“It’s a battleground online right now,” commented Juan Carlos Linares, director of operations at Speak Up London, a school which has – as part of its marketing strategy – a budget to attract students online.
“This will help raise the profile of UK ELT”
Another school’s marketing director, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that they were pursuing a “transition” in their enrolment patterns to build direct booking business.
And while education agents continue to be the major source of enrolments for most ELT schools (and such bookings are counted as “commissionable”), even for those schools not actively pursuing direct business, some are witnessing a change in booking pattern.
Judy Loren, principal at Excel English school in London, recounted, “We run a small summer program for 14-to-17-year-olds and probably over 50% of those are direct bookings this year.”
She explained that last year would have been “more like 60%” agent-led business and in previous years, around 80% of bookings for the program would have been via education agents.
Loren said that one reason for the shift at her school may have been a more dedicated presence on social media, rather than a pay-per-click campaign.
At English UK, chief executive, Sarah Cooper, said she was not surprised by an incline in direct business.
“As an industry, we have worked hard at expanding the way we campaign to be able to reach learners directly”
“The increase in direct bookings doesn’t surprise me because as an industry we have worked hard at expanding the way we campaign to be able to reach learners directly,” she said.
“We value the role agents play in the industry and the way the can support their clients. But the campaigns that we have run for example in Brazil – English is GREAT in collaboration with the British Council – we have seen Brazilian numbers go up. This will help raise the profile of UK ELT.”
James Birrell, managing director at The English Studio, explained that the business he manages has been a predominantly direct/non-commissionable student business. Even at The English Studio, the nature of direct business is changing.
“Marketing has changed significantly over recent years and opportunity to convert ‘passing trade’ is more-so on our website than outside the building in which we teach,” he told The PIE.
Schools have quickly become savvy to this trend and are investing more in servicing those students needs directly online.
“We are now seeing increasingly more websites feature a live chat function. Backed by a team of multi-lingual staff, this will further support the growth of non-commissionable weeks,” he said.
“I don’t think we are out of the woods yet”
“Throwing into the mix the number of millennials we are enrolling and their ‘don’t care how, I want it now!’ mentality, it’s easy to see some of the drivers behind this change.”
The trend is not universal. Some providers revealed they had seen no significant shift, while Laura Chen, managing director of The Cambridge Centre for Languages, told The PIE that she had seen a surge in direct enquiries, but, at the time of the interview, could not be sure if they would convert into actual bookings.
“We have tried to do a bit more [for our] online presence, we did some blogging, tweeting, and we’ve also run some video competition,” she explained.
At the English UK annual conference earlier this year, as well as data from the quarterly intelligence cohort (QUIC), which has started charting data on the percentage of non-commissionable bookings, upbeat data was shared about 2017 enrolments after some challenging years.
But while canvassing opinions about 2018 enrolments, not all providers were sure an upward trend would continue.
Patrick Murphy of BLS Language School in Bury St Edmunds said many of his peers had very mixed reports of 2018 bookings trends to date: “I don’t think we are out of the woods yet”.
No wonder then, that many schools are actively trying to bolster business in whatever way they can.