When you start to learn about the bonkers business environment language schools have to operate in, it can make you wonder why anyone would run one.
But that’s exactly what Coco Chong He and Dale Lockhart have been doing in Kelowna for well over a decade.
The pair run the Language school International Gateway Kelowna, which not long ago celebrated its 15th anniversary.
Lockhart says he and Chong He started the school because they thought they could do better than the big-name one they were working at in Vancouver.
So after extensive research they set up shop in Kelowna, starting out with just a single, Japanese student all those years ago.
Over the years they’ve grown, adding and subtracting various programs, and today they have a vibrant school that has partnerships with clubs and organizations across the city.
The pair clearly have a passion for their work, which is a really good thing, because running a language school might just be one of the most challenging business ventures there is.
Lockhart says each year the school serves anywhere from 40-60 students during the winter and 100-130 students during peak season.
Obviously, when more students enroll the school does better, but enrollment can vary significantly from year to year based on a complex web of local, national and international influences.
Like many businesses that deal with international clients, the relative strength of the Canadian dollar can bolster or hinder the school’s success.
Lockhart points out that Canadian language schools are in close competition with schools in other similar countries like Australia, New Zealand and Ireland.
How each country’s currency is performing will influence potential students looking to study English abroad.
“For a lot of international students, they see the three of us and Ireland as being very similar,” Lockhart says. “So whichever dollar is a little bit better, they will probably go there.”
Another factor that can dramatically impact International Gateway’s enrollment is the political whims of countries where many of their students came from.
Lockhart says visa agreements between Canada and other countries are vital to business, because there are so many schools to choose from in so many different countries.
Any extra barrier to getting into Canada, like stricter visa requirements or a student’s ability to work, are enormous.
Lockhart still looks back at the Stephen Harper era with somewhat of a shudder. At one point, Harper’s Conservative government changed visa regulations for people coming from Mexico, which caused a 20 per cent drop in International Gateway’s enrollment that year.
Lockhart says Canada is actually one of the hardest places for students to get work, which makes it much more difficult to compete on the world stage.
“It hurts us, especially from countries where their currencies aren’t as strong, and they want to balance it out by working a bit,” he says.
So how do a couple of English teachers, passionate about passing on the language, structure their business around the whims of world leaders?
Lockhart lets out a hearty laugh and pretends to frantically juggle.
Lots of their business comes from international travel agents, and when they notice repeated requests from those agents for specific programs, they try to find a way to offer them.
They also offer small class sizes, and work to spin Kelowna’s “small city” status to their advantage, touting the advantages of true immersion to potential students.
When they first started up, Lockhart joked that International Gateway “would take anybody for anything.”
“If someone was looking for English and cigar making we would probably find a way to make that happen,” he said with a chuckle.
While they still adapt to their students’ needs, Lockhart says they have a much more refined set of programming now, and that seems to be working well.
At their 15th anniversary celebration earlier this month, students, community partners, teachers and former students from abroad all showed up.
That, Lockhart says, is a testament to the impact International Gateway has had.
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