Last October, admission officials from 11 Canadian boarding schools conducted a tri-city promotional tour in Turkey.
Although such tours are not new in an increasingly competitive market for international students, the group has achieved something they never had individually.
Led by the Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS), the group was on TV morning shows and radio, creating a buzz among Turkish media about the prospects of studying and boarding in Canada.
“That was some amazing PR,” says Kathy LaBranche, admissions director of the 146-year-oldTrinity College School, which has 260 boarding students and is known for its small-town feel in Port Hope. “This was the first of its kind for us in an emerging market.”
Over five days, the 11-school group visited Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, meeting government officials, school principals, parents, prospective students and education recruitment agents.
The Canadian officials no longer just tagged along with their colleagues in public schools or competitors from the United States, the U.K. or Australia — they were the stars of this tour.
It was part of a campaign by 28 of CAIS’s 93 schools to raise awareness of the Canadian boarding schools brand and create a stronger presence in the ever-changing market for international students.
Anne-Marie Kee, CAIS executive director, says boarding enrolment across the country dropped by 10 per cent from 2008 to 2009. In response, its boarding schools came together for a “collaborative marketing initiative” that involves research, relationship building, marketing and recruitment.
International recruitment is a crucial component of the plan, since 49 per cent of Canada’s boarding school population is international.
CAIS marketing research identified nine emerging markets: Brazil, Colombia, India, Nigeria, Russia, Thailand, Turkey, Venezuela and Vietnam.
“We can do much better together than individually when we try to go into these new markets,” says Kee.
Guy McLean, principal of Oakville’s Appleby College, says trying to break into an emerging market is expensive and difficult, with high costs in advertising, travel and receptions, but no guarantee of returns.
“Going in as a group gives you the marketing clout. There is also the credibility and professional management that come with it,” says McLean, whose school just celebrated its centenary anniversary.
Nicknamed the “Road Warrior,” Sarah Milligan, CAIS boarding schools outreach director, is charged with coordinating the overseas promotional efforts.
In addition to the tour to Turkey, Milligan, a graduate of St. Catherines’ Ridley College, has also visited Russia, Germany, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam and the U.S.
With a 40-kilogram display case in tow — carrying a roll-up banner, poles, maple leaf candies, an iPad for slide shows about CAIS schools and other materials — Milligan has joined different circuits to promote Canada’s new boarding school brand.
This fall, 18 CAIS boarding schools will invite recruitment agents from around the world to visit their campuses, to help them assist parents of prospective students to make the best choice for their children.
“We, at CAIS, deliver the main message about our products. Our schools do the retail. Our agents overseas are part of that as well,” Milligan explains.
“If the agents know what the food is like in the dining hall, what the people and dormitory are like, they can do a better job in translating that experience to parents.”
As part of the branding initiative, CAIS has launched a new internet portal to give prospective students easy access to boarding opportunities in Canada.
LaBranche says the Internet has become an integral part of the marketing scheme and many schools are using social media to build an online presence.
“We try to have pictures, blogs and videos on the website. The idea is to let people get a live feel of the community,” she says.
Peer-to-peer dialogues could be one effective way to reach out to potential students and CAIS plans to have a contest for boarding students to encourage them to share their experience.
Although the joint recruitment tours and website will help diversify the outreach, nothing can replace the old-school word-of-mouth marketing through alumni around the world.
Upper Canada College admissions director Struan Robertson has been doing school fairs and small-group meetings for 15 years. He has been to 15 countries since September to recruit students.
“It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack. You meet a lot of people but they may not fit your school profile,” says Robertson, whose school has 88 boarders. “You get a lot of ‘nos’ but you also get into good conversation when they show interest in your school, come to visit you and apply.”
The overseas marketing is just the first step, as CAIS also plans to reach out to Canadian students to consider boarding as an option to enrich their learning experience.