Room for Change
After five difficult years in the international study abroad business it is good to be able to say that we are back in a growth market.
However, we owe more of this growth to post Brexit Sterling devaluation than we do to our own efforts and currency fluctuations are a poor basis for a sales plan. So the big question remains; how do we all – as managers and leaders in the study abroad sector – continue to attract students and to stay relevant in this modern market?
Today we’re kicking off a series of monthly posts that answers that question by challenging conventional wisdom on what study abroad customers want and how to sell to them.
We at London Nest are passionate about the study abroad market. We believe that we’re all involved in a fantastic enterprise that has the power to change lives forever. What you all offer your customers is an opportunity to travel, learn, meet new people and engage with different cultures. In short, to enable them to have a time of their lives experience.
We’ve spent the past eight years in this business specifically within the accommodation sector and have become convinced of its importance to the holistic experience of the student. We are also convinced of its – often untapped – potential to increase sales and profitability in all areas of the study abroad market.
It is with theses insights in mind that we have decided to publish these posts, which are aimed squarely at leaders and managers in all areas of the business. We know that many of you view accommodation as a necessary evil, at best an add on, to the core business of enrolling students on courses. Given that most of you will have entered into the industry to educate students this is understandable. However, we feel that you are missing an opportunity.
Here’s why. Studying abroad starts with a dream, a dream to find a better job, a more exciting life, to make new friends and maybe even find romance. Where and how a student lives throughout this experience will have a massive effect on the quality of the reality of those dreams. So, it is hardly surprising that students consistently rate accommodation as one of the most crucial factors in choosing a study abroad program.
It is our assertion that by seeing accommodation as a key part of the mix in any study abroad package that you can turn it from a thorn in your side into a powerful tool for selling more courses and for increasing the profit margin on those sales.
This series sets out in simple and direct terms, a complete strategy to achieve this transformation. At its heart, so running right through this content, is the acute awareness that we are in a period of rapid and unprecedented change throughout our sector; change that is driven by a new kind of customer.
In the last 10 years there has, without a doubt, been a fundamental transition in the nature of the customers that we’re dealing with; a change which has shifted the importance of accommodation from the fringe – to the very centre – of the study abroad package. This series of posts explains why this is so and provides practical advice on how to take advantage of this realignment.
Our first task in doing this is to understand the new customer. We are now seeking to attract Generation Z and what clearly sets them apart is their total immersion in, reliance on and absorption of the online, networked world. They are the first generation unable to remember a world without the internet. They use it as a source of information, as a form of communication, to make friends, receive advice and importantly to narrate their own experiences – with breathtaking speed and immediacy – all of which we ignore at our peril.
This technological truth has had two powerful effects on our business to which we need to adapt and address as never before.
Firstly: Increased Competition. Our potential customers have all the choice modern technology can offer literally at their fingertips, wherever they are, day and night. This means not only increased competition from other language schools, education providers and agencies, other cities and countries – but also from other travel options, other time of their lives experiences.
So, we must start seeing the study abroad option as just one ‘travel experience’ choice to be held up and compared to the myriad other options available to the customer. Whether that be backpacking in South America, Inter-railing around Europe or doing environmental work in the Far East, we must compete in this world of tech enabled choice. Indeed, we must compete as never before by offering a package that will excite and entice a customer whose expectations and desires are driven and informed by that very same technology. By the plethora of images and testimonies of those already having these experiences and adventures.
That means that we must attend to every part of the package. Where they stay – and in what style – being an important part of the mix that goes into building that dream and ultimately in informing the choices that they make.
Secondly: Feedback. In the fully connected world of GEN Z thoughts, feelings, experiences – in the form of both words and images – are uploaded and narrated – sometimes vented – straight onto preferred platforms in pretty much real time. Feedback, opinions and responses are immediate, almost seamless with the real world. They are trusted, sought out and most importantly acted upon by a generation who have come to rely upon a huge digitally connected peer group to review and recommend everything from their choice of breakfast cereal to life partner.
