September 2010 issue

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Direct bookings

Direct student-to-school bookings are a viable part of the language travel industry. However, given that the Internet has spawned a generation that relies heavily on touch-of-a-button convenience, can online bookings replace the hands-on approach education agents employ? Gillian Evans reports.

The word is that direct bookings are on the rise. “They are clearly increasing,” declares Chloe Pacheco at Mexican language school, Centro de Idiomas del Sureste. “We recruit and register students directly and through agencies,” she comments. “Up until a few years ago, the proportion was about 50:50. In the past two or three years, however, our direct registrations have increased sharply, and we now register directly about 80 per cent of our students, while the other 20 per cent come through agencies.”

While admitting that bookings have decreased overall, as a result of the economic crisis, Ramiro Segovia of Bipo & Toni’s Academia in Ecuador agrees that direct bookings have increased their share of the total, and now account for 40 per cent of overall bookings at his school. Others have also seen direct bookings rise to account for a significant proportion of the total. Forty per cent is the figure quoted by Lorena Belcastro of Argentinian language school, Buenos Aires Spanish School (BASP), while English Language Academy (ELA) in Malta received 30 per cent of bookings directly in 2009, according to Louiseanne Mercieca.

The reason for this growth in direct bookings does not appear to be financially based, since language schools are at pains to explain that their prices are the same for the student, by whichever route they choose to book. “We take great care to make sure they are the same, to avoid any misunderstandings,” comments Pacheco. Similarly, Mercieca observes, “We feel it is not fair on our agents if we have cheaper prices for direct bookings.”

Although language schools find that they receive a higher proportion of direct bookings from some nationalities than others, their conflicting experiences suggest that there is, in fact, no obvious common pattern. While Segovia notes that most of his school’s direct bookings come from the USA, Belcastro’s experience is that US students “always need an agency”. However, Pete Shemilt from UK-based academic pathways provider, Cambridge Education Group (CEG), notes that some markets, such as China, are exclusively agent-driven, which ties in with Mercieca’s observation that ELA receives very few direct bookings from Asia, when compared to European countries. Meanwhile, given the school’s high level of direct bookings, it is unsurprising to learn that, at the Centro de Idiomas del Sureste, “all nationalities tend to book directly,” according to Pacheco. “This,” she notes, “is a particular change for Europeans, who previously rarely registered directly,” and, she believes, is a reflection of the disappearance of many European agencies as a result of the financial crisis.

While this may partially explain the rise, the growth in consumer confidence in use of the Internet is probably a more powerful factor. It is unusual today to find a language school, or any other business for that matter, without its own website. However, the way this vital tool is used does vary significantly, thereby influencing the likelihood of attracting direct bookings.

To begin with, many school websites, such as those of ELA Malta, may be viewed in a range of different languages, and an increasing number offer online student registration. Others also include facilities for agents on their websites. “We facilitate both agency and direct bookings via our website,” comments Shemilt at CEG, which has recently launched a new site that not only offers online booking for students, but also includes resources – including online booking – for agents. Similarly, fellow UK language school, Anglo-Continental in Bournemouth, has a dedicated agent section on its website, where representatives can register and log in to make secure referrals, in addition to providing facilities for students to make direct enrolments, reports the school’s Emily Shaw.

The Internet notwithstanding, Belcastro believes that the upward trend of direct bookings is a natural one. For she sees a straightforward relationship between the number of direct bookings and the length of time a school has been present in the market. Her school having been in operation for more than 12 years, now receives around 40 per cent of bookings directly, with many students coming as a result of recommendation, she explains. However, these direct bookings are also facilitated by the school’s website, which includes booking facilities as well as course and location information.

On the other hand, at Anglo-Continental, direct bookings have actually decreased as a proportion of the total, according to Shaw, and now stand at only around 10 per cent, as a result of the efforts of the school’s marketing department to support and build relationships with its representatives.

Anglo-Continental prefers bookings that come via its representatives, notes Shaw, and it puts considerable effort into building and maintaining relationships with them. She explains, “...the use of representatives instigates a degree of quality control, as representatives will only send students to a school if the feedback from those students is good. The use of representatives facilitates repeat business, and allows a school to build and maintain relationships with agents in different nations through a system of checks and balances and mutual visits.”

CEG, where the percentage of agent to direct bookings has remained steady, at 85 per cent against 15 per cent, is another provider that prefers the agency route. Nevertheless, “It’s the student’s choice,” underlines Shemilt, adding, “We’re keen to promote both directly and through agents, because that’s the best way to improve total student numbers.”

