It is vital for UK ELT providers to keep quality high during the current exchange rate-fuelled "short-term boom in bookings," English UK's chief executive has said.
Sarah Cooper told the organisation's marketing conference that upturn was very encouraging, but that any drop in quality would leave the sector vulnerable when the value of sterling rose once more. "This is a key message for you to be taking back to your centres," she said.
Stephan Roussounis, managing director of Stafford House agreed, saying: "Reputation is key. When we get a lot of bookings, we maybe take on more accommodation and more teachers. To take the right kind of business we have to put in the right facilities, teach the right way and don't push it too far."
They were responding to a presentation by education travel data analyst Samuel Vetrak, whose latest figures show that UK demand is picking up across both the adult and juniors markets as a result of the post-referendum drop in the value of sterling.
Explaining that the English study abroad market was now in a mature phase, with demand for the language cooling, "tightening" visa situations and economic difficulties in source markets, he discussed how the industry was responding, with increased innovation, price techniques to offset currency fluctuation, more mergers and acquisitions and more joint activities such as fam trips and trade missions.
Stephan and other English UK members leading a panel discussion on the changing face of the UK's ELT sector in a global context, agreed that bookings were up this year, and that there was demand for new products. Kevin McNally of TIS in Torquay had seen a "huge" growth in enquires while Leanne Linacre of LILA* in Liverpool reported more interest in summer bookings, as well as from year-round markets like Brazil.
Like the others, she had developed new courses to attract interest but was cautious: "Sometimes I feel we spend time and money doing this, and although people say that students don't want general English, that's what they buy. Saying these courses are new is a way to get conversations started with agents, but they are not big sellers."
These themes were revisited in a second panel discussion, Attracting Gen Z and the Alphas. Matthew Knott, news editor of Study Travel Magazine, outlined global changes in the junior market, which showed UK numbers rose 86 per cent between 2010-15 with trends including an increase in English plus and family programmes, more exam content, more interaction with local children and a slight growth in 8-11 year olds.
Panel members agreed that safeguarding was a boost, with parents more safety-conscious than previous generations. Anna Thatcher of Loxdale English Centre said more and more young learners were coming year-round, while Michael Quinn of CES thought that with increased vetting of host families and safeguarding regimes it was possible to have more confidence that things would go smoothly than in the past. "It's a difficult market but it's worth it," he said.
Making the best of mature markets was a recurring theme of the day, with a variety of sessions on using technology to attract customers from Generation Z, engaging with potential customers, using Google analytics, sales and negotiation techniques, and a panel session on opportunities in Iran.
Henry Tolley of conference sponsor Trinity College London, thought the mood was far more upbeat than a year ago, partly as a result of the exchange-rate fuelled rise in bookings. "There have been some great speakers, and a lot of people are still here talking after the event. There seems to be the feeling in the room that it's going to be a better year than last year."
Delegates also enjoyed the day. Yasmin Mohiuddin, from Wimbledon School of English and a first-timer, said: "It was very, very useful. There are definitely things I will take away and that have given us a real boost."
Emelyne Burkhard of Celtic English Academy in Cardiff normally misses the event because she is usually away on business. She said: "I found it really useful, particularly the sessions on marketing to Generation Z and the one on negotiating techniques. They were really standout. That's one of the things we don't talk about, how we actually do business with agents and it was great to share best practice with each other."
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English UK runs several major conferences each year as part of our work to support high standards in English language teaching, to keep members updated and share best practice.