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Agents of change: How does the rise in digital innovation impact study travel?

From online shopping to social life planning to live streaming, many of our everyday consumer needs can now be catered for online. As a result, an increasing number of service industries have shifted their operations away from the analogue and into the digital. But what effect is this having on the landscape of study travel?

Illustration: Bea Ramirez

"What is missing is information to be conveyed to them in a smart and easy way"

For years, a shake-up has been predicted but true transformation has not yet materialised. “Our industry is not as fast as, for example, the generic travel industry,” says Selim Dervish, who founded online course search and booking platform, Omnigos.

“Maybe we are four or five years behind,” he says. “But it doesn’t mean that we have to stay there; there should be some people to push the boundaries a little bit sometimes.”

In an attempt to keep up with global digitisation, some stakeholders are endeavouring to do just that by developing a variety of online platforms and attempting to increase their market penetration through a number of different ways.

“I think it’s an investment, but you need to do it”

Carsten Sallmann, new owner of German online language search platform Lingoschools, says that around 55-60% of the site’s users access its services through mobile phones, and almost a further 20% through tablets.

With Google announcing that it will lower the rank of websites in search results which are not “mobile-ready”, Sallmann says that this is something that should be at the forefront of agencies’ minds if they wish to remain competitive in the online marketplace.

“You look at other agent websites and they’re not responsive,” he says. “And I think it’s an investment, but you need to do it.”

Easing the school selection process

Now that students have instant access to the web at their fingertips, Dervish agrees that they are increasingly looking online for their study travel options.

“What is missing is information to be conveyed to them in a smart and easy way,” he challenges.

“All the schools have websites, but there are differences in terms of being user-friendly, being straight to the point, straightforward,” Dervish notes, pointing out that it is not easy for students “to research, to compare and to actually finalise their booking”.

A number of stakeholders have taken on the challenge of providing a course search or bookings platform online.

CourseFinders, sister company of ICEF, lists almost 7,000 language schools across the world on its course search site, which Ross Holmes, director of online products, describes as a “research tool for students at the beginning of their journey”.

“The generation of students that we’re dealing with are more and more comfortable doing it online”

“We noticed that for a student trying to research a language course online, it was a long, arduous and often confusing process,” he elaborates.

Digitising the counselling process

Hotcourses, which has a well established and extensive listings/search site for higher education globally, has followed the innovation trail from the opposite end of the service spectrum, evolving their offer to now provide a virtual counselling service too.

Mike Elms, its CEO, says that the aim of this service is to provide everything an agent offers online. First launched in India last year, it may roll out to more markets in future.

Since its inception, the platform has succeeded in serving around 80% of its clients purely through online means, Elms believes.

“I think the agency model is one that traditionally has been an offline model, but it needn’t be,” he explains. “The generation of students that we’re dealing with are more and more comfortable doing it online.”

This service facilitates student counselling and advising via video link, and can also connect those looking for a course with existing students at particular institutions.

When reflecting on expanding this concept to the wider industry, Elms thinks it will be “a slow transition”. “But I do think that the future for this sort of business will be an online future,” he says.

Simplifying the school and agency transaction

Another focus for some entrepreneurs has been the transactional process between schools and agents, which is a fragmented, patchy process for most operators dealing with bookings coming in from or for multiple partners.

“There’s a huge gap in our market because today, most of our operational side is still very highly manual”

Australia-based Mauricio Pucci, co-founder of agency network Information Planet, has invested A$3m in developing a Salesforce-backed booking system that all agencies can use for streamlined booking with their partners and to compare a tailored portfolio of products instantly while consulting with a client.

“A lot of people are trying to make [transacting] a lot simpler and easy to use, because [improving efficiency means] the number of students will grow and the business will grow,” he says.

The platform, Education HiFy, will be the first to alter prices according to the potential student’s nationality, says Pucci.

“If we look at other industries, they all have their own platforms, and in our industry we don’t have that,” he relates. “There’s a huge gap in our market because today, most of our operational side is still very highly manual.”

Forward thinking for the back-end

Another entrepreneur who has turned his attention to study travel is tech startup stalwart Nicolas Miller, who has one success under his belt already via a US$75 million computer vision company. Miller and his co-founders, each having studied abroad themselves, saw an opportunity to serve agencies by solving some of their daily pains with technology.

Their solution was Edvisor, still a nascent platform but already used weekly by nearly 700 agents worldwide. Edvisor helps agents optimise their sales processes; keep track of their students’ and schools’ information; create online quotes and invoices; and gain insights into team and business performance.

Miller says that in just over a year, Edvisor has become the most widely used industry tool among education agencies.

“Several respected schools have even reached out to us after hearing from their agencies, so we see some exciting opportunities to work with schools as well in the near future,” he adds.

In-house innovation

Some of these digital developments are enhancing the business of agencies by allowing them to focus further on their customers.

According to Naveen Chopra, chairman of one of India’s largest education advisor companies, The Chopras, it is important that agencies ensure they don’t get left behind by continually considering how to harness technology to best serve clients.

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