Three a day to take away at Thai conference

INTO’s Global Recruitment Conference is this week delivering on its own mission statement – Innovation, Collaboration and Education. In a nod to this theme of three, and not necessarily in that order, INTO Internal Communications Manager Mary Kalmus presents her favourite daily Thai takeaways…

Sunday: Awoke to find a bank of clouds shrouding the Chao Phrya river that contours the Anantara Resort in Bangkok. But it would take more than UK-like climatic conditions to dampen the flames of enthusiasm aroused by the GRC2016 first-day speeches.

After a warm welcome to INTO family members new, old, returning and “in new hats,” Co-Founder and Executive Vice-President, Global Recruitment Unit Steven Smale kicked the day off by proclaiming how fantastic it was to have everyone back together again, and welcoming on to the stage Ajay Menon, Dean of Colorado State University’s College of Agricultural Science and its Agriculture Experiment Station.

In his powerful speech Ajay then went on to draw reasoned conclusions about what is happening in and around the world of higher education. He also made predictions.

Especially thought-provoking was his comment that the biggest rises in population are likely to be in areas where there is not much economic growth, leading to, “a potentially toxic mix of youth unemployment. However, he said, “education is a bridge out of economic despair.”

He should know, having been brought up by parents of modest means in Bombay who had struggled to find the money to educate their two sons. “You,” he told delegates, give, “flight to the aspirations of parents and grandparents,” through helping their children to achieve their own.

The ‘State of the Nation’ address was heralded and headlined by Group Chief Operations Officer Anmar Kawash, who said that: “No matter what we say here it is all about relationships.”

INTO chairman Stuart Holmes reflected on INTO’s achievements over the first ten years and reserved a particularly warm welcome for colleagues from our newest university partners, Saint Louis University and the University of Alabama at Birmingham..

Steven Smale, co-founder and Executive Vice President held the Government, institutional Links and Sponsors (GILS) team up for praise, citing them as a prime example of how fresh and bold moves like setting up the team are crucial to our future success.

The challenges posed by the UK visa regulations and how staff had worked tirelessly and smartly over the past twelve months to overcome them, plus the advances made in other aspects of the business over the past year, such as Bluewolf came in for praise, too.

“If you think that discussions at GRC don’t lead to action, think again,” concluded Anmar, as he closed the morning’s proceedings.

The afternoon was a time of excitement, as representatives from our newest partners – Saint Louis University (SLU) and The University of Birmingham at Alabama – revealed the brilliant environment for learning and myriad opportunities at their respective institutions.

SLU Provost Nancy Brickhouse championed the Education aspect, saying: “We want to produce students who understand the world, are able to speak and write powerfully, and can address today’s challenges. Ones who will made a difference in the world.”

UAB Senior Vice Provost  Suzanne Austin, meanwhile, talked movingly about the power of Collaboration, when she commented on how the new partnership with INTO, “will allow us to bring the world to our students.”

If the speeches were memorable and interesting, so was the evening – though in an entirely different way. A river boat trip with some more-than-authentic Thai food accompanied by the splendid sight of palatial hotels and celestial palaces and temples rounded off my first, uniquely exhilarating, 24 hours in Thailand.

Monday: Today was a day of contrasts – the morning spent visiting an educational project supported by INTO Giving in the heart of the Thai capital, the afternoon participating in a selection box of workshops delivered by colleagues around the world at a top-notch resort hotel.

An early, invigorating 40 lengths in the beautiful pool – the temperature being just shy of 20 degrees – was followed by a mad dash to meet up with INTO Giving Director Chris Walker for our planned trip to the Mercy Poonsab PreSchool.

The sight of a hundred or so smiling children aged two-and-a-half to six or seven being taught in a wall-less, concrete-floored building in the one of the most deprived areas of Bangkok was indescribably touching. “We teach the children to want to learn,” said Kristine, a Norwegian who has worked at the school for three years.

