Language travel is clearly the driver for the nearly 2 million student traveller market, and increasingly agents are its key drivers and influencers. This leading position of language learning within the Student Travel market is currently pushed by the need to learn English, which accounts for two-thirds of the language travel market as a whole, while other languages account for the rest.
However, the face of the language travel market is changing and is being confronted by new phenomena and trends every day. I will try to quantify and elaborate on some of the features of the market that until now have been, at best, “guesstimates.”
StudentMarketing recently conducted perhaps the most comprehensive report on the “Perception of Independent and Boutique Chain Schools in Language Travel”. Conducted for IALC, the report also focussed on agents and their feelings and experiences. This examination and analysis of a huge amount of raw data (472 agents interviewed in 72 countries) resulted in findings which are significant to the market itself, but also of importance to agents and schools, especially when formulating strategies for the future.
With ELT dominating the market and accounting for 95% of agent’s portfolios, and China and Saudi Arabia still dominating the source countries list, in terms of student weeks, most agents feature English as a cornerstone of their portfolios – a fact that schools should also note. However, agents have seen an increase in the popularity of German throughout Eastern Europe, Latin America, India, Nepal and Pakistan, as the growing proficiency of English in source countries improves and proficiency in another language brings a distinct competitive advantage.
Yet despite the growth and popularity of language travel, new phenomena are emerging which are shaping the market for the future. With the market now well into the Consolidation stage, several important factors need to be considered. Regulation is increasing (e.g. visa application procedures are getting more complicated) and there is a distinct standardisation of products due to the industry becoming more mature.
While, on the one hand, the Consolidation Stage usually drives the quality of the programmes provided, it also increases competition, which naturally leads to a downward pressure on prices. Subsequently, among agents, there is now a distinct split forming between those who view streamlining and standardisation (e.g. travel-specific global distribution systems – GDS) as a necessity (one-third of agents interviewed), and those who feel that commoditisation of language travel is perhaps not the way forward, but rather the individual service element provided by independent and boutique schools is the key to future growth and margins.
This “service element” has one important factor in its make-up: the service provided by schools often translates to the service provided by agents themselves. Thus, when it comes to working with schools, agents predominantly appreciate quick access to senior management (78% of agents stated this as the most valued factor in their decision to work or not to work with particular school) and quality of programmes (56%), clearly demonstrating the influencing position of quality of service and delivery of schools on working relations with agents.
Moreover, while growth and demand for chain schools is still on the rise, many agents see the demand for independents growing at a faster pace (37% for independents vs 28% for chain schools). In fact, a huge number (59%) of agents interviewed said that schools being independent and making their independence clearly known would help their recruitment process a great deal.
As mentioned earlier, the market is maturing and students are expecting more: from schools – bringing pressure on quality of delivery where students are expecting more in terms of actual experience; or from agents – where more demand on pre-departure marketing and customer service brings new costs as well as increasing pressure on commissions (nearly two-thirds of agents, 59%, believe commissions are moving upwards due higher costs of their customer service and marketing).
However, one factor does stand out. Despite consolidation, product standardisation and price pressure becoming part of the industry, the qualitative aspect of language travel is becoming more important. In other words, delivering quality programmes and service, ergo helping agents, makes their work easier and looks better in the eyes of customers and directly translates to more students being referred to those respective schools.
Thus, even in times of consolidation, pressure for standardisation and on prices, agents still value the quality proposition, and in most cases, more so than they value commission.
Samuel Vetrak is chief executive of StudentMarketing, a market intelligence and business development consultancy focused on the global student market.
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