As demand for study abroad continues to grow so too does the student accommodation sector, and with many countries worldwide pursuing growth targets for international students there is significant potential for expansion, with agents a key part of the process.
In Japan, for example, Sakura House is a specialist international accommodation provider working with Japanese language schools and universities and is now moving into agency relations, says Clothilde Harrison. The company has 1,700 rooms across Tokyo and recently opened a new residence in the Yoyogi Koen area as well as a specialist residence for Muslims with separate floors for men and women, a prayer room and Tokyo’s largest mosque nearby. Such developments reflect changing client profiles, with more visitors from Eastern Europe, Africa and South East Asia in particular and longer study stays, she notes.
Reflecting recent upturns in Australia, Studyhouse has opened Studyhouse 617, a newly renovated, fully equipped 35-bed residence for language students near the CBD, says John Garrett, Business Analyst. He explains the recent softening of the Australian dollar has made life more comfortable for students, and observes growth in Asian and European clients and a marked increase in average age.
Meanwhile, the UK accommodation market is particularly buoyant, with several new residences opening. Britannia Student Services, which works with agents worldwide, has just opened two high-spec residences, says Michele da Silva, Sales and Marketing Director: the 134-bed Britannia Study Hotel, Brighton, and the 22-bed Britannia South Bank in London. Bookings from Italy, Bric and Asean countries are rising, and she says halls of residence have gained popularity, “with many students choosing the more independent lifestyle and sense of student community offered by a residence”.
Similarly, Urbanest has opened a new development Urbanest Kings Cross, ideally located for major London universities, says Mark Morgan, Senior Vice President. There are a further 2,500 beds in the pipeline, he explains, including properties in Camden and Westminster. Urbanest invests significantly in research and works closely with institution partners, he says. “These factors coupled with our extensive experience in the HE sector put us in an unrivalled position in the London student accommodation market to meet the changing needs of the student population.” Keen to expand the agent network for its residences in Australia and the UK, Urbanest has also started working with language schools and foundation colleges, Morgan says.
The boom is not just focussed on London. Vita Student www.vitastudent.com has emerged as a new provider in the student cities of Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol, citing a “staggering undersupply of student beds” in the latter. In Liverpool, the first Vita residence of bespoke studio apartments has just opened, with four more to follow and Gavin Duncan, Managing Director, says over 60 per cent of the current intake is international, with students from China, Malaysia and Cyprus the most prominent. Features include free Wi-Fi, 100mb broadband, flat-screen smart TVs and leisure facilities.
Campus Living Villages (CLV) is another global player, with accommodation in Australia, New Zealand, USA and the UK, and Robert Moyle, Chief Operating Officer at CLV UK, says a partnership with the University of Salford is blossoming; students from China, India, Nigeria, Bulgaria and Iraq have boosted the international ratio to 50 per cent. “CLV believes that the international students are attracted to its accommodation because of its close partnership with the university, the convenience of having all bills included within the price and the additional support it provides.” While domestic students typically only stay for the first year, he notes international students are more likely to be loyal and stay for longer periods.
The homestay accommodation sector is similarly upbeat. “In our experience, the demand for affordable student housing has never been higher,” says Kasper Daniel Balslev of Casaswap, a company that allows its current 50,000 members to offer rooms for rent or swap housing worldwide. Homestay is key to keeping up with expected overseas student growth in Europe. “For instance, here in Denmark colleges and universities enrol more and more students, but housing remains in limited supply thus creating higher prices and less attractive market conditions for students.”
Sara’s Homestay is a worldwide homestay provider and has seen positive trends over the last year, says Aiden O’Leary, Homestay Manager, with the summer vacation and private high school programmes in the US growing, and new destinations opening, including Chicago. Junior group homestay and senior citizens are growth areas, but economic factors are changing the landscape of international student housing, says O’Leary, with students from less affluent nations declining and children of wealthier parents unaffected by downturns on the rise.
Accommodation costs in Australia are expensive and au pair options are an increasingly attractive alternative, says Andrea Pelikan at Priceless Exchange which works with schools and agents to offer free lodging for language and university students in exchange for 20 hours per week of childcare and housework. “I think the programme definitely has become a trend. It gives the students a feeling of security, knowing they are looked after in a family environment,” she says.
Will Davis, Business Development Manager of HFS London, which provides homestays and lettings to students in the UK capital, says the homestay industry has modernised. Negative perceptions formed in the 1980s and 90s have been countered with increased choice, control and transparency of service, especially in relation to juniors. HFS London is inspected and registered by the British Council and works with Childsafe International to ensure good practice and “provide a coherent, effective and safe service to schools and agents wishing to place juniors in our homestays”. With summer trade blossoming, HFS is looking for agent partners that deal with off-season homestay bookings.
The need for transparency of standards is something also highlighted by Claire Sweeney, Online Manager at Homestay.com. “Never before has the demand for booking host families online been so high, as this accommodation sector moves into mainstream travel,” she says, explaining that the company is working in partnership with the education travel industry and has developed a transparent booking system that builds on existing industry relationships and standards, with 10,000 host families already participating. “Developed for the langauage and education travel sector, Homestay.com connects all the key learning industry players including partners, host families, local organisers, agents and guests. It facilitates bookings in real time from partners and agents into fully inspected and approved host families.”
Agents provide a level of security for students when booking homestay accommodation, says O’Leary. “While students can increasingly find whatever they are looking for on the internet without the aid of agencies, it is still a daunting task for many to find a nice place to stay in a foreign city when you don’t speak the language very well. Students find comfort in knowing these agencies and schools are reputable, and that when they send us their students’ information, there is a certain level of safety and professionalism that comes with working with a company such as Sara’s Homestay.” firstname.lastname@example.org
In terms of UK trends, Steve Lowy at umi Hotels, says demand has remained high across its properties but he notes that booking windows are much shorter and closer to the time of arrival. “There is definitely demand for short-term groups from the USA, which may be at the expense of longer-term groups.” He adds umi Hotels takes direct bookings through its website and online travel agents, but works closely with educational tour companies. Palmers Lodges has residences in London and works with schools including ELC Experience English, says Titus Wilson. He notes the average client age has risen, with the 25-to-35-year age group now representing 46 per cent of fully independent traveller bookings. South East Asia, China and Korea are growing sources of students, he adds.
Increased student scrutiny and direct bookings were noted by many contributors to this article. “We see evidence of discerning students questioning agents about accommodation options, independently checking, verifying and securing their own accommodation through the power of social networks,” says John Garrett from Studyhouse. Its real-time bed booking programme facilitates this, he adds. That is not to say the agent role is sidelined: “One important point that we believe is still essential is for accommodation providers, agents and colleges to maintain a genuine ‘human connection’ with students and their parents, and to jointly invest in fostering new initiatives in the future,” he says.