Coming soon: A new data standard for language programme information

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The Association of Language Travel Organisations (ALTO) will shortly introduce a new industry standard for basic pricing information for language programmes
  • The goal of the new standard is to smooth communications between schools and agents, thereby generating new efficiencies and cost savings
  • The standard will be launched at the ALTO conference in San Francisco in April 2016

The Association of Language Travel Organisations (ALTO) is moving forward with plans to establish an industry standard for sharing basic information about language programmes.

The ALTO membership is composed of both schools and agents, and the standards initiative arises from a growing recognition of the business challenges associated with inconsistent and variable programme information across the industry. “We waste a lot of time in our industry trying to get basic information,” says ALTO board member, and director of the Brazilian agency World Study Thiago España. “Do a test: take the price lists of three schools and try to do a quotation. It will take a lot of time and I doubt that at least one of them won’t be wrong. Imagine doing that with hundreds of schools and agents.”

Mr España is leading the standards initiative for ALTO, an idea that the association first formally raised with in a poll of some of its agency members more than a year ago. At the time, 95% of the agent-respondents indicated that they are struggling with the complexity and variety of programme information from schools. Nearly two-thirds said that they employ additional staff just to help sort out basic pricing and programme details.

The standards project was back on the table at an ALTO board meeting in Malaga last month, and a 26 January release from the association confirms that the initiative is moving into a new phase of planning. ALTO will now invite selected software companies to submit a proposal for the development of a new data upload mechanism on the ALTO website. This new tool will allow member schools to upload their pricelists following the guidelines set out in the emerging standard – the intent being that agents would then draw that information directly from the ALTO website.

“The idea is to have a tool for agents to download the price list in PDF, spreadsheet, or even to create [an Application Programme Interface, or API] between agents’ software and this ALTO tool,” adds Mr España. An API is basically a structured, automated way for information systems to interact, in this case it would be a service provided by the ALTO website that would consistently supply standard programme information to external (that is, agent) systems.

The initiative has met with strong support to this point and particularly from agents. “All of them agreed with the idea and have completely supported it,” says Mr España. “The best thing is that everyone realises that we can cut costs with this.” Some have wondered if schools will be equally enthusiastic if the standard requires them to change any existing processes or systems. But ALTO reports a strong response from schools as well and the overarching sentiment appears to be in favour of streamlined communications and bookings across the industry.

Further details will be available when the ALTO Standard is officially launched at the association’s upcoming conference in San Francisco at the end of April 2016.

Focus on pricing

It seems clear that the initial version of the standard will focus on pricing details. ALTO has published an initial set of 12 guidelines as the foundation for a new standard, all of which relate to price in some way.

The guidelines address course intensity (stipulating that it should be expressed as hours taught per week), commission rates (to be always given as a percentage value), accommodation details (including room type and meals included), tuition (always stated as a price per week), discount offers, and a “pricelist validity” specification to clearly indicate the dates for which the supplied pricing is valid.

The proposed guidelines are elaborated in a related slide deck, also available on the ALTO website.

A first step

ALTO has been clear that it sees a standardised price list – framed by the initial standard as summarised above – as a first step in what could become a more comprehensive effort. Over time, it envisions that a broader standard could address other aspects of programmes and services, including admissions and accommodation forms.

The association is careful to note, however, that the new standard is not a move toward commoditisation. “We don’t want to commoditise because if all schools are the same, then agents are dead,” Mr España noted in a recent interview. “We do what we do as agents because schools are all different. The idea is to standardise the way we do things, not the products.

It seems likely, however, that if such a standard were to take hold to any great extent, it could be an important enabling technology that would bear on other aspects of innovation in the industry, including the use of integrated systems linking agents and schools or other online booking systems.



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