

As John Barnett, Principal of Cambridge Academy of English in Cambridge, UK, observes, “People are feeling more confident about making purchases via the Internet.” This has, according to Barnett, fuelled their direct bookings, although they still only make up 10 per cent of their total enrolment.

Tanya de Frias, Head Administrator at Four Corners Language Institute in Victoria, BC, Canada, says that if they receive a student enquiry via their website they deal with it themselves. Even so, she believes the Internet has had little impact on agency bookings. “I believe students are still more inclined to go with an agent as they are more comfortable dealing with someone face-to-face whom they can trust. The Internet does not allow for that personal experience,” she says.

Gayle Forler of Language Studies Canada (LSC) agrees. “Many agents feared at the outset of the Internet that their business would be diminished. In our experience, this has proved a false fear. We find that students continue to rely on agents to recommend reliable schools. There is too much information on the Internet. It is sensory overload for the students.”

What students do use the Internet for, according to Russell Welch at John Paul International College in Daisy Hill, QLD, Australia, is information. “I think the Internet has allowed students to become more informed in making their decision on country/institution/course, etc. but they still go to agents to handle the paperwork – even if its electronic,” he asserts. Kate Swanson at Langports in Australia believes that most students use the Internet as “a way of confirming what agencies are telling them”.

So rather than a threat to agency bookings, the Internet has in most cases been an opportunity for business expansion. “Through their websites, using IT tools and web-based advertising, [agents] can get in touch with a wider clientele than they could before,” comments Giorgia Bicelli of Linguadue in Italy. “We do not think that the Internet has been detrimental in this industry. It has raised the awareness of the students. In some countries for some programmes there might have been a shift to more direct bookings, but generally speaking we do not see an enormous change”

Shane Wilkinson at BBSI in the UK agrees: “In many cases agents are more adept at targeting students through the net than schools are,” he says. “Most schools tend not to have their sites optimised for each country, so students will then find agents sooner than schools.”

And a spate of agencies have sprung up that only offer an online booking service. Paula Bailey of Frances King in London, UK, believes that although the ratio of direct bookings versus agencies bookings will remain the same in the future, Internet agencies may flourish. “In some markets there has been a move away from the more traditional agency to Internet agents and I think this will continue,” she says.

Advantages of booking via an agent

“It seems easier for students to use agents in countries in which it is difficult for students to get a visa, such as Turkey, Colombia, Venezuela and China.”
Avril Taylor, English Language Centre, University of Victoria, Canada

“Assistance and expertise in visa applications; pre-departure briefings and feedback/liaison with the parents during the students’ time in Australia.”
Russell Welch, John Paul International College, Australia

“The advantage of using an agency is that they assist the student in successfully obtaining their visa and generally assist the student with any issues that may arise in the students’ native language.”
Tanya de Frias, Four Corners Language Institute, Canada

“Agencies are able, if they choose, to offer impartial advice, and to counsel, so the breadth of information students have received before they get to us is better. In visa countries, agents bear the strain of helping students through the maze of applying for their visa.”
Shane Wilkinson, Bournemouth Business School International, UK

“You have a much better chance of getting the right student, with the right expectations, on the right course at the right time.”
John Barnett, Cambridge Academy of English, UK

“Repeat business after building a relationship with agent.”
Olivia McBride, The English Language Centre, NUI, Ireland

“For students there are many advantages – help with visas, flights, and the benefit of someone who speaks their own language and has a good knowledge of many different schools and different countries and is thus able to guide students to the school which meets their needs and budget.”
Paula Bailey, Frances King School of English, UK

“There are two distinct advantages for LSC to receive agent bookings: the first is that the student is able to obtain detailed information in their own language. This greatly reduces false expectations or miscommunication. A well-counselled student arrives realistically knowing what LSC can deliver. The second reason is that an agency is a source of ongoing business.”  
Gayle Forler, Language Studies Canada (LSC), Canada

Advantages of direct bookings for schools

“The advantage of direct bookings is that there is no commission fee to an outside agent.”
Tanya de Frias, Four Corners Language Institute, Canada

“We get to represent our own programmes so there are no surprises when the student arrives.”
Chelsea Curtis, Austin English Academy, Texas, USA
“The immediate advantage for a school dealing with direct bookings is the saving of the commission, compensated by more counselling work you have to give your client.”
Giorgia Biccelli, Linguadue, Italy

“We can be sure that accurate information is getting to the student in a timely manner. While most good agents pass on information, there are cases where information is filtered before the student gets it.”
Avril Taylor, English Language Centre and Division of Continuing Studies, University of Victoria, Canada

“[The school’s] online booking system works well – immediate payment is received upon registration and direct contact with prospective students allows communication before they arrive at our language school.”
Olivia McBride, The English Language Centre, NUI, Ireland

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