ALTO celebrates 25 years and looks to the future

Formed in 1998, ALTO now coordinates over 100 member organisations, many of which include owner-operators of independent language schools all over the world.

Opening the event, Leanne Linacre, co-founder of LILA* Liverpool and current chair for ALTO welcomed guests saying, “It’s a real testament to the vision of the original founders of the association, that so many years later we are still coming together to share ideas, discuss challenges and have some really candid discussion about the sector and make sure our business are surviving and thriving.”

The association also revealed a new logo and website to enhance its growing community of professional development events, members and sector wide initiatives it is pursuing.

Christopher Thebing, managing partner of College of English Language in California said, “I joined ALTO around 2011 because it was recommended to me by a colleague.

“Now I too recommend it for everybody to join because it’s really valuable to exchange views with your peers from the industry, it’s fun and business wise you always go home with new ideas. Then it’s on you to make them happen.”

Nicholas Cuthbert, director of insight at The PIE, hosted an industry panel at the event that focused on many of the macro-level forces in play since the pandemic including accommodation shortages, staff recruitment and retention challenges and opportunities such as harnessing the digital power of advocacy online.

Soaring global inflation was also on the agenda with school operators and agents able to provide insightful perspectives across Asia, Europe and the Americas.

While renewed student mobility, pent up demand and work rights have fuelled recovery, the new threat to operators is inflated consumer costs including flights, food and amenities, margins that are all hitting the homestay market especially hard.

Jonathan Kolber, co-president of ILAC explained the issue, calling it one of the biggest threats to the industry in memory, saying, “For 20 years we barely raised our homestay prices, and in the last year we’ve raised it 30% and it’s still not enough.

“The pool of homestay families shrunk during Covid and we haven’t got a new pool coming. That’s a supply issue and the cost of feeding kids in their houses and providing internet have gone up dramatically.”

Annual budgets and a heavy reliance on agents to support applicants for language courses has meant that dynamic pricing continues to be difficult in keeping pace with fluctuating energy and travel costs as well as competition.

Colleagues from the Irish sector also reported on homestay capacity being reduced by families either using their spare room to work from home or in some cases welcoming Ukrainian refugees.

Turkey itself is consistently ranked as a top source country for language travel, and Istanbul was a fitting location for industry leaders to take stock of the current climate.

Selim Dervish, director of Academia United, an agency in Turkey explained that despite the country being ‘the champions’ of inflation, which stood at 43.68% in April, there is still a strong demand to study languages abroad.

“They want to explore and emigrate all around the world”

“The reason is Turkey has a very young population,” Dervish explained. “They want to explore and emigrate all around the world, so they somehow find the funds and money and go with or without inflation.”

Business leaders attending the event took the opportunity to raise funds for victims of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, raising over £5,000 – an amount that was generously match funded by event sponsors GuardMe.

David Brown, director and co-founder of Oxford International Education Group, raised a toast to ALTO at a special anniversary dinner, saying, “This is a club of like minded, industry focused individuals who want to understand and contribute and grow our sector.

“I think there’s no point in being involved in an industry unless you actually belong to it. Everyone here genuinely belongs to our industry and that’s what I like to call the power of ALTO.”

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