This week, we interview Thiago España, Director of Brazilian agency World Study and board member at ALTO about the association’s recent proposals for a set of industry standards for the language travel sector.

At its Professional Development and Networking Conference in New York, USA, recently the Association of Language Travel Organisations (ALTO) presented initial proposals for a set of industry standards in the way language schools present information to agents, aimed at improving communication between partners and reducing time spent on inputting and updating.

The proposals include standardised formats in the way that programme types, commissions, accommodation types, discounts and sliding price structures are listed.

I gather you surveyed agent members of ALTO as research for the Industry Standards. Can you tell us about the results of the research?

We put about five or six questions together, and these were answered by 19 agent members of ALTO. The questions were things like, “Do you think you have a lot of work to do in inputting prices?” and, “Do you lose a lot of time on this?”

Ninety-five per cent of the agents said that every single school partner they work with has a different price list and a different way of featuring their programmers. The same number said they take up too much time and energy entering data from partner schools’ brochures into their own systems, and 12 said they have to employ additional staff members to deal with the data load.

When we presented the proposals, all of them said, “Yes, great, what can we do to help?” and nobody said it’s not a good idea. Every agent said they would support discussions with ALTO member schools where we could agree to lay down some ground rules and standardise the schools’ offers.

Why are such standards necessary?

It’s crazy that we are a multibillion dollar industry and we don’t have any industry standards. We relate to the travel industry, but they have many standards. In the hotel industry, it doesn’t matter if they are a six-star hotel or a small hostel, they still present information to travel agents in the same way.

Some of the most common mistakes are on supplements on extra nights of accommodation. And also on promotions – sometimes there are 10 different promotions at the same time. Commission on accommodation is another area it is sometimes difficult to find information on. There are mistakes on commission and we need better information here.

It will help the schools of course. For example, each agent has different application forms; some of the ones I have seen are completely different. It is a lot of work for schools. If we can create one form for all, it helps everyone and that work isn’t necessary. And imagine how many different materials the big chain schools have to produce. That is a lot of work for them.

When an agent makes a mistake, the school normally pays for it because they normally accommodate it to support their partner.

Our industry is quite young; most of the oldest agents have existed for 30 or 40 years at the most. So these standards are a beginning, a small step. We can standardise without losing any identity.

So the industry standards are about the way information is presented, not commoditisation?

We don’t want to commoditise because if all schools are the same, then agents are dead. We do what we do as agents because schools are all different. Commoditisation will hurt the industry. The idea is to standardise the way we do things, not the products.

One thing I realised, which I’d never thought about previously, was that schools have never really thought about this. Now they are thinking about it. One thing that is unbelievable really, is that it is impossible to have effective online booking without standardisation.

We have to make a lot of effort to adapt. We are in the language travel industry, but we don’t have our own common language.

What has the feedback been so far?

From the agents it has been really good. Some of the national agency associations like Belta [the Brazilian agency association] and Felca [the Federation of Education and Language Consultant Associations] are saying, “Let’s do this.” Schools were surprised to learn about this issue, they were not aware of the problem at all. During the roundtable session at the New York conference the general feedback was: we do all we can to help agents’ work as long as it’s not limiting us in terms of creativity. They work hard to avoid commoditisation, but when they realise that is not our plan, then they support it.

What are the next steps in developing the standards?

Our idea is to use as many associations as we can. We definitely want to talk to Gaela [the Global Alliance of Education and Language Associations) and also the country bodies. The agents will be the biggest supporters. There are lots of people trying to help on this.

We tried to put the most simple things first. This was more of a political definition. We need to make people think and we need improve these things. The idea was to start a discussion. We need to start working towards dynamic pricing and API (Application Programming Interface).

I think it is possible to achieve this because every industry has standards, but we are very far from that. We need to think about the future. If people see it is helping, then they try to improve it.

ALTO is independent and is the only place where we have everything in one place. It is where agents, schools, associations and service providers can discuss ideas like this. A lot of people have the idea that schools and agents are on different sides, but really this is a win/win for both sides working together.

The ALTO working group will have a conference call in August to discuss the next steps, the launch and the strategy. We will collect ideas and decide. In the future, we might decide to work on more rules or we can work on other things like application forms. It is a decision for the board to make, but personally I would like to do both.

It has to be something that is beautiful for everyone. It should be made by a lot of people across the industry.


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