The new customers still have real world experiences but they diarise, narrate and share them online. And strange as that may be to some of us from a different generation, to miss or ignore its huge importance to our customer facing business will be a serious error. These days you don’t have to wait until a student goes home to friends and family to spread the good – or indeed bad – word about their experience. No. It is being narrated in real time on their social feeds. Feedback from this new customer is immediate and public and so is its effect on your business.
In this new world getting every aspect of the package right has a newer more urgent importance. We also have to find a way to engage with and attract this new customer amid the sound and fury of an immense digital marketplace.
We hope this will be a timely and useful clarion call to the industry that we are passionate about. It’s worth remembering that the very place where your customer is likely to sharing their online opinions of your product or service is from the comfort – or not! – of the place where they cook, eat, socialise and work – namely their new home. We believe that with this new understanding comes a great opportunity to turn every accommodation officer’s nightmare scenario – a queue of students complaining about their accommodation – into readymade connected pool of brand evangelists.
We want this series to work like a D.R.E.A.M and each new published post will address a key area in the quest to help you lever the accommodation part of the package to its full potential for our new modern customers.
Post one: ‘Deconstructing the New Customer’ examines both consistency and change in our customer base to get to grips with what makes Generation Z tick. Post two: ‘Resourcing the Package’ gives practical advice on the dos and don’ts when choosing the right type of accommodation for your inventory. Post three: ‘Engaging the New Customer’ we focus on how best to market and cut through to this digitally entrenched generation. Post four: ‘Action for Success’ is a guide for a smooth delivery of the package ensuring that customer expectations are met, problems diffused and feedback is positive. Post five: ‘Measure to learn’ examines both quantitative and qualitative techniques that capture and apply the results of the above learnings to create a positive feedback loop on the business.
Each post opens with a vignette that introduces the themes of the main part of the text. They all end with another ‘in practice’ scenario where we invite you to make some choices. Although fictional they are based on the many conversations, interviews and insights from people in our industry. Warning: Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, in study abroad is purely coincidental!
London Nest is an accommodation agency which we – Alex Uselli and James Herbertson – formed in 2010. We have found over 15,000 students a place to stay in London so they could follow their dreams to study abroad in the capital. Whilst our own accommodation experiences as students abroad were very different, James positive – Alex negative, they ultimately led us into the business and gave us the complimentary viewpoints that have created a successful company. Here are our brief stories:
Alex: “In 2004 I was living in Paris and the path of my life looked set. I had been studying hard and was about to start the long process of becoming a lawyer in my home country. Something was missing though, the need for adventure, for travel or just to break out from the route that I was on. Almost overnight I packed my bags, said goodbye to my bewildered parents and travelled to London. After a terrible journey I arrived at my new home in Maida Vale and very nearly turned straight around and went home!
My accommodation was terrible, a damp, shared room in basement with no window! I have since moved 14 times in as many years trying to avoid leaking roofs and dodgy landlords. In 2007 I set up my first agency to help French people who were in the same position as me and I made many great contacts with reputable and prolific landlords in the capital. When I met James in 2009 we both had the same ideas about delivering a great experience and good value, so London Nest was born.”
James: “18 I travelled to Spain and studied Spanish in Malaga. It was a time of my life experience. I found that I could speak to people not just from Spain but from all over the world in another language. I made friends from Brazil, Switzerland, Denmark and could communicate with them in Spanish. It opened my eyes.
After a spell working in the media, I wanted others to share in my experience and started an online language travel agency Answer English which I later sold. During this time, I realised that if a student is happy in their accommodation they can prosper on their course. Yet if they are unhappy in their accommodation, it doesn’t matter how good their teacher is, they won’t enjoy themselves.”
Together we spotted an opening in the accommodation side of the business in London and set up London Nest in 2010. At that time, it was very difficult to find residential accommodation outside of the summer. So we took on allocations in student residences and made it possible for students studying on short-term courses to book for as short as one week and live independently.