Leonid Natopov owns English UK Partner Agency Scheme member Hartford Partners which is based in Moscow, Russia.
How did you become a study travel agent?
I realised there was a possibility of sending students abroad for language courses, and I started with Ireland, although I can't remember why. Then, step by step, I started doing everything – every programme, every country. It was very slow. The first year I had eight students, the next year 16.
Do you specialise in a particular market?
Five years ago I decided to focus on junior groups. I do a few adult programmes but only if somebody approaches us. I don't promote anything but junior courses and groups.
Our destinations are well-known: English in the UK, Canada, Ireland, the US and Australia.
What do your students think of the UK?
The UK is the closest country, when you talk about learning English. It's not more expensive than any other English speaking country and we have direct flights. Everyone has been there – when you meet someone, 98 per cent he has been to the UK - and this has been established for many years.
They like the UK because it's close to Russia and there's a big variety. You can stay in the UK four times before going to a different country because of the different regions. There's a big variety of schools for junior programmes. There are so many programmes that some of them are definitely less expensive than they would be in other countries.
Are you seeing changes in what students want?
Those students that go abroad every year have seen a lot and learned English, very often at a high level. Recently they are looking for something else besides English, and they go for the schools that come up with the right offers, especially the 13-17 year olds. So they do school subjects, they do young leaders' courses, they do something round choosing a university.
For those under 13 we don't have to create anything special – the very fact they are abroad means it is a cultural visit for them. If it's a region of the UK that's new for them and they see things and learn English that's good.
Is there anything you'd like educators to do to help you?
We don't have very many partners, but we work closely with them. Some do help us to recruit more students by doing something different.
One brought group leaders to the UK for a Fam trip and we showed them round our UK partners' junior programmes. Then we invited teachers from language schools to send us the teacher for a few days, we bring them to Moscow schools and get them to give lessons to students and teacher seminars. This is a win-win because it allows us to foster the relationship with existing schools, and kids love it if they get ideas and can choose to go somewhere for the summer.
Are there new challenges for you?
People started having less money about two years ago and that affected our business. Numbers dropped by 50 per cent. I guess everyone has the same story but perhaps with slightly different figures – our business is very small. People have less money but it's our job to find people who still have money and want to spend it on education.
What made you join our Partner Agency Scheme?
We joined some time ago. People ask who you are and if you have a certificate. I thought it would be good to show you are an accredited agency and English UK is the biggest organisation that unites English schools which want to get foreign students. People know you are on the English UK website and that's authority.
Do you like being a study travel agent?
I love what I do, I've been doing it for 13 years now.
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