This week, we interview Ian Reedy of the Outdoor Education New Zealand (ODENZ) groups of secondary schools about the history of the group, marketing activities and current recruitment trends.

Can you explain a little about how and why ODENZ was established and the membership of the group?

Outdoor Education New Zealand (ODENZ) was established in 2002. At the time, the New Zealand government’s trade promotion organisation, Trade NZ, was running a scheme called export networks. The point of this scheme was to encourage similar types of export organisations to work collaboratively to enter new markets/create new niches/grow existing markets with the obvious aim of increasing the amount of foreign exchange flowing into NZ. In fact, it was me who set the ODENZ export network up. I worked for Trade NZ, and its predecessor organisation, from 1994 through to 2003 – initially in Germany covering markets in North West Europe and later based in Christchurch and working specifically with the international education sector.

During my regular engagement with high schools throughout the south island, I recognised quite a number of schools had outdoor education (OE) as a subject and it occurred to me that this could be a niche which would be attractive to customers coming out of Northern Europe. I went through a process of identifying schools with OE and discussed the idea of setting up a consortium. The upshot of this was a group of 20 schools decided to explore this opportunity further. Trade NZ invested some seed funding which enabled an investigative mission to Germany in Sept/Oct 2002 – I was accompanied by representatives of 14 schools on this two-week trip. The outcome being the schools felt there was sufficient potential to further formalise the group and subsequently a board of directors and a company (ODENZ Limited) was set up.

Shortly afterwards, at the time of the birth of our first child, I quit my job with Trade NZ to enable my partner to continue to pursue her career and set up my company, Openside Limited, as a business consultancy (with the aim of working from home and bouncing babies on my knee). At the same time, the ODENZ board recognised that they needed someone to act as a “secretariat” and our two companies have had a contractual business relationship ever since, whereby I manage all aspects of ODENZ’s business development, membership and generic marketing. Over the past 11 years, we have seen some members come and go, for varying reasons, with membership currently at 24 schools.

Regarding membership – over the past 11 years, we have worked hard to lift the bar in all areas of quality delivery. Expectations are placed on member schools in achieving this. We hold regular meetings with the aim of sharing best practice. All member schools have either achieved or are in the process of applying an outdoors industry quality mark (Outdoors Mark) to their outdoor education programmes. This is basically an audit process which looks at all aspects of risk mitigation, safety management and quality delivery of the programmes. Most importantly, to be allowed to join the group, schools must show they are teaching a robust outdoor education programme as a subject – not simply offering trips away. Outdoor Education is a recognised subject in New Zealand (although not delivered in all schools) with solid learning outcomes – students earn grades in the form of unit standards and these will count toward their high school graduation qualification.”

What do the schools in this group offer that is unique compared to other typical secondary study abroad destinations?

“Outdoor education is the niche point of difference which sets ODENZ schools apart. The brand story we are building, is: if you are considering coming to NZ for a study abroad life experience, there is some likelihood you are considering outdoor education as a subject. If this is the case, choose an ODENZ school because we are endeavouring to provide the best and the safest programmes possible. By taking outdoor education in an ODENZ school, you will be in a group with Kiwi students and as such your integration into school life will be fast-tracked. You will learn and develop valuable life skills around leadership and working as part of a team and your self-confidence will be strongly enhanced. Finally, you will be studying in our ‘classroom without walls’, travelling extensively to undertake activities in NZ’s natural environment, including national parks.

Many of the schools are in smaller towns and, as such, they often have relatively small cohorts of international students. This is a real strength in so far as they offer a very personal service. The schools have solid relationships with all of their host families, they are able to visit them frequently and assist with their ‘service delivery’. Of course, the pastoral care managers are able to build very close relationships with the international students.”

How much have international enrolments grown? What are the largest markets for ODENZ?

“Over the past 11 years, from very small beginnings, the ODENZ business has grown to over 100 equivalent full-time students, spread throughout the group, each year. While Germany continues to be the largest market, students are also coming from Norway, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Luxembourg and Holland.

The ODENZ marketing focus is very much on building strong relationships with our in-market partner agents. This is closely coupled with the development and promotion of the ODENZ brand and brand story. I am in the market/s twice per year and also arrange regular group trips for representatives of member schools.”

Are there any issues facing the group or New Zealand’s secondary sector more generally?

“Regarding industry issues, I believe the biggest issue for the high school sector in NZ is that of competition, not from other destinations, rather within the NZ sector. Rather than working collaboratively to grow the size of the NZ slice of the pie, schools, in my opinion, are scrapping over the existing piece. The potential is for this piece to decrease in size as a result of this behaviour.”

ODENZ schools are featured in a special secondary focus article on outdoors education in New Zealand in the July issue of Study Travel Magazine

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