Technology is fundamental in the 21st century," says Carlos Robles of IEP in Brazil, summing up, in a nutshell, the fact that successful modern businesses have had to embrace the Internet and online technology to retain market share. Ten years on from the early rumblings of a worldwide web revolution, the Internet has indeed changed the language travel landscape. Online agencies and language schools now form part of the industry, while traditional agencies and schools have all had to include the web in their businesses to ensure they are not left behind.
Amerispan agency in the USA was an early convert to the benefits of the Internet; the agency set up a website in 1995, when it was just two years old. Amerispan's Dorioara Pinku says that despite having an office, most of their business and counselling has always been done without face-to-face consultation. This is possibly because of the size of the US market and a national tendency towards telephone/online bookings. Students who live in the same city often miss that we're based here, even though our address is posted everywhere, she says. I assume this demonstrates how 'borderless' things are becoming.
Now, Amerispan has a strong online presence. Pinku explains, We market online, we stay on top of what is happening in e-commerce and are gradually implementing new features that we feel are conducive to the language travel industry.
In Sweden, Viktor Sundberg of Nomad Language Travel Agency is another agent who is keen to embrace the web. According to Sundberg, Sweden has the highest percentage of Internet connections per person in the world (see page 11). We are the first Swedish agency that can be contacted by chat services online and through Internet based IP-telephone systems, he relates. We like to think of ourselves as the most modern agency in Sweden and use the Internet in ways many agencies have not yet even thought of.
The extent to which agencies have incorporated the Internet into their work varies, but most industry sources believe that a continuing evolution towards Internet-friendly services is to be expected over time. Jim Pondolfino, Executive Director of French American Exchange in the USA, goes one step further when he says, Given the continued growth of Internet use, we expect our operations to become entirely Internet-based.
The face-to-face factor
But other agencies paint a slightly different picture of how important the Internet is to their company in terms of actual bookings, and this depends on their location. In Spain and Latin America, for example, agencies underline that their clients continue to expect face-to-face consultation. In fact, Graciela Moscato of Zenitur in Argentina says that they do not even have a website. The only way of selling courses of English abroad is having interviews with parents and the best way of selling them is by word-of-mouth [recommendations], she relates.
Cosmo Educacion in Mexico does have a website, which approximately 40 per cent of clients visit, according to Lucia Mellone at the company. She acknowledges that the Internet plays a role in branding an agency and providing information for clients, and says many partner schools will include links to the agency on their websites too. But she also adds, If you do not have an office in Latin America no one will believe in you. There are still many Latinos who look for a personal service.
In Spain, Tony Gamble at Eurobridge International estimates that a substantial 80 per cent of clients visit their website, which they keep at the top of the search ratings by using an outside company, while employing another two companies to design and maintain the site. I am sure that business will be carried out more and more on the web, as people become more computer-literate and technology develops, comments Gamble. But he adds, Personal contact is still important in Spain and it can save a lot of time having a face-to-face meeting initially with people.
While most agencies offer the option to have a one-to-one consultation about study abroad options, some businesses encourage online booking over other methods. This is the case at Cactus, an agency based in the UK but serving an international clientele. Although we encourage our clients to book online by offering an online discount, we are keen to express that there are helpful people on the other side of the website who are available [for consultation], says Jessica Hartridge at the agency.
The company encourages online bookings as this saves staff time and enables more people to book at any one time. But Hartridge underlines, The web is a good tool to add to an agency, but you should never underestimate the power of the individual. I don't like the idea of agencies becoming [entirely] web-only because I think sharing experiences, information and interacting is fundamental to human progression.
However, there are some agencies that do operate on an Internet-only basis and they argue that their business model is a logical next step in the distribution chain. Tomoya Okumura is Director of ApplyESL.com and he explains that their agency which enables students to apply directly to institutions online appeals to a distinct breed of student.
ApplyESL.com is not a traditional study abroad agent that provides personal assistance for the application [process] or counselling to students, he says. The website is specially designed for the online-minded student who usually seeks information using the Internet as their main information resource. Okumura says he does not expect to provide the same level of information as a 'traditional' agency. Students using the online service are more independent in general, he says. They are bypassing agents' services and educating themselves about English programmes overseas by reading magazines, attending fairs, speaking with friends and, most importantly, consulting schools' websites or online discussion groups.
He points out the advantages of operating a web-based business. We do not need to have any local offices and hire many salespeople or advisers, he notes. With our multilingual content on the [web]site, we are able to provide our service to international students around the world.
Some online agencies offer discounts that they can pass on to clients because of their reduced overheads through not running an office or employing many staff. Languagecourse.net is one such example of a website that advertises its discounts. By cutting prices, such agencies are aggressively competing against other traditional agencies that cannot offer such discounted prices online. In some cases, traditional agencies have decided that, if they cannot beat online agencies, they will join them. Pinku says she has observed traditional language travel companies already starting to set up online business versions, sometimes in different names to not potentially hurt their initial or core business. She believes the reason is clear cost savings. It's relatively easy to set up an online business of this type, she claims. The [industry] is not a high profit yield. Anything that helps increase profits matters.
But Pinku also underlines that if this trend continues, clients might eventually expect both the high level of service that comes with a traditional agency and the cost-savings that come with an online agency and she notes that some agencies act as a referral service only, not a counselling operation. More changes could be in the pipeline, she forecasts. It would make life difficult for agencies on both ends of the spectrum, but it could also spur all kinds of creativity and new business models directly or indirectly tied to our field.
