China is one of the most important source markets for English UK members. It is the second largest sending market for both private and state UK ELT providers, and the number of Chinese students at UK universities far exceeds any other non-UK nationality. Our quarterly statistics for Q1 2019 also showed China as the third biggest source of juniors.
With big competition in this market, we asked Tregarran Percival, sales and marketing director at UKLC and regular at the China Roadshow, how he managed to build the proportion of Chinese students at his summer centres from being "very small" to an impressive 20%.
And with a large group of Chinese agents confirmed for StudyWorld again this year, we spoke to Su Si when she was the British Council's education services manager in China for her top tips for doing business in China.
Key market figures
China ranks as the second most important source market for the combined membership, with 204,225 student weeks (11.3% of the total) and 47,372 students (9.4% of the total), who stay for an average 4.3 weeks
China is the top market for state sector ELT centres, accounting for almost 43% of student weeks, up 19.8% on 2017
For private sector centres, China was the fourth most important market in 2018, with 95,318 student weeks and 42,237 students, who stayed an average of 2.8 weeks. However, both figures declined from 2017, making the China Roadshow and StudyWorld opportune events to grow business.
Do your research
China is a very complicated market. Su Si says each part of China has different needs and preferences. For example, students from North China are much more likely to attend winter programmes over the Chinese New Year holidays compared to those from the South.
If you want to promote a product to particular group of people, research which province is most suitable.
After UKLC had a change of staff, they realised they had to learn about doing business in China from scratch. They decided to join the China Roadshow to find out why UKLC they weren't getting more students.
Tregarran said: "We had thought our programmes aimed at Western Europeans would also suit the Chinese students – but it turned out they had different requirements. It took us a year to tweak the programme so they would engage with us properly."
Develop flexible programmes
Su said it is hard to get agents to buy exactly what it is you sell – they will try for things which aren't possible, such as taking younger students.
UKLC has prioritised growing the Chinese market and adapted programmes sufficiently so that agents are happy to buy the flexible, off-the-shelf packages on offer. They responded by creating a strong core programme with the flexibility to adapt further to the needs of Chinese groups without having an impact on other students.
Listen to agents and reconnect regularly
Follow-up visits and regular email or phone updates after the initial meeting are very important to establish a strong working relationship.
UKLC staff followed up the China Roadshow with visits to the most interested agents to find out more about what they wanted for students. They have made the China Roadshow a regular date to talk to new and existing agents, and tweak the programmes on offer to help them do business in China.
Tregarran said he realised agents want more centres in the South East; more excursions, particularly the chance to visit Oxford or Cambridge, different group leader ratios; and flights into Heathrow.
He added: "They tell you they want schools in Oxford or Cambridge, classrooms with few or no Chinese students, enrolments from aged eight upwards and it must be a prestigious centre so that families recognise it. And a good price.
"That largely doesn't exist. But we can say 'this one might not be geographically perfect for you but we can go to Oxford or Cambridge on the way from Heathrow, or Bicester village or Stratford upon Avon'."
UKLC look at agents' wish lists and identify which boxes each of their centres would tick, including lowering the age range to eight at four centres to fit with the Chinese middle school system and cutting the ratio of students to group leaders.
Offer a cultural experience (and include Oxford or Cambridge)
Su said agents don't just want a language programme, they want an exciting cultural experience to go with it. The cultural experience could be a taster of a UK independent school or boarding school, or perhaps participating in sports or learning a new art form. If they enjoy a new experience, they are much more likely to choose the UK again in the future.
She added: "In a mature market like Shanghai, parents and agents are more aware of the UK's regional differences. The majority of people have heard about Cambridge, London, Oxford and Edinburgh, and those are the programmes they are most interested in."
UKLC provide excursions to Oxford or Cambridge included for all groups studying in southern centres. They also offer more activities on each excursion for Chinese students separate from students coming from more price-conscious markets.
Tregarran said: "We ask what was great, what have you found challenging? The response is really good, we tell the agents what we are doing as a result and, in turn, they send us more students.
"We're lucky in a way because we're B2B - we only deal with agents who provide the bulk of students and therefore it's easy to get more feedback," says Tregarran.
Don't forget to know your audience
It is essential to think of your customer at every stage. "Agents won't have time to find the key selling points in a 30-page English-language brochure," says Su. Translate where you can and keep your brochures short and simple if they are only available in English.
"Using a memorable way to market your institution, with clear selling points, will help agents remember you more easily. If you're doing a fam trip, focus on your institution's two most memorable aspects. Ideally, try to integrate your institution's USP with its surroundings, that can work well."
And remember, the first question is always 'What is the cost?' says Su.
Expect late bookings and WeChat is a must
"Their decision-making is very late, after Chinese New Year which means in March you have loads of enquiries. There's a challenge there in holding space for them... you've committed to the centres. You're relying on Chinese numbers to fill centres and for the international mix, and not knowing exactly where they are going to come from," says Tregarran.
Communication can be difficult, with 90% done on WeChat and messages arriving all the time – but answering messages at antisocial times can be the key to getting a booking.