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Alberto Sarno, Sprachcaffe, Germany

Alberto Sarno is the president and co-owner of Sprachcaffe, a language school group that has expanded, in part via acquisition, to now offer language learning in 30 destinations around the world. He spoke to The PIE about the company’s evolution and recent acquisition of a student travel agency in Germany.

The PIE: You have been in the business for how long?

"We always say we are a German company with an Italian heart"

AS: Almost 35 years.

The PIE: So how has it changed since you’ve been in the business?

AS: Well, many small, probably irrelevant changes but at the end of the day, it’s going to be a big challenge, a big change, starting with the technology in teaching, technology in recruiting, technology in communicating, but the basic idea of language travel is the same.

The PIE: And how have you managed to grow your business to 30 schools, that’s quite an impressive start from, Frankfurt wasn’t it?

AS: We started in Germany and Italy, I mean the world is full of opportunities, and we tried to develop in the right direction. We recognised pretty soon that just with German and Italian [languages offered in Germany and Italy] we couldn’t go any further, that’s why we added more destinations to our portfolio.

Nowadays they’ve been to Paris maybe 20 times before they decide to travel with us

We probably also met the right people, the right colleagues at the different locations. That’s why we tried to make the best out of the situation. I mean, you need to work eight hours a day anyway, ten hours a day anyway, the more you can do in those hours, the better it is.

The PIE: Do you think being bicultural yourself, German and Italian, helped the expansion of Sprachcaffe?

AS: Yes, this double personality helped a lot. Italians are very much creative and they have good ideas and can do improvisations and last minute decisions on their own, so that’s the colourful part, and the other part is more organisation and structures and making long-term plans, so in the end the compromise is the key. We always say we are a German company with an Italian heart.

The PIE: You’re here at an agent workshop [StudyWorld]. Do you think it is still very important to be the face of your company even now?

AS: The key is that you should like what you’re doing. So if it is your hobby, if it is your passion, everything is easier, so it’s not work for me. It’s a pleasure to go to the office to talk to the colleagues, to talk to the clients, so it’s not really work. That’s answer number one.

“You should also trust the younger generation that have new ideas”

Answer number two is that I would obviously would like to support my colleagues and to give them some ideas out of my experience but obviously since things are changing, you should also trust the younger generation that have new ideas so you shouldn’t stick to your old-fashioned way of solving problems, you should trust the people and just give them trust but also provide them with solutions. That’s why I like being here.

The PIE: You mentioned the other day that you are putting increasing importance on experience, as opposed to pure language acquisition. 

AS: Yes, the products, the services we are providing need to develop. When we started 20-30 years ago, the students travelled with us maybe for the first time to London or went to Paris for the first time but nowadays they’ve been to Paris maybe 20 times before they decide to travel with us.

So it’s obvious that we need to provide them with more than just a language course, I mean, experience is the key word. You can learn a language at home, but you cannot get the abroad experience. And that’s where we should try to take our kids out of their living rooms, and out of their bedrooms and send them into the world because they need to collect some experiences and they are not going to find that in their mobile phones.

The PIE: You acquired iST in Germany. It was a big agency, right?

AS: It still is a big agency.

The PIE: How many students?

AS: I don’t remember exactly but we are doing are adults, juniors and high schools students to Australia, Canada, USA.

The PIE: So how long has it been around?

AS: 40 years, almost 40 years. So it’s a great brand and heritage. The owner retired and had to decide, “What should we do?“, close the company or sell the company, or keep on going with some kind of director.

The PIE: How have you seen it benefitting the Sprachcaffe family?

AS: Obviously it’s an agency with high volumes, so they are serving many destinations and by coincidence, many of these destinations are also where we run schools. So that would be a synergetic effect.

But we are not going to put everything in one pot so it’s going to be an independent company under the name iST, it’s going to continue, they have a very good distribution in Germany and they’ve also got offices in Austria and Switzerland but it’s pretty much a German organisation, almost in our courtyard, because it’s in Heidelberg, so 90km from Frankfurt. So basically it couldn’t be easier, it’s perfect.

“I personally think that ANY European country is too small to proceed on its own and we had better stick together”

The PIE: Do you think you will look for other opportunities – do you think that’s how the industry will be evolving, vertical integration?

AS: Well, it’s not like that we are looking for other opportunities but you shouldn’t be concentrated on your goal in 20 years  and not looking left and right on the way to the final destination. That’s why if there are opportunities obviously we are ready to proceed, but if there are no opportunities, we don’t mind.

Our company is solid enough. We run 30 schools around world, so the most important destinations already are in our portfolio, only a couple of destinations are missing.

The PIE: I’d love to know what impact if any you think Brexit might have on prospective student – clients of yours?

AS: It’s too early to give an answer: at the moment the weak pound may give the impression to facilitate the local industry, what is going to happen in the long run is probably a different story? I personally think that ANY European country is too small to proceed on its own and we had better stick together and sort out challenges together.

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One Response to Alberto Sarno, Sprachcaffe, Germany

  1. I strongly agree with Mr Sarno on some key issues which our experience reflects. Firstly, the Brexit demographic tended to be less educated people, poorer people or older people – of course, that’s a tendency, not an absolute. The professionals, the successful and the young tended to vote to remain – they are the people on who our Government revenue depends. We Europeans must act together on both economic and security imperatives – it also makes for richer and more rewarding relations between peoples. Secondly, I agree his point on an overseas experience, not just ELT. Just look at the IPO of China Education online – if offers 121 ELT online at $5 for 25 mins, had revenues >$11m last quarter and Marketing Spend of >$14m – that revenue works out to, I thought, tens of thousands of student weeks – 121. EF also has a powerful online offer. So, to win, you must offer an experience – our most thriving offers do just that. I hope we meet one day, Mr Sarno!

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