What schools think
There seems to be a mixed reaction from schools about working with web-only agencies. Some are sceptical about the value of the counselling process and fit of students, while in New Zealand, Jesse Wilson of Making Futures Happen Academy in Wellington says, Web-only agencies sometimes have their limits as to what they can offer students, although the ones we deal with have done a good job so far.
But some schools observe that by using appropriate technology, Internet agencies can offer face-to-face counselling via video conferencing, or via telephone. In Australia, Robyn Donnelly at the Centre for English Language at the University of South Australia (Celusa) in Adelaide, says that local web agencies that work well have a contact person in Adelaide for an after-sales service, as well as a contact person overseas. There is a lot of dedication put into the counselling and visa work by these mainly European and Latin American web-based agents here in Adelaide, she explains.
Another language school that preferred not to reveal its identity says that it works with some web-only agencies. They are increasingly common and are very well established in some parts of the world. The most advanced are in countries such as Korea, Japan and Brazil, says the source. Some exclusively online agencies are very successful indeed and their counselling processes are professional and robust.
Interactive language teaching
In the language teaching domain, the Internet has also had an influence. Mark Waistell, Senior Partner at Accent International in Devon, UK, relates, We use web-based materials and technology, and offer web-based pre- and post-coursework and support.
Web-based technology is also incorporated into language learning at Celusa. We subscribe to a worksheet that is built around a weekly TV-based programme that can be listened to online or the text can be downloaded, says Donnelly.
EF Language Schools has invested substantially in its Efekta learning system, which combines interactive technology-based tuition with a seamless language learning curriculum, enabling its clients to continue their studies before and after their stay in a foreign country. Christopher McCormick, Vice President of Academic Affairs at EF, summarises, The Efekta system is an educational package that combines the best in teaching and technology for a more personalised, faster and fun way to learn and teach a language.
Another service provided by EF, which other language schools are increasingly offering, is free wireless Internet access at schools. EF also promises i-labs, interactive language labs used outside of the main lesson time, in all schools and l-pods, a handheld device for communicating and learning. The formula behind the Efekta system is simple, says McCormick. Better teaching plus better technology equals faster, more personalised learning. This combination of teaching and technology provides opportunities for teachers and students to make the most of their time together and apart.
Services for agents
As well as interactive services for students, new technology and programming enables language schools to improve their working relationship with agencies, by offering a dedicated agent area on a website, for example, that offers detailed product information and enrolment resources. At Celusa, Donnelly explains that the centre's new website has a section for agents to include their details and for students to acknowledge the advice they have received from agents, as well as an online application form. In the UK, Accent International offers its agents enrolment services, the ability to have their clients take pre-course assessment tests on the school's website and specific online training programmes.
McCormick at EF mentions that agents can use the EF agent website to order sales and marketing materials and view destination information online, while movies also keep students informed. Global language school chain, Aspect, is hoping to be able to offer an instant feedback facility soon in an online booking system. Fiona Mous, Aspect's Media Manager, explains, We are developing various ways to make web-based technology 'work' for us. We are improving services so we can take partner bookings online and give partners instant feedback on availability and options. She adds, We have a partner zone where we can give agents access to much more information, downloads, view current and future bookings and even offer an insight on how their students are doing.
Currently, Aspect's registered agents can monitor students' attendance levels and, according to Mous, this is proving to be a popular feature. The company is also investigating an option to enable agents, or parents, to check up on a student's progress. We are testing various systems at the moment to show each student's progress online and the partners we have consulted have all shown great interest and enthusiasm, says Mous.
Online tracking is considered unfeasible by some other language schools. James Rodgers at Severnvale Academy in Shrewsbury, UK, argues that the time involved to set up such a system is prohibitive. Certainly, considerable investment into technology is required for such services and larger school chains are setting the pace here.
More achievable for all, however, is an online sales facility, a service that is increasingly vital for agencies. Other online services, such as client progress tracking or pre-departure coursework, might also become a must-have, although initial impetus for such developments will probably be provided by the language schools themselves.
One language school representative points out that by the end of the next decade, all students under 25 will only have known a world with the Internet. The challenge for the language travel industry is to use it to simplify business procedures and enhance sales.
Profile: Anytime Online English
Anytime Online English is a virtual school offering language tuition with qualified teachers using specialised audio and video conferencing software. Mike Pearce and his wife set up the school three years ago when they were contemplating moving from Japan to Canada. We started thinking of ways that we could continue to teach English to our private students, he says.
Like online agencies, Pearce is keen to emphasise that an online school is not for everyone. Online learning is best suited to people who enjoy using computers, have busy schedules and not enough time to attend a traditional language school, he says.
A common complaint of previous students of theirs was that busy personal and professional lives meant students were forced to miss some sessions, or fit in around inconvenient class schedules. We took all the positive and negative feedback from [our] students and decided to open up a 24-hour Internet English [language] school, relates Pearce.
The school currently works in conjunction with two language training institutes in Canada to provide pre-departure training for students and is keen to work with more, as well as agencies who are offered a commission rate of 20 per cent. Such a pre-departure training programme could be invaluable to agencies keen to stay up-to-speed with the full range of online language services available.