North American Boarding Workshop: Speed Dating Meets Strategic Enrollment Planning

Heather Hoerle


on November 13, 2015

North American Boarding Workshop: Speed Dating Meets Strategic Enrollment Planning

While most successful enrollment stories are years in the making, a new service—cooked up by inveterate global marketer Mary Danby—has begun to substantially help international students find boarding schools and to assist boarding school admission professionals as they diversify their international student populations.

Let’s start with the disclaimer that Mary Danby is a professional friend whom I have known for decades. And by decades, I mean before the internet. So I was delighted to bump into Mary last spring and catch up with her at the OESIS conference at Eton College in Windsor, England. I’ve always thought of Mary as the classic “connector,” as described by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point: those with immense networks of people, who are passionate about connecting their friends to each other around a big idea. It is no surprise that Mary, upon retirement from school admissions/marketing work, put her prodigious skills of networking together with her decades of professional contacts to give birth to the North American Boarding Schools Workshop or NABSW.

Mary began her independent school career working for TASIS; she left the UK for New York City in the early 1970s, with a responsibility of building leads to feed the TASIS Schools and summer programs. Over the course of time, Mary acted as a “lead generator” for five TASIS campuses in Switzerland, England, Greece, France, and Spain. According to Mary, she never looked back after leaving a successful career in television and enjoyed that early New York City year and her ensuing marketing/admissions role as part of an education start-up. Indeed, Mary speaks fondly of TASIS and its pioneering founder, Mrs. M. Cris Fleming. “She was a bit of a trailblazer, with a ‘can do’ attitude, and enormous charisma, Mrs. Fleming,” says Mary, “and she believed deeply in the idea of global-mindedness, before it was fashionable. She had great flair and style, which was part of the school’s brand in the early years. People loved working with her and for her.”

Eventually, as the schools grew and matured, Mary returned to the UK where she worked for TASIS England until her retirement. In the back of her mind an idea was forming around “helping trusted friends meet other trusted friends towards the goal of building intentional international enrollment.” Having spent her life cultivating contacts, Mary decided to assist several of her stateside friends by offering the first workshop in February, 2013. With the urging of colleagues like Chris Tompkins, Headmaster of Perkiomen School (at the time), Mary reached out to a network of her US boarding colleagues with an offer to “sign up to meet with international educational consultants who represented different students/nationalities.” And thus, the matchmaking began.

Today, NABSW is three years old and the event takes place twice in an academic year (October, February respectively). 32 boarding school admission leaders are invited to the UK to meet with 32 international educational consultants over a two-day period. There are 16 half-hour appointments during the workshop, along with social events for all delegates to connect and build relations. Mary produces a booklet profiling all 64 of her delegates from schools and agencies. Each school is given their own table, and consultants meet their school “dates” on the half-hour bell.

While Mary didn’t necessarily intend to mimic the “speed dating” now fashionable in the US, she jokes about the 30 minute dates. Says Mary, “It’s just enough time to connect with an international consultant and learn about the needs of their client families and get a sense of whether your school would want to keep building the relationship.”

Though she has a long waiting list from both schools and consultants wishing to join NABSW, Mary has been purposeful about keeping the workshop at a reasonable ‘boutique’ size with “trusted friends.” She says, “Mrs. Fleming always emphasized the power of relationships and building strong networks, and I agree with her point of view that I want this experience to be one of high quality with strong success rates.”

So far, so good on that count… Mary reports that one of the NABSW’s Canadian schools can point to seven students enrolled thanks to participation in NABSW. Twenty-five of NABSW’s 32 schools for this February’s meeting have been to the workshop before. “This isn’t about a quick fix for enrollment,” emphasizes Mary. “It’s about building an intentional network to diversify your school’s international students.”

Mary is a keen observer of trends given her role in international match-making. She’s watching the growth of interest from Nigeria and Brazil this year, despite the current weak real. But she also knows, having lived through challenging times with enrollment in her TASIS work, that no school should become too dependent on any single country for students. “Good marketing and school enrollment planning comes down to a long-term vision for what you want—and then tactical implementation to get there,” reminds Mary. “There aren’t any shortcuts to building long-term relationships.”