Education agencies have a unique opportunity to shape the future of the study travel sector given their proximity to their client base.

This was the message delivered by education strategist, Dr Alex Grech, at the 2-day ALTO Conference in New York City in 2015. The annual event brought together over 60 education agents and leaders from language training organisations.

As personalised learning becomes more in demand, agents are more nimble when catering for their clients’ wishes than language schools, which can be slower to adapt to the zeitgeist, Grech said.

“I have changed my mind about agencies,” outlined Grech, who has spent some time getting to know the idiosyncrasies of the language travel industry. He observed that rather than becoming redundant, he now felt agencies could better channel and respond to their customers’ demands.

“The world’s biggest taxi company, Uber, owns no cars,” he said. “Facebook, the world’s most popular media platform, produces no content of its own.”

Grech urged the MD-level crowd to consider how business relationships have been upturned, with no more vertical authority from big brands. Consumers make decisions based on trust and referral, and agencies can own their place in the distribution chain if they stay close to what their clients want.

Grech was just one of many insightful speakers invited to address the senior ALTO delegation in the Big Apple. Kick-starting the event was Tom Cheesewright, an “Applied Futurist” who made delegates think about how technology has been and will continue to be the biggest disrupter to modes of business.

“It can take a global company ten weeks and $50,000 to launch in a new territory,” he divulged, explaining that there is a blurring of the “dividing line” between nations, and live translation technology that can even erode the need to speak another language. It is not all bleak for our industry, but businesses must try and transform to fit the future, he said. “Live translate might be useful but it doesn’t solve the need to be able to assess, curate and create [in another language].”

During the packed two-day conference, it was universally agreed that the experience of studying abroad is the edge that language schools have over remote language learning opportunities.
But educators were challenged to put the experience and emotion of studying abroad into their marketing messages by Jackie Kassteen of ICEF Monitor, who shared a panel with Grech and two education agents, Sanjeev Verma of Intelligent Partners in the Gulf and Fernanda Semeoni of Experimento in Brazil, moderated by Amy Baker from The PIE News.

Semeoni noted she felt there was opportunity for agencies like hers (about to turn 50 years old) to move with their market and work with partners offering what their clients wanted, which was contextualised learning, equipping students with a global outlook. She acknowledged that education agencies had to improve their digital services as a defence against direct bookings, which she conceded was an inevitable avenue for schools to develop.

Education intelligence expert, Daniel Guhr, also gave a data-deep presentation on “four change-drivers of future language travel”, citing “a demand landscape which is rapidly changing among students”. Students like the idea of a “guarantee” when spending so much money on such an important investment, which is why pathway programmes are so popular, he pointed out.
Guhr gave examples of a value-add that some agencies are now offering including alumni networking, scholarships, and internships.

One disruptor that he signalled he could imagine is a payment model whereby agents are only paid based on the success of their student.

While the agent and educator dynamic was a consistent focus of the event, the ALTO conference also saw education agencies trying to wrestle back some power over the processing of bookings in our sector.

Thiago Espana of World Study in Brazil unpicked a problem succinctly when presenting a new drive for standardisation on product and pricing. “We need a common language,” he urged, demanding uniformity via a new Industry Standard, such as all programmes detailed by hours taught; accommodation pricing being simple to display and compute when advising clients.

“This is the biggest single problem facing agencies,” agreed agent Selim Dervish of Academia United in Turkey, part of the agency network behind the new drive for an Industry Standard. Mini roundtable debates enabled delegates to explore the appetite to adopt standard language and pricing models for courses and accommodation. Schools were largely in agreement that they should support the measure and many commented they hadn’t quite realised the impact of the overly versatile offers on agents. Course providers need to assess how the guidelines suggested by Espana would affect their business model. See proposed guidelines here.

A working group of volunteers was formed at the end of the roundtable session which will discuss the action plan on how these standards could be launched and when the first “trial schools” can start using these guidelines in their offer.

Note to ALTO members: please contact Reka if you would like to watch the conference’s speaker video files.