A COMPANY that used to bring hundreds of European schoolchildren and their teachers into the area every week is on the path to recovery following the Covid crisis and is calling for local residents to think about taking in a student.
The founder of International Student Experiences (ISE), Stephanie Heymer told the Times that her company was seeking host families and individuals to accommodate the European school visitors who are now eager to return to the UK.
“It is integral to their educational culture – especially for the French – that they stay with host families on a school trip,” she added.
Before the pandemic, she was welcoming up to seven coaches a week in Tunbridge Wells at the height of busy season and schools are now keen to return – if only she can arrange accommodation.
“I’m turning tourism away,” she said. “I can’t accept bookings unless I have families. They are the backbone of my business.”
However, she stressed the advantage was mutual, with hosts benefitting socially, culturally and financially – rates range from £126 for hosting two students for three nights, up to £352 for hosting four for four nights.
And she reassured hosts worried about the cost of living that they have no daytime costs or responsibilities – just getting their guests to the meeting point at 7:30am and picking them up after their full day of sightseeing and activities.
“There’s no time for a full English breakfast as they have to be out all day!
“They just need a packed lunch and a hot dinner, and then you just chat to them or watch a movie, or maybe play some games. Everything you may be doing already.
“It can be very practical to host.”
It is rewarding too, she explained. One local host, a widower, could not cook, so took his guests – he accommodated the teachers – out to restaurants instead, explaining: “I can go four days without speaking to another human being.”
Ms Heymer also witnessed children in a group from Lyon in France being brought to tears by simple kindness in their host family.
“They said to me, ‘these families are so kind, the children are so kind, their parents didn’t have to force them to share their toys.’”
Hosts came from all life stages, from families to the retired.
There are also benefits for the local economy, which ISE has tried to increase over the years, by encouraging more and more groups to organise their itinerary locally.
“Historically, lots of groups have chosen to go to London – and they have not always ended up in Kensington!
“But we (in Kent) also have a lot to offer, and over the years, I’ve worked with local tourism providers to come up with a lot of British activities and experiences.
“And if the schools have had a negative experience [usually with the families that have hosted them], the agencies – to put things right – would tell them to allow them to right this wrong by sending them to Tunbridge Wells to restore their faith in them [the agency]!”
ISE is now trying to grow numbers again, by recruiting and vetting hosts to accommodate the school trips – which are 80 per cent French.
“I am trying to boost my numbers,” said Ms Heymer. “If we are able to meet the demand for host families, we could finish accepting two coaches each week.”
You can contact International Student Experiences at email@example.com.