This week, Kevin McNally, Co-Owner and Managing Director at Torquay International School in the UK, and former Principal of Hampstead School of English and Agency Sales Director at Experience English, talks about the enduring role of agents and independent language schools in the study travel industry.

State of Independents

When the internet was coming into common use, around the late 90’s, I recall many revolutionary, even outlandish claims about how this wonderful invention was going to impact our lives in general, and language travel in particular. 

One that stays fixed in my mind is that we were all going to work less. Ease and automation of communication and information exchange meant we would all get everything done in much less time. Three-day working weeks would become the norm. Something to look back on as we find ourselves immersed in the 24-hour “always on” work culture.

As for language travel, many agent colleagues were quite edgy. With websites and email giving education providers penetration into markets, in a way previously unthinkable, how would the role of the agent change? Would we need agents at all? To be frank, most schools were also watching this space very keenly, wondering optimistically if they would be deleting commission payments from their annual accounts in a few years’ time. 

We need not have worried.  Nearly twenty years later and, I would contest, the fundamental model (if not the means) of how schools get students through our doors has hardly changed. The role of the agent is as strong as ever and there has not been a huge increase in the number of direct bookings received by most schools.

The reason agents are, and will continue to be, such an essential part of our industry is because the decision process in choosing where to study is fundamentally different to that of deciding on a hotel or a flight. Agents in our business provide counselling, advice and even emotional support. Bare information is almost secondary. While the internet has largely eliminated the need for general travel agents, it has, if anything, made language travel agents even more important. With so much choice, the student needs reliable, impartial, local guidance.

So, I would say, agents have a bright future.  What then of the providers, which of us will thrive?

Around the globe, there is currently as wide a range of providers as could be imagined, from small, one-person businesses to multinational corporations, all aiming to provide good language tuition in its various forms. We are often told that language travel is too fragmented, and we should expect a wave of consolidation over the next ten years. Certainly consolidation is real force, and venture capitalists are observing us with much closer interest than in the past. Also, large chains and groups that have either formed through consolidation or grown organically have their part to play. They are obviously successful or they would simply not exist. 

However, for the same reasons that agents have as fundamental a role as ever in today’s world, I believe independent schools have a secure and solid hold on our section of the market. There is a small but growing client base (both agents and students) that is turning away from the inevitably more impersonal delivery that groups provide. Individual attention to both agents and students is something at which independent schools excel.

It’s difficult to define exactly why we do so well in that regard. Perhaps in smaller organisations, staff feel more ownership and therefore show more commitment.  Agents tell me they like being able to speak to a decision-maker as soon as a problem arises. Students feel that they are a central and essential part of the operation, and therefore more valued.

In an industry that relies almost wholly on client-provider relationships, maybe small is good. Large is too unwieldy to offer anything but a corporatized, systematic service, which inevitably lacks a bit of soul.

I believe that the more consolidation takes place at one level, the more fragmentation will kick in to compensate.  In other words, as independent schools get bought, new independents will start up and flourish to take their place. This is because we independents can provide personalised, flexible, focused service with a commitment and passion the large groups cannot match. These attributes, to certain sections of the market, will always have more value than anything else.

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