Speaking to the calm, gentle women who help the children, who often come from homes where there is a single not-too-stable parent, to grasp the skills of life such as how to keep themselves clean, and start them on a learning journey that would most likely be all too short was positively humbling for someone like me who has, through an accident of birth, had access to an excellent education and a great life with minimal effort. You could see that each penny donated would pay enormous dividends here – by providing these tiny, emergent adults with the hope of a better life.

The afternoon was a veritable pastiche of our successful collaborations with partners old and new, UK, US and China-based as people dashed from one presentation to another to catch the latest news and share their ideas on how best to promote the centres to agents, students and parents during 45 minute, quick-fire sessions.

New ideas were triumphed by INTO George Mason University Centre Director Todd Rose in his session as he outlined the, “innovative programmes designed to support the experience and success of students,” at this, one of our newer centres.

And in a fun, interactive session driven by INTO Colorado State University Centre Director Fabiola Ehlers-Zavala, delegates were asked to come up with ideas for promoting a fictional INTO Alaska, resulting in some amusing slogans and ideas, even a jingle, to show how cold, nay freezing, temperatures can be made warm if presented to the right audience and in the right way.

Evening saw everyone spruced up and looking in their prime at the INTO Giving fundraiser event, where we were joined for a few minutes by a group of adorable children from the Mercy Poonsab PreSchool, who performed a dance, and then looked rather baffled at the typically-INTO-loud applause.

Adults from across the delegate cohort also had their day in the sun during the fun and food-packed evening, as many of the usual suspects, plus a few random others joined Thai dancers and martial arts specialists on the stage.

It was heartening to see so many people digging deep to place their bids in the silent auction and shell out for raffle tickets to raise a total that, although not yet totted up, is likely this year to run into thousands for INTO Giving projects around the world…

Tuesday: Although today started off with weather resembling a UK November morning, the light gradually grew more intense and, by lunchtime, Thailand was finally looking her normal, bright self.

But there was little time to appreciate the climate during a morning and afternoon filled with presentations from our regional office staff to centre and partner staff. All of the sessions that I attended started with an overview of where our various regions are with regard to either US or UK student recruitment.

The figures shared varied greatly between both regions and countries because, as anyone in any business will tell you, performance depends on many factors, not all of them within our own control. In the case of international student numbers, such things as exchange rates, civil unrest, oil prices and demographics have had a strong influence on how each region has performed over the past year. The world feels in a state of flux in so many ways at the moment, and a global organisation like ours is bound to feel the consequences.

During each 45-minute session, the specialists in our regional offices presented an overview of their region’s students’ preferences and general characteristics (eg whether they are more likely to want to study medicine than English and if they are strongly family-orientated). They also gave the low-down on aspects like how much importance people from their region place upon university rankings, what social media channels they use, and how much the cost matters to them.

Competition, both from other regions (particularly Australia and Canada) as well as other providers, has never been so intense. All of the workshops included an open forum section during which members of both panel and audience discussed ideas to give us the edge. Getting the right message out to the right student at the right time was a universal theme, and to this end many of our regional colleagues said that they would like to have more webinars and videos; would appreciate being able to send agents from their areas on more fam trips to our centres; and have more, carefully-targeted materials such as flyers at their disposal.

Other themes throughout the day included improving communication between agents and centres; and supplying student (and parent) testimonials. Regional office staff also mentioned that we should keep the current level of scholarships, and perpetuate the amount of help we provide with them.

All-in-all an intense and thought-provoking day which was perfectly off-set by a leisurely late-night trip to Bangkok’s busiest shopping area, complete with modern malls and surrounding streets filled with market stalls. Ambling around looking at stuff as ideas from the day filtered through and took shape in my mind. Retail. Therapy. Need I say more?…

Wednesday: The last day of conference! GRC has seemed both long and short – long when you see my notebook filled with around 45 pages of notes, yet short as the time has flown by. A bit short, too, on sleep, I realised yesterday at 9am as my head nodded towards my chest while waiting for the first headline act.

