The PIE: Tell us about FPP.
Julio Ronchetti: I was an exchange student myself in London in 1987/88 where I studied for two years. I loved it. And then I came back, I decided to start my own language school, hire teachers and teach English. From there I became an agent, referring students abroad.
“In 2012, we launched the concept of intelligent fairs”
With that experience, I said ‘why we don’t launch a website’, when the internet was really still a baby. And so in 1997 we launched the first website for students in Latin America to study abroad. It was not an agency, more like a sort of magazine. There are thousands today, but we were the first one to do that in Latin America and I think the second one in the world.
In 2001, we started doing student fairs, and in 2012, we launched the concept of intelligent fairs. Before 2012, there were no apps, no ways of screening students. If schools had a computer with excel, that would be very advanced at the time. Because FPP was a tech company, we were always thinking about how technology can help everyone. So we launched smart events where students would register online, check in at our events, they would get the badge with a barcode… to allow [schools] to have comprehensive reports after the event.
The PIE: How do today’s virtual event look compared with those hybrid events?
JR: We’ve always been driven by technology. And we always ask what can we do better and different. So that’s how we came up with the idea in 2012 of having virtual events. We rented the best platform we could find, but it crashed in the middle of the event. Then we said, ‘OK, let’s stop, let’s build our own virtual platform’.
So we invested a huge amount of money, around a million dollars so far, and built our own virtual platform. In the eight years since, we’ve been learning what is different between an online and in-person event. We were in a good position because we organised in-person events, clients were happy with us, and then we could compare both because we were doing both at the same time.
The PIE: Were there students who would only engage virtually, who would only come to a virtual event and wouldn’t be interested in coming to a physical student fair?
JR: We think the desire of students to study abroad is there and that cannot be replicated virtually. You don’t have the same experience studying virtually. But we noticed is that students were super comfortable with events online.
When we say, we are going online and we think recruitment is going to go virtual, we mean student fairs can very easily be replicated online. And of course, you need to have the right equipment.
“Student fairs can very easily be replicated online”
We are not changing the concept. What we are changing is the environment. The idea of a student fair is for students to engage with admission counsellors.
At the end of the day, we’re all trying to sell our courses. There’s many providers out there. There’s a huge competition, but there are so many more students today than before. It’s the engagement, in our opinion, that enables trust. Everybody has a website. Students go to websites, they collect information, but there’s no engagement there. The initial engagement which happens during student fairs can be replicated online.
The PIE: It’s quite bold to go online only. What are the key reasons to do that and the benefits for the institution?
JR: The benefits are, number one, the price. You didn’t have to fly to talk to that student for five minutes. You don’t have to pay hotel. You don’t have to print brochures. 99% of the time, universities will send one rep to an event. Why? Because it’s expensive paying two times hotel, two times flights, food and everything else.
So what happens when they send one person and the fair is busy? In an event like we do, they can have two, three, four, five, six representatives attending. So less waiting time for students, better engagement, more conversation.
Second, the platform will track everything that happens. Sometimes in an in-person event, somebody grabs a brochure, but you don’t know who that person is. You cannot reach out to that person. If somebody just grabs a brochure when they’re attending a virtual event, you know who that person is, and you can reach out to that person.
At the end, every student has a virtual backpack with all the brochures they they grabbed, which they can share with their family. All the conversation transcripts are saved. When it’s time for follow up, you can refer back to your conversation and you can send an individualised message.
“We are helping people more equally than only helping people from one particular city”
It is also democratising for students. We are helping people more equally than only helping people from one particular city, but also it helps democratise for institutions as well. When the cost of attending virtual events is much less, fewer institutions cannot travel because of their budget. It also in that regard helps both sides.
The PIE: Are we seeing an end to country specific agencies and in-person recruitment?
JR: What we see is that students are so comfortable using technology and not only FPP, but other companies are going to start doing more of this, other platforms are going to come. We hired people during this pandemic because we are improving our technology all the time.
I don’t think agents are going to stop. What happened with normal travel agents when the airline companies started selling directly? That didn’t kill all the travel agents, but they had to adapt. Good agents do a good job. And they are important in the industry in my opinion.
In 1997 when we launched the website where students could have access to universities directly, at that time agents were angry at me. And I remember having an agent saying that she was going to call the president of the country to close the internet because that was going to ruin their business. But what happened? Agents reengineered and instead of being afraid of the internet, they used it to leverage their business.
The PIE: Will virtual fairs replace face to face?
JR: I think it will take over, but there will be in-person events taking place face to face. I don’t think that’s going to end. I like to give the example of Uber. I mean, we still have taxis, but the demand will drive the business. If students they want this, there’s nothing I can do. Why did Uber grow? Because people found it better. It’s cheaper. You know exactly when it’s going to come up.
Did Netflix change the concept [of entertainment]? No, it’s still a video company. But now you don’t have to go to their store, rent a video and then go back. They use technology to scale and make it cheaper.
This is an abridged version of the conversation at a recent PIE Webinar. You can see the full event here.