||I remember the days when we, as agents, were very worried about the Internet ‘monster’,” says Pascal Carré, Manager of the European language travel agency, Languages & Travel. At that time, a number of years ago now, schools began admitting to gaining a small proportion of their enrolments via the Internet, and agents were concerned about the impact on their business. While direct bookings remain a topic for debate, the environment has since been transformed, with educators and agents alike embracing the advantages of Internet marketing and communication. “The web is [now] simply our main source of recruitment,” affirms Carré. “It is also the main way we... maintain contact with our prospects and clients.”
At Greek agency, Paneducational/Plano Travel and Tourism, “the web has changed our business dramatically,” agrees Panos Nikoloutsopoulos. Not only has it made communication both easier and faster, but it has also allowed the agency to increase its level of client contact. “There is a golden rule in marketing that the more you are in contact with a client, the better [for selling] a product,” he notes. The low cost of emailing allows Paneducational to send frequent newsletters by email to prospective clients on its database, often prompted by articles featuring a city or country in which it has partner schools.
Although not all were immediate Internet converts, there cannot be many language travel agencies today that do not use the Internet for client communication or which do not now have their own website. Nevertheless, for many, traditional marketing and recruitment methods remain important, alongside a range of Internet-based activities. As Carré notes, “I do not think our web recruitment methods have replaced any other method. It is just more accountable, more affordable [and] much more cost-effective.”
Patricia Cabral of Together agency in Argentina explains that the Internet offers a first point of contact for her clients but rarely converts queries into actual bookings by default. “We find the new ways of communication very useful, but web recruitment just doesn’t happen,” she says. “Our web page is mainly informative and there has been an increase of 40 per cent [in] enquiries though the web over the last two years… The web is useful to make contact with more people, who later on prefer personal contact to make a final decision.”
Browsing or purchasing?
Many agents draw a distinct line between online marketing, on the one hand, and online counselling, on the other. While some businesses have moved happily and successfully into a fully web-based business model, others maintain serious reservations about abandoning personal client contact, and their recruitment techniques reflect this attitude. Belarus-based agent, Pavel Joukovski of Delius-Terra in Minsk, differentiates between online sources of information, which his agency provides, and online shopping which it does not. “I used to compare the educational consultancy service with the health service provided by doctors,” he explains. “Education abroad is ‘to be prescribed’, needs analysis, [a] personal approach and so on.” For this reason, his online service does not lead to bookings, and likewise, the web “will never replace face-to-face counselling” at Languages & Travel, according to Carré. This view is also endorsed by Pawel Rychter of Communicate agency in Poland.
For Nikoloutsopoulos, while the web is important for keeping in contact, the brochure remains the primary marketing tool. “We send it to educators, students, parents, associations, businesses and tourist executives, [and] we often phone them to make sure they got it and keep in contact.” He adds that the brochure mailing is supplemented by distribution of leaflets outside underground railway stations, giving descriptions of the courses offered and company contact details. This kind of marketing he describes as a “good and relatively cheap way of marketing”, which helps increase the company’s client database.
At the newly launched French agency, Communiqa, Owner, Pascale Corner, comments that her website is currently primarily a source of information to back up the personal approaches her agency makes. However, she makes use of the Internet to send out email reminders of current offers, and to encourage potential clients to make direct contact with the agency. As to the future, she would like her website to play a more active role in recruitment, and, to this end, “I would like to be found easily through search tools,” she says.
For many agents, including Rychter, e-newsletters and blogs are now a popular way of maintaining contact and profile-raising with clients. Indeed, according to Kyaw Thu of PMC Company in Myanmar, this is the only web-based tool that has proved useful.
At Languages & Travel, the web has also been used mainly for distributing e-news. More recently, it has used Facebook to communicate events and “to create a community of interest for what we do,” and also runs campaigns on search engines. “Thanks to the Internet,” says Carré, “we are able to reduce our costs for other marketing channels that do not prove to be so efficient such as ads in magazines and student fairs.”