He comments that the way the group’s agent bookings have held up reflects “the rapid growth in our overall business, and the fact that agents are seen in many markets to add significant value in helping students study in the UK”. In particular, agents can provide localised pre-departure support services, and can also help to communicate the advantages of studying at one of the group’s academic centres, he expands. Even when a student approaches the group directly, “they will often still need the support of an agent to help them through the application and departure process”. Hence, “We are happy to recommend a choice of agents from our extensive network.”

According to Shemilt, “CEG is investing heavily in direct marketing activity in a greater number of countries than ever before, and, as the recent launch of our brand new website shows, we feel we need to make it easy for students and parents to engage with us directly.” However, he adds, “We believe that this direct activity and our local presence in market will, in fact, drive more business to agents. Some students will choose to book directly, but most will continue to use agents for the localised services they are able to provide.”

Among schools interviewed for this article, there was a fifty-fifty split between those who expressed a preference for agency bookings and those who held no strong opinion either way. However, it is widely acknowledged that direct bookings do mean extra work for schools.

“Although we make a profit from direct bookings, we find that working with an efficient and reliable agent definitely makes things so much easier,” underlines Mercieca. “With individual bookings, we sometimes have clients who keep getting back to us with different requests/questions,” she adds.

As Pacheco highlights, “As direct registrations increase, we have had to be increasingly careful…to have a person online who can answer questions, confirm registrations [and] convey information about homestays in a timely fashion. You cannot let potential students wait for days for the answer to their questions. The flow of communication must be seamless,” she points out.

“In general, we try to give each student whatever support he/she requires to have a successful study experience,” adds Pacheco. “That may include a letter of acceptance for the visa procedure, information about local health services or concerns, suggestions for ancillary travel in our region, specific information about air and/or bus travel [and] dialogue regarding specific dietary needs.”

On the other hand, a good agent takes care of most of the time-consuming issues that are likely to concern students prior to arriving for their course, through provision of a range of ancillary services, such as help with visa applications and insurance. With its strong bias towards agency bookings, Anglo-Continental does not itself offer these services to students. Likewise, CEG is happy to refer such matters back to the agent. “We give advice and support as part of our overall service, and the fact that we have a strong network of overseas representatives and offices obviously helps make our advice timely and relevant,” says Shemilt. “However, where a student is in need of specific ancillary services, we see that as the domain of the agents, who are usually best placed in the student’s location to provide hands-on support; that’s the role good agents play in the process.”

Hence, while direct bookings are commanding an ever-growing share of the market, there is no suggestion that they should ever threaten the role of the agent. “We are very aware and appreciative of the great amount of time, energy and expertise the agencies who represent us invest in recruitment, keeping the student fully informed and carrying out the logistics of registration and follow-up,” records Pacheco. Long may the two live side by side.

Direct bookings analysed

It comes as no surprise to learn that the Internet is the primary source of direct bookings for most of those surveyed for this article. However, it has not entirely eclipsed the more traditional booking routes.

According to Emily Shaw of Anglo-Continental in Bournemouth, UK, many of the school’s bookings are received through the Internet, “but we are still sent some enrolment forms through the post and fax,” she comments.

Meanwhile, at Cambridge Education Group in the UK, “The Internet has, of course, become a more important source of direct bookings in the last few years,” reports Group Sales & Marketing Director, Pete Shemilt. “But often students or their parents will also telephone our admissions team or visit their chosen centre to see the learning and living environment for themselves and to attend interviews.” Due to the nature of the group’s academic programmes, there are usually multiple contacts with a prospective student or their agent prior to booking, he notes, adding that direct bookings are, of course, much more common in respect of its weekly English language programmes.

Walk-in students also make up a significant proportion of direct bookings for some language schools. At English Language Academy in Malta, Sales & Marketing Manager, Louiseanne Mercieca, believes that her own school’s increased proportion of direct bookings is the result not only of how easy this has been made by the Internet, but also of its site “in one of the best locations in Malta, in the heart of Sliema”, together with the fact that the school has now capitalised on this advantage by creating “a new entrance/reception area leading onto one of the town’s most prominent streets”.

Chloe Pacheco reports a similar experience at Mexican language school, Centro de Idiomas del Sureste. “Our city has become…a magnet for people from many nations wishing to relocate permanently or temporarily for a variety of reasons, and that has translated into an important flow of walk-in students who wish to learn Spanish for immediate practical reasons,” she observes.

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