The CEO of an 'experiential education' company explains why he bought one of America's top Tour de France teams and why a YouTube video will never replace real travel

LES HERBIERS, France – Last August we reported that one of the US’s top pro cycling teams was in danger of folding unless it came up with $US7 million within a week, which was kind of crazy considering its star rider had just finished second in the world’s preeminent bicycle race. It wasn’t fake news, though: Without the extra dough, team boss Jonathan Vaughters said, it really would have shut down.

But as The Wall Street Journal reported in early September,the green came, and with it not just a big new sponsor but a new owner, one that many American cycling fans had never heard of: EF Education First.

EF is a privately owned company that calls itself “the world leader in international education.” It was founded in 1965, in Lund, Sweden, and today it has 580 schools and offices in 52 countries. Think of it as the biggest education-travel company you’ve never heard of until now.

Recently at the Tour de France, CEO Edward Hult spoke with Business Insider about why EF bought a cycling team, why he’s not losing sleep over the sport’s rampant-doping past, and why a YouTube video can only show you so much about the world.

Interview condensed and edited for clarity.

Daniel McMahon: We’re sitting here at the Tour, which is viewed by hundreds of thousands on the roadside and millions more on TV worldwide. This year your company, EF, not only took on title sponsorship of the Cannondale-Drapac team but bought the naming rights. Yet before that I’d never heard of EF, as I presume was the case for many Americans. In your words, what is EF Education First?

Edward Hult: We’re experiential education. We’re about teaching people different cultures and getting people exposure to different beliefs and different ways of looking at things. We do that through language, we do that through travel, and we do it through cultural-exchange programs, and even some academic programs. We try to incorporate an educational component and a cultural-education component, so a travel component that has some sort of cultural exchange to it, as well as education. Education can be language training, it can be about the cultures, or it can be formal degree programs.

McMahon: So it’s like curated travel for people who want to learn a language.

Hult: Yes, it’s mostly curated. We try to make it experiential because the last thing we want to do is bring people abroad and stand there and lecture at them. You can take a lecture anywhere. So it’s really like, let’s get them out there, let’s make it a safe environment, but get them to experience the countries and the places they go to.

McMahon: So if I wanted to travel in, say, Asia and learn a language there, can I do it short term and long term?

Hult: Yes. You can enroll for a week; you can enroll for a year. You can travel, and in some places we have local schools. We encourage you, if you can, to take the travel ones, because it’s always better to learn a language immersed in it, I believe. We also have online English training.

McMahon: How did the company get started?

Hult: The very first product we had was taking mainly high-school kids from Sweden during their summer break to study English in the UK. That was EF day one. And that really came about because of my father. I’m dyslexic, and he’s very dyslexic. He struggled in school, and then he worked as a mail-delivery boy at a bank in the UK for a summer, and that’s where his English really got better. And he was like, “Wow, it was so much easier learning English that way.”

McMahon: So what are some of EF’s most popular programs today?

Hult: It depends on where you are in the world. You can go to Asia, as you said, for instance, where we have a lot of local language schools. In Europe it’s mainly language travel, so you travel to the country and study. And in North America it’s mainly what we call some of our tours business, which is you go on a tour and we show you part of the world for a week or two. And then we’ve got a high-school program. We’re associated with the Hult International Business School. And then we’ve got the high-school exchange and the au pair program.

So it really depends on where you are and what you’re looking for, but if you take the tours business – what I operationally oversee day to day – our most popular tours are London, Paris, and Rome, and you do that for 11 days. For many of our travellers, they have never been outside of their own town before, so for them it’s huge.

You know, a couple of years ago I was on a tour, and London was the first day. Everyone arrived, and it was five different groups from five parts of the US, small towns of just a few thousand people, and almost none of them had been outside their town before. So for them to come to London and go on a subway and see all the people – and when we got to Paris they had gained confidence, and the students were running around: “We want to go there!” “We want to see that!” And you see it over the 11 days how it transforms the kids and their confidence level and just their understanding of things.

McMahon: Who are your competitors?

Hult: EF in itself as a global company doesn’t really have a direct competitor, but within the products there are tons of competitors. If you take EF Go Ahead Tours, it has a lot of competitors – Trafalgar, for example. Then there’s a lot of local language training in different countries.

But generally I think competition is healthy. I’m quite competitive, so it makes it kind of fun. And if companies didn’t have competitors you’d all get fat and lazy, and the consumer would end up on the losing side even more, because then you have higher costs and poor service, where if you have competitors you keep your products and your services top notch, and that’s what you should be providing. And that’s how we’re going to have any sort of impact – not through crappy services. You’re going to have an impact by having great services.

McMahon: So why buy a pro cycling team?

Hult: Well, for one, cycling is awesome. But it really sort of started a couple of years ago, with me and my oldest brother, who works in the London office.