While traditional businesses continue to adapt to the new environment, creating online “communities” that inspire loyalty, a new breed of agencies has, meanwhile, arisen. Spawned as a direct result of the birth of the Internet, these new contenders are fully adapted to its use in all aspects of their marketing and recruitment process, and are at the forefront of new web-based technologies.
One such is Cactus Worldwide. Originally based in Brighton, UK, and now also with a second office in New York, USA, Cactus has operated as an Internet agency from its launch in 1998. Managing Director, Richard Bradford, recalls, “We started in the rickety early days of Internet, where people saw it as a way of gathering information, but not necessarily as a means of booking. Things have changed considerably over the last 10 years,” he continues, “and, with high levels of trust in online booking, more students seem happy to be using the web for every stage of finding their ideal language course from research to booking.”
Bradford believes that a number of factors have combined to help Cactus to recruit over the Internet. “Visibility has to be the biggest factor. If you’re not in the top 10 results for the search your potential clients enter into the browser, then you’re unlikely to recruit many students,” he underlines. A very close second comes the integrity of the site the client arrives at. “It has to be appealing and interesting, but [equally] important, it needs to have good information. Here, a site of a certain age can do well by having lots of content, good breadth and depth. “At Cactus,” he continues, “we find that our clients are reassured that they can always find a course option for their language and location combination.”
A third factor is brand awareness. “Increasingly we are finding that our brand awareness is coming into play, and clients type in ‘Cactus’ as part of their keyword search. Our integrity, and our ability to meet and exceed expectations, [are] what make people come back for more,” he reflects.
Once potential clients have made initial contact with the company, they are then sent regular email updates, with details of competitions and special offers. The company also has an extended blog, which looks at all angles and approaches to language and culture, and makes use of Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. “We try to show the real side of ourselves,” comments Bradford. “There is no real editorial control. The epoch when big corporates dictate the content that appears on their brochures and websites is over. We want more and more user feedback and client comments as these are the only believable sources of information,” he asserts.
Real-time contact online
Another agency that recruits exclusively through the web is Think Abroad, an agency that is based in Chicago, USA, but with a client base that is international, thanks to its web presence. “Without the web, we would have a completely different business model,” comments President, Peter Sims. “Since our start in 2004, we have done 100 per cent of our recruitment on the web. The brilliance of the web is that there are no borders and we can reach any and all people online.”
Sims explains that they use the web for all client and partner communications. “This includes our monthly newsletter, our follow-up with clients and potential clients who find us on the web, and our communication with partner schools about clients and to create new partnerships,” he elaborates. Skype and other video-based web-chat services have proved a major benefit to Think Abroad, in terms of communication, not only with partner schools, but also with potential and existing clients, allowing it to retain a high level of personal contact from a distance.
“Last month, we had a client who had a million-and-one questions, so we decided to have a group discussion via Skype between ourselves, the client and the school,” he says. “The discussion was a success, the client was impressed and happy and, in the end, we were able to enrol the student. Without the web,” he ventures, “we [might] not have been able to give the client what she wanted: reliable information and personal attention. Now we encourage this new form of web-based communication, to offer a more personal approach to doing business, which we believe increases trust and loyalty among our clients.”
Maintaining communication with current clients is also a priority at Think Abroad, where each client is called on the day of arrival as well as midway through their language programme. The constant communication facilitated by web-based tools, such as email, Skype, Twitter and Facebook, enables the company to build trust and loyalty, says Sims.
Benefits of personal contact
Even Internet agencies seek out face-to-face contact in certain situations, nevertheless. Cactus does receive clients in its offices in Brighton and New York, and it also meets potential clients at social events, which it arranges. “We’ve always seized upon opportunities to have a good night out with our clients. [Recently] we had a launch party for the DVD release of Vicky Cristina Barcelona in London,” reports Bradford, which was attended by around 150 guests. “It does create a buzz about our brand, but it is more about linking language back into culture… The brand building is more of a positive side-effect,” he says.
Think Abroad, meanwhile, has begun to experiment with incorporating some face-to-face recruitment into its strategy this year, having made presentations at a local foreign language school, in which it described the company’s programmes and services and the benefits of studying a foreign language through international education. “So far, we have performed three, and all have been successful,” comments Sims. “We are now preparing to give this presentation to other, local private foreign language schools.” He adds, “This new and dynamic recruiting method has already increased our monthly enrolments by 15 per cent. It has also allowed us to establish meaningful community partnerships and start cross-marketing initiatives, which are mutually beneficial.”