Luckily for me, it was Assistant Director, Digital and Web Steve Rawlings, whose ebullience as he described the process and rationale for the planned radical rethink of the student website was stronger than any caffeine. “We want INTO to be the best in class, and the go-to place for students,” he said.

Organisation on the new site has been based heavily upon extensive research, much of it stemming from the results of a survey sent out to INTO applicants. The most interesting data from this, he revealed, was that received from students who had decided not to study with us, as this is the best way to see what needs to be done differently.

Producing a revitalised, reorganised website that will, “take students to the next stage of their journey seamlessly, supportively and confidently,” is the ultimate aim of the project which is due to launch in April. Content Production Manager Stacey Crosskill then finished off the presentation by speaking knowledgeably about the ambitious video production plan for the site.

“Free for ad-hoc meetings from 10.45am to 12.30pm,” read the glossy programme. As footfall was highest around the GRC reception desk, I decided to lie in wait there so I could leap out and capture quotes about their conference experiences from a pre-selected bunch of people. The results of this successful, if slightly devious, scheme will be revealed exclusively in this week’s INTO This Week, so don’t forget to read it!

The first hour of the afternoon was given over to staff seminars. Having signed up, somewhat masochistically, to present one on internal communications, I positioned myself in the Thonburi room to await my audience.

The formal presentation of many, many slides, most relating to the results of a pan-INTO communications survey sent out a couple of weeks ago, I had planned was not to be. Formal, that is, as the bijou audience of around seven (a couple came and went) were so full of suggestions and comments that it soon turned into a discussion group from which I took away some valuable ideas and actions.

Against a Star Wars-inspired backdrop, GILS Director Clinton Rae again roused me from my creeping fatigue with his comic style, which made hearing about the latest happenings in this new, innovative area of the business a pleasure. For more about GILS, please click here.

A quick coffee break followed, and when we all streamed back into the magnificent ballroom, the stage had been set for a mock University Challenge panel quiz game.

“Bob Gilmour, BA in American Mascots of the Pacific North West,” and “Brett Prim, Joint Degree in Poetry and Air Conditioning Repair,” was how two contestants introduced themselves. “Whose name does this anagram represent – Mice Hustler?” quizzed host Clinton Rae (no-one got that one, but the answer was INTO St Louis University Executive Director Tim Hercules). “What does YAGO stand for?” was a question in the popular Acronyms round. “Year ago!” was the reply. “Nope – it’s a character in Othello!” revelealed Clinton triumphantly to loud applause.

“It’s been good to see all of you people engaging on the core themes – as they are part of the DNA of INTO,” said John Sykes in the last speech of the conference. The idea that collaboration leads to innovation which, in turn leads to education formed the nub of his closing remarks.

After a huge thank-you to Assistant Director (Strategic Projects) Stuart Coleman, Project Coordinator Rosie Boston, Central Recruitment Operations Controller Paul Mason and Senior Admissions Advisor Becky Spuffard, among many, for their part in the “phenomenal planning and excellent execution,” of the conference he called the Centre Directors and Regional Managers onto the stage for their comments: a cluster of which is below, to give you the gist:

…Can’t believe how excited I am about the future as there is so much going on… Collaboration is easy due to our shared values… I am proud to have been part of so many successful students’ journeys… I have been overwhelmed by the cerebral horsepower in this room… Innovation is here today but we now have to take action and make decisions…

A quick scrub-up and it was off to a stadium-sized rooftop bar in central Bangkok for the aptly-named Close Party as INTO family members got rather close, especially as the generously-measured drinks started to flow and the INTO band struck up and brought the crowd rushing over.

A few rousing songs in, and there was a pause for staff awards. And then, well… a few hours of notebook-free light mingling, dancing and drinking before catching a taxi, hitting my pillow with an almighty thud and catching some final GRZzzzs…

For a list of staff award winners, please click here. Photos from GRC parties are here and ones from the conference speeches are here.

Author: Mary Kalmus

Mary Kalmus is INTO University Partnership's Internal Communications Manager. A journalist and communications professional of many years' standing, she has worked widely across the consumer press and local newspapers and within the NHS.

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