How popular are the different accommodation options with international students coming to the UK? Has this changed in recent years and if so, why do you think this is?
Homestay bookings have traditionally accounted for around 70-to-80 per cent of our total bookings with international students. From our experience the homestays market has in the UK has been growing for the last 10 years, with around 20 per cent growth year on year. However, over the last few years as the number of language school students has decreased, this has stagnated.
Since the Brexit referendum results were announced, supported by the falling pound, the EFL market in England seems to have turned a corner and bookings have increased over the last six months. In fact, July 2016 saw the highest number of homestay bookings we have ever placed in a month.
There now appears to be two very distinct trends in bookings for London, with student residences catering for the upper end of the market (UK£250+ per week) and homestays catering for students who are on a budget or staying long term. Homestay requests have in general moved away from the more expensive superior or executive requests, with the most popular request by far being standard zone 2 or zone 3. These accommodation options are priced on average UK£100 per week cheaper than student residences and offer great value for money.
During the same period of time, we have worked hard to expand the residence options we offer students. As the number of options we are able to offer has increased, so have the bookings placed, with sales up 33 per cent year on year.
After the recent turbulence and lack of government support for attracting international students to the UK, we hope the recent stability and steady growth continues for the rest of 2017/2018.
Do you deal directly with the students themselves or with language schools/education providers?
We deal directly with students and agents, and work as an accommodation provider for schools and internship agencies. We do not really market directly to schools other than to be members of English UK. All businesses receive a huge number of cold calls and junk mail each day and from our own experience, this drives us crazy so we do not want to impose this on our potential customers.
We prefer to do a good job for our-long standing customers and trade on word-of-mouth recommendations. Schools owners speak to each other and accommodation officers move around jobs within the industry. We have had three cases over the years where an accommodation officer has moved to three different schools, insisting her new school work with us each time. This is obviously massively flattering and helps create very good long-lasting relationships.
How do ensure that each homestay offers a quality experience for students? What checks do you carry out and how often?
We check every homestay ourselves and follow the accommodation section of the British Council accreditation handbook.
Hosts are vetted by phone first, we then use technology such Google Street view to assess the area. From here we arrange for an assessor to visit the host. The assessors are independent, not directly employed by us and are paid the same regardless of if a host is accepted or not. Our assessors have been working with us for years and we ask them to be as candid as possible with their reports.
We do receive occasional complaints from prospective hosts about our assessors being too inquisitive or direct about improvements required. However, we prefer to err on the side of safety and higher quality. If a host does not want to answer questions on their accommodation or who stays there, they shouldn't be hosting.
In addition to this we also follow the British Council guidelines on accommodating under 18s, including DBS checked hosts etc.
We also work with regular residence management companies to ensure we are offering as uniformed a product as possible.
Do you ever have a problem meeting student demand in peak season? How do you deal with this?
Yes, this happens every year (we are hopeful of another busy summer). We are always able to offer a homestay of some sort, however in peak season we may not be able to satisfy every student preference, particularly with last-minute bookings.
For example, a student might have to be flexible with the zone they want to stay in or the meal plan. This is especially true if they have a number of other requests such as 'no pets', 'no children' or if they are a smoker.
We are taking larger summer residence allocations and look to ensure we offer a range of rooms/studios at different prices. This means if we are unable to meet either a homestay or residence request, we are able to offer several good alternatives.
At the time of writing, UK£1 = US$1.28
James McCall is Director of Accommodation at London Homestays and London Student Residences
See the April 2017 issue of StudyTravel Magazine for a special direction feature on Accommodation: budget or expensive?