Such moves confirm the faith expressed by traditional agencies in the value of personal contact. For Nikoloutsopoulos, this is paramount not only for attracting clients initially, but also for maintaining relationships and one way in which his company achieves this is by keeping a diary with clients’ names and birthdays. All receive a card for their name day/birthday and Christmas. “We are surprised how pleasantly surprised people are [to receive] a Christmas card, and how they respond,” he says.
By making it cheaper to establish contact with potential clients, the arrival of the Internet has allowed agents to spend more of their budget on face-to-face marketing, while other methods, such as direct mail, are declining in popularity. Like many agents, Ingrid Zeller of Zellersprachen in Austria, believes that the most successful way to recruit students continues to be word-of-mouth. For her, presentations in schools come a close second. “[These methods] form the backbone of my business,” she says, adding, “Once you have a good reputation, institutions are more willing to give you a chance to present your programme.”
Presentations also appear to be becoming increasingly important for other agencies too. Rychter notes that his agency has increased the number of presentations it makes. And student recruitment “open days” remain popular, as Carré confirms. “It is effective because the commercial barrier falls down during these events,” he says. “Your prospects come to get advice; you tame them without giving the impression that, ultimately, you are there to sell them something. It works. It’s all about going out of the agency to go and recruit your clients where they are, meet [and] socialise.”
Martin Volek of Jazykove Pobyty in Slovakia, an exclusive partner of EF in that country, details that making information available locally via a double-decker bus (see left) was “very successful”.
When it comes to the crunch, all good agencies share one view in common: that personal contact is of the utmost value. What is interesting is that the means of maintaining and developing personal contact have begun to change and the coming years are likely to see a further transformation of the way in which we all market our businesses.
Marketing an agency’s advantage over a school
There was a time, not so long ago, when agents were up in arms about the threat of direct bookings. Now, it seems, the panic has abated, and many are developing their own techniques for coping with what has become a reality of modern business.
“Of course, schools get more and more direct bookings, thanks to the web,” says Pascal Carré of Languages & Travel. “One third, maximum, is probably what is going to be left to agents.” He is, however, sanguine about the situation. “Adding extra services is one clue to the issue,” he suggests. “Be cheaper than the schools themselves…or be at the source of the service.”
As he points out, in general tourism agencies now commonly bypass tour operators, and this has also started to happen in language travel. Already, a number of companies, such as EF and ELS, own both language schools and agencies, and potentially their number may increase. “We ourselves are working on new products and services, which is one way to resist,” says Carré.
At the same time, there remains many compelling reasons for clients to use the services of an agent. As Carré highlights, there is their capacity to handle all components of a language programme quickly and efficiently; use of native language; there is their experience in many different situations; and there is their bargaining power with schools all in addition to the range of additional services they are able to offer, such as the booking of transport and insurance advice. One important aspect of marketing is to ensure that this message is clearly received.
For Pawel Rychter of Communicate agency in Poland, this strategy often works. Meanwhile, such is the confidence of Paneducational/Plano Travel and Tourism in Greece that it even publicises the telephone number and website details of its partner schools in its brochure, “because we are sure that, comparing the whole package, we are more competitive,” says the company’s spokesperson, Panos Nikoloutsopoulos.
At the web-based agency, Cactus Worldwide, Richard Bradford is also relaxed about the situation. “I don’t think it’s really that bipolar.” he explains. “I think that the mixture of agencies and schools on a Google results page is by no means the whole picture. Behind the scenes, we work in tight collaboration with our partner schools, and we’re working towards the same goals. We are an extension of the school’s own marketing channels, so, in that sense, we don’t see our partner schools as a threat.”
On the contrary, he sees the situation as “just friendly competition”, where the client is the winner. “It’s clear too that a school [site] and [an] agency site offer a different service, range and product offering, and clients will choose which type of site they need accordingly,” he believes.