EF has generally been bad at PR and brand awareness. We grew up being really strong at sales, and sales have been the driver of how we built EF from the ground. We’ve done very little marketing and almost no PR and no branding. So as we keep growing, we keep hearing we’re the best-kept secret and that no one knows who we are, though we’re around the world. And so me and my brother started talking about it. “Should we try to do a global sort of brand campaign?” And so we started looking into it because we thought it might be worth a try, to see if we could become a little bit more known for everything we do.

So we started looking into media agencies. But if you want to do a global brand campaign, one, it’s super expensive, and, two, there are a lot of really good media agencies that specialize within just one or a few countries. We were struggling to find ones that were really good globally. And while we were looking we heard about this cycling team that was about to fold. At first we didn’t think twice about it.

The thing is, I’m very passionate about cycling, but I don’t follow pro cycling. I love riding a bike – I do amateur events. But if you asked me who all the pro riders were before we got involved, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you anyone. But we started looking more closely, and it kind of hit us that there’s this group of people from diverse countries and diverse backgrounds who are all coming together, working hard together for a common goal on a global stage. And we were thinking that that, in itself, is a little of what EF is all about too. It’s about bringing different cultures together, solving problems, world issues.

A lot of our programs will bring different cultures together to look at problems and get the idea generation you get from different cultures when they share their backgrounds and how to approach it. It’s pretty cool. And so here is this pro cycling team that’s doing that, and they’re being seen and they’re being viewed by the world. And while I do understand it’s a cycling-fan-based world, cycling is also a really popular sport, especially in Europe, but even more so in other countries.

Courtesy of EF Education First–Drapac p/b CannondaleEdward Hult, CEO of EF Education First North America, with Jonathan Geran, director of sports marketing at Cannondale, at the 2018 Tour.

And so we’re like, “Could this be our branding campaign? Instead of a media agency, could we actually use this cycling team? Because they’re kind of representing what EF is trying to do.” And so we started looking more into it. We also looked at the current sponsors of the team, and we realised, for instance, that it was Drapac, which emphasises education for the riders, and EF is all about education. There was [the helmet maker] POC, which is all about safety, and Cannondale, which prides itself on being innovative. Our whole big thing is getting out there to the masses. We felt if we do this right, this could actually be really cool.

So not only was this marketing thing going on, there was this whole cycling spirit that we believe in, with bringing all these different cultures together, working together. And it’s a really nice way to unite staff around the globe, to cheer on this team and make them be proud of this team.

McMahon: And so even though cycling is cleaner today than it has been in the past, given its history of rampant doping, did you have concerns about the sport’s integrity?

Hult: Yes, of course. Natural hesitations there. We clearly had zero tolerance for this, but one of the things that was attractive was Jonathan Vaughters’ stance against this too. I think the way he’s sort of spearheaded a lot of the internal stuff within cycling – trying to help clean it up – was quite inspirational. And it felt right; it felt like he’s 100% on board that there’s zero tolerance. And so we feel safe with him at the helm of the day-to-day operations. But yeah, we don’t want to be involved in any of the dirty stuff.

Also, it gets easier to get sucked into that if everything is about winning. And of course winning is great, and it’s a big plus, but for us that’s really not the main objective. We see it as a big added bonus. But really it’s about how do we get the message out there that these different people from different nationalities are coming together, working together, and then how can we get them involved in community events and cycling and things like that, rather than “We have to win at all costs.” And of course we want to try to win – winning is great – but that’s not the end-all, be-all for us by any means.

McMahon: What does EF’s growth look like?

Hult: What we usually say is that we double about every five years sort of any way you measure it. There’ve been years we’ve taken big hits – 9/11 was an example of that. There was the oil crisis in the ’70s, before my time, and that was a big hit as well. So then you sort of reset, and you keep building.

McMahon: How sensitive is EF’s business to the global political climate, with things like Brexit and the current administration in the US?

Hult: It’s not as sensitive as people think. People still want to learn. With technology you’re somehow interacting on a global scale today even if you’re not meaning to. We’ve found that people are still interested in learning about different cultures. They want to know. They want to get out there and see. Not 100% of the population, absolutely not, but a large, large part. Education will never go away. People are still going to need face-to-face stuff, to actually be able to talk to someone. But people are going to want to travel. They’re going to want to see these cultures and meet different people and learn about how they see the world.

McMahon: What’s the big thing you’d like people to know about EF?

Hult: If you’re interested in learning something new about any culture or any people, or the history or arts, and you want to do it in an experiential way, that’s what we provide – rather than reading about it or seeing it in a YouTube video. I love YouTube, but a video can only show so much. And not really until you’re immersed within a situation can you have your biases and your truth challenged, where you feel you’re challenging your own truths yourself, because you’re learning and hearing something.

NOW WATCH: Briefing videos

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.