Students visiting the UK like to get a true experience of the British lifestyle and learn as much as they can about the city they are visiting,” says Erin Callaghan at Host International, based in London. “What better way to learn than to hear it directly from locals?” This view that host families offer a truly authentic British cultural experience is shared by many students coming to the UK to study, both on long- or short-term study trips.
And the opportunity to continue practising language skills outside the classroom is also an important benefit of this accommodation option, as Erin adds. “Students see homestay as a perfect opportunity to practice their language skills. Our hosts socialise and interact with their students giving them a chance to study the language on a conversational level.”
Many language schools in the UK recruit and manage their own homestay families but increasingly this service is being outsourced to private companies who specialise in this sector and offer homestay with families throughout the country. Of course, quality control and reputation is all important and many companies that offer homestays to overseas students in the UK are accredited with the British Council. Will Davies from HFS London, reports that the British Council registration means that they are required to re-inspect each host every two years. He adds, “We will do this more frequently or on a spot-check basis if clients or students have made us aware of any problems.”
Finding quality homestays to offer students is a key part of the business and one which is taken very seriously by providers. Most have their own policy of screening potential families. “Our homestay recruitment officer will speak for at least 20 minutes on the phone with someone enquiring about hosting to assess their motivations and the type of accommodation they have on offer,” says Will. “If she decides that this potential host conforms to British Council guidelines, she will ask her inspection team to get in touch to arrange an inspection. Typically two inspectors will visit the host, one spending at least an hour going through a visit report whilst the other takes up to 60 pictures of the property. It is interesting to note that we reject 30 per cent of potential hosts at inspection.”
James McCall from London Homestays, says that between 70 and 80 per cent of their bookings from international students are for homestays. He adds, “The homestays market in the UK has been growing for the last 10 years, with around 20 per cent growth year-on-year. However, in the last 12 months [numbers] have dramatically declined. The large number of student residences that have opened resulted in a number of schools taking large allocations at reasonable prices. The strength of the pound, financial uncertainty in the Eurozone and well-documented problems with Russia has meant a reduced number of language school students in general. This has resulted in schools desperately trying to cut their losses with their allocations. A lot of students who may previously have stayed in homestays have been placed in residences to fill the rooms. We hope this will even out as the market stabilises and schools reduce their residence allocation for the next academic student year.”
Despite a recent documented decline in language student numbers in the UK (see STM, July 2015, page 8), Michele da Silva from Britannia Student Services, says that their business has increased since becoming registered with the British Council in 2009. “We were one of the first of two accommodation suppliers to attain this recognition and, as a result, we have gained many more language school and agent clients who know they can trust us for our high standards. We have also expanded the number of families on our database and have become very specialised in matching students to the ideal homestay.”
Claire Sweeney from Homestay.com an online booking platform for leisure travellers over the age of 18 also agrees that the homestay sector in the UK is a growth market for students. The company, which was launched in 2013, offers homestay families in a range of countries but records that 37 per cent of student bookings are for the UK, followed by Ireland (20 per cent) and Canada (11 per cent). London accounts for the majority share of UK bookings (32 per cent) followed by Bristol (six per cent), Manchester (five per cent) and Brighton (five per cent).
Claire adds, “We’ve also added Video Call to our booking process which allows hosts and guests to see and speak with each other via video or audio call both before and after a booking is made. Our introduction of this video call tool in the booking process highlights the importance we place on the relationship between guests and hosts and finding not only the right home but also the right person.”
Language schools in the UK have to cope with high seasonal demand for programmes in the summer and homestay providers report that dealing with peaks in demand can be a challenge. “We tackle this with preparation and constant recruitment,” says Erin. “We base each year on the year before and prepare our families to be sure we will have enough to meet the demand. We also put more focus on recruitment at these times to meet the requirements.”
A selection of homestay providers in the UK
(Due to the complexity of the data, this article is only displayed in the digital issue of StudyTravel Magazine)