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Dave Fougere, The Kaplan Languages Group

Dave Fougere is chief operating officer at The Kaplan Languages Group – a brand comprising Kaplan International Languages, ESL and Alpadia following a merger in 2019. He spoke to The PIE about the post-pandemic rebuild, ‘turbocharged’ growth in Europe and lessons from the past few years.


"We have shown that it has worked"

The Kaplan Languages Group – which comprises Kaplan International Languages, ESL and Alpadia – is “stronger than ever”, Fougere tells The PIE in a meeting at Kaplan’s Palace House location in London, the new location for Kaplan’s 30+ school. And being together has “really helped the bounce back from the pandemic”.

“Now, of course, if you’re ill and you’re in bed for months and months and months, you can’t just jump up and run a marathon,” he says. “And KLG was not immune to all of the kinds of challenges that the whole industry faced as we emerged from the pandemic,” he notes, pointing to teacher staffing and hosts to accommodate students.

But, along with “certain choices” made the during the pandemic such as shrinking the footprint of US schools, the fact that Kaplan had ESL and Alpadia on its side after the 2019 merger as well as the backing of a “very strong and supportive parent company” in Graham Holdings, KLG is returning to a strong position in the sector.

“In 2022, we exceeded our recovery target,” Fougere says. “And we’re expecting a strong year in 2023.

“We refocused our portfolio in the US during the pandemic. We had 16 schools when we went into the crisis in the US and now we have seven,” he details, bringing the total in North America to nine.

“That was a hard decision because we lost a lot of fantastic team members, but it was necessary. We had to do it.”

And the US continues to be a challenge, with issues around visa processing and surges towards study destinations that are viewed as more open, more welcoming, such as Canada and Australia. Especially difficult are locations “further afield from the beaten track”, while locations in big cities including New York, LA and Boston are doing relatively well.

“France has been an incredibly strong country for KLG”

ESL has continued to operate under its own brand that has been around in Europe for 20 years, but merging has allowed the Kaplan to strengthen its foothold on the continent.

“The vision behind the ESL and Alpadia acquisition hit full stride in 2022,” Fougere explains.

“During that time, there was a massive shift in demand for us from some Asian countries that took a longer time to come out of the pandemic to Europe,” allowing Kaplan to “turbocharge” its recovery in Europe.

“So we’ve seen, in all of our schools, more Europeans. There’s some countries that have just exploded.

“France has been an incredibly strong country for KLG. We have an amazing team on the ground, made up of both a strong Kaplan office and the ESL offices there. And further adding to KLG’s recovery success was the expansion of our Bogota office to 75 team members,” he says.

The PIE ventures that the sector could have been sceptical of the merger when it was first announced, that competitor schools may have suspected that Kaplan would be favoured ahead of them. According to Fougere, that has not been the case.

“We have shown that it has worked,” he notes. “We had no ambition to change the ESL name to Kaplan or to convert ESL offices to Kaplan agencies.

“We wanted to maintain that identity. And ESL is still a stand-alone agency. The ESL teams work with and advise students on the best possible path for them. Yes, Kaplan is a significant part of the portfolio, but we also offer competitor language schools and will continue to do so.”

ESL portfolio is not exactly the same before and after the acquisition, he acknowledges. But the ESL portfolio has over 200 schools. Kaplan has 24 schools in total.

“Kaplan doesn’t have schools everywhere and there are certain places in the world where we’re not interested in having schools. In order to offer a full portfolio to students coming into an ESL office, we have maintained those partners.”

A lesson from the pandemic he mentions are possibilities online. “Even when things started to open up, we’re still seeing a strong demand for 15-hour a week online classes. We were going to phase out the online school and go back to doing what we did before with in-classroom teaching, but we’re keeping the online school open with plans to develop and grow that offering.”

The importance of strong partners is another lesson. “One of the intentional decisions we made during the pandemic was to support our agent partners. We tried to do everything we could to help them get through the pandemic so that, at the end of the pandemic, our relationships were stronger than ever.”

And despite success in Europe, Brexit continues to be a test for UK ELT.

“It poses challenges,” Fougere states. Europeans now need passports and staffing is expected be an increasing difficulty for the UK, as highlighted by other stakeholders.

“We’ve seen demand for Dublin skyrocket and we’re doing everything we can to respond to that demand. We maxed out in Dublin last year. We’d like to take more students. Dublin is an absolutely hot destination right now

“We’ve seen demand for Dublin skyrocket”

“It is driven by Brexit, but students still want to come to the UK. The UK and Ireland is the part of the overall portfolio that’s really booming.”

In the past a team at London office led on direct sales to the European market, which is no longer the case. But is it an obstacle that the merger with ESL and Alpadia has quelled.

“Part of the acquisition of ESL was their headquarters is in Barcelona with a strong team. We’re straddling the UK and Barcelona offices. Our marketing team, for example, is one of the ones that’s integrated and split between London and Barcelona.”

Another opportunity for English language students in Ireland, especially European students, is the option to work.

Interest in work depends a lot on the demographic of student, Fougere responds when asked whether ELT students should have options to work during their studies.

“A lot of students, particularly Latin American students, will plan a long term stay and need to work in order to finance their time in that country, in which case Australia and Ireland would make a lot of sense because that’s easy for them to do so.

“Students can’t work in the UK, they can’t work in the US. But anything students can do to get them into the community and immerse themselves and use the language is going to help them improve their English level. And, you know, add to that living with a host, as opposed to in a residence, because that’s going to help their language improve a lot faster.”

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