Harlequin - International School Growth

The story of how Harlequin Floors has developed from supplying specialist floors for theatre and dance to the world’s most prestigious companies, to meeting the needs of the world’s international schools

Harlequin Floors is renowned for providing professional flooring for dance and the performing arts across the world. The British-based company also provides specialist flooring and stage-building to schools and colleges and is now working strategically with the international schools market.

Mark Rasmussen is Group Marketing Manager. He heads up the Global Marketing team and he tells the story of how Harlequin is developing its business with the international schools market.

An exciting market for Harlequin

Harlequin has an interesting relationship with the international schools market. Whilst over the years we have installed dozens of floors with international schools, these have been “one off” projects where either the teaching staff specifically requested a Harlequin floor or an architect or building contractor specified us. This meant that we still had much to learn about how to approach and market to international schools. Here is our story so far:

We are British company with major offices and distribution centres in America, Europe, Asia and Australia.

Whilst we are the trusted supplier to the world’s leading venues, the Royal Opera House, The Bolshoi Theatre, Beijing’s National Arts Centre and major companies such as RSC, Royal Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet etc. these companies rely on specialist drama and dance schools who, in turn, receive students either from tertiary schools that offer performing arts as a specialist subject or secondary state and independent schools that offer dance or drama as part of the curriculum or extra-curricular activity.

This is why we find much of our business comes from the education sector, where we supply sprung floors and specialist surfaces for their rehearsal studios, dance and/or drama studios, black box spaces etc.

The importance of a quality product

The performing arts are a very popular after-school activity and parents are willing to pay very good money to give their child the opportunity of developing their talents. Schools know this and as a result, many are willing to invest in proper facilities, which means a proper sprung floor that provides their students and teachers with a safe environment.

If performing directly on a concrete floor, students and teachers risk shin splints, stress fractures or joint problems. Floors without proper traction present a slip hazard if too slick or twisted ankles if the foot gets stuck to the surface by having too much grip.

Sports floors are not suitable for performing arts disciplines as they need to be stiff to allow adequate ball bounce, this doesn’t present a problem because most users of sports floors are wearing cushioned footwear.

Harlequin are trusted to provide flooring that delivers the safest environment for performers. We work closely with the specialist medical associations for dancers, teachers and performers such as the Royal Academy of Dance and the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science to advise us and perform research on our behalf. This research, combined with the experience of working with elite companies around the world is why Harlequin has become to many, the only name.

So why international schools?

As I’ve explained, education is one of our largest markets and we know it well. We came to the international schools market organically, not strategically. Just by a process of people finding us through their own knowledge or word of mouth, we ended up supporting the needs of many international schools.

So we decided to look strategically at the international schools market. We heard that ISC Research had a good reputation and was the best source of information and data on the market. So we purchased a licence to their data tool (ISC Online) and sent out a mailer to all the international schools in Asia and Germany. We received no enquiries at all! Our expectations were completely wrong – not on the opportunities within the market, but how to approach the schools and how to develop the relationships that mattered.

The mistakes we made

In retrospect, there were some significant things that we did wrong. The first was timing. Our mailing hit the desks of the Heads too close to their summer holidays. In the UK and US, May is a really busy time for us as schools put the finishing touches on construction projects to be completed during the summer holidays. However, we now know that these decisions happen much earlier in the year in international schools. So when our first mailer hit their desks in May, they’d already made their decisions about their construction projects for the year and some had already broken up for the summer!

So we learnt that you have to get to know the schools; get to know the right timings for their budget decisions, their holiday dates, etc. and also the schools need to get to know who you are before you start selling to them.

Second, our business is considered building work. This isn’t something that schools do very often. It certainly wasn’t going to be a quick decision for them, especially when they didn’t know who we were! So we were a bit unrealistic to expect a one-off mailing to work – which of course it didn’t.

We should have spent time getting to know the schools, talking to them, identifying schools that are planning to expand or about to be built, before starting a marketing campaign.

Where did we go from there?

We talked to people who know the market. We talked to ISC. We listened to their advice, and it’s working for us.

The biggest change we made was spending time developing personal relationships with people at the right schools. For us that’s mainly been through conferences. We’ve attended a selection of conferences that target very specific schools (such as schools within a particular region, and British schools overseas). Most of them have been international school association conferences such as the COBIS Leadership Conference, and specialist international school conferences such as IPSEF which focuses on new international school investment and expansion.

At these conferences we were able to meet lots of people. Representatives from ISC are at all these conferences and they were able to introduce us to school leaders and other significant people who would be important for us to get to know, such as the main decision-makers within a school, or those who make things happen. This was really powerful to help our relationship marketing.

What we have learnt from these experiences is to send the right people. Send people who are good at meeting new people, good at developing relationships and making friends, who know what to say when; not the big sales talk but genuine relationship building. They can make a huge impact at conferences.

Even for a niche business like ours, we were able to pick up a handful of enquiries at each conference. This is where we started to get to know people and to pick up enquiries. We also were able to talk to other exhibitors who are working with the international schools and learnt a huge amount just by talking with them.

The impact of doing it right

By meeting people, and by working with ISC and taking their advice, we’ve seen a doubling of enquiries in Asia alone. We’re already getting serious enquiries covering requirements over the next 12 months.

Suddenly it feels like people within the international schools are starting to get to know us and what we do. The impact of word of mouth within this market is amazing. Once you get good references within a region, suddenly you become more established.

It’s been very much a case of learning along the way. Here’s what we’ve learnt so far:

  • Blind contact with people didn’t work for us
  • Timing has been vital
  • Hard copy mailings work better than emails
  • Face to face contact with senior leaders and people who can impact decisions is important
  • Travelling to our target regions is important. You’ve got to get out there. Scheduling visits to some select schools shows you are prepared to put in the miles
  • Identify regions carefully to help your marketing and sales efforts. For example, many internationals schools tend to be in clusters so you can visit various schools at one time
  • Listen and learn. The more you can find out about this market, the better – it’s not like national schools
  • We are following a consultative-style selling approach. This requires face to face and also references from other schools. This is working very well with the international schools
  • We have realised that for our business, we need to get involved either with a school that’s opening at the early stage of building, or with established schools when a new space is being planned. This might be a long lead-time but that’s fine for us. We’re not looking for short-term sales only. You can’t in our market
  • Informative videos are great. Our YouTube channel has seen 50% growth year on year. Advice-focused videos such as: How to clean your dance floor, Safety and performance requirements for a dance floor, etc. work really well and are easy to send to schools who are showing an interest in what we do. Videos make us real
  • Third party testimonials are always a good thing. They are very important. Who have you already dealt with? That means a lot to the market. If you haven’t worked with any international schools yet but have relationships with big school names in the UK market, then use them as testimonials. They still have brand recognition amongst senior leaders at international schools, particularly British senior leaders
  • Every company should know the benefit of good relationships and customer support but this is very important for the international schools. They want to know that they are going to be well supported. Most of our products are guaranteed for 5 years with many of our installations still going strong after 15-20 years. We don’t walk away once we’ve installed a floor; we are going to be around to follow things up. Even though our business is classed as construction, we often get repeat business. For example, suddenly dance and drama takes off in a school and they want a bigger space, or they decide to build an additional space. Also, teachers and staff move on to other schools where they are likely to suggest you to their new employers

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