Darren Cronian is, among other things, a UK blogger about all things travel. Last week he penned an article entitled “Familiarisation trips in the travel industry should be banned” (they have a “z” in British English but they call it a “Zed” and use it for other things). Darren was reacting to a news story that Dubai invited some 2000 travel agents on a mega fam trip designed to acquaint agents on the wonders of the UAE. Darren argued that in a time of economic distress worldwide when agencies and suppliers alike are laying off staff and making dramatic cutbacks in operations, perhaps sending agents across the globe on a boondoggle makes little sense. Darren makes the argument that with the easy availability of video and teleconference, such trips are unnecessary and even unethical expenditures of resources.
Mr. Cronian rightly predicted it was likely some would say he was talking “rubbish”- another great British phrase meaning something less than “talking trash” in American English but more than “nonsense”.
George Bernard Shaw said America and England were two nations separated by a common language. That and an ocean aside, Darren apparently hit a raw nerve with the British and American travel industry. Picked up by the main-stream press, his blog lit up with a few dozen comments (I should be so lucky) and Twitter was atweet with comments on his article. Nevertheless, I suspect that Darren’s blog post was calculated for maximum impact from his readers, both professional and consumer, and in that he did well and is pleased with the attention no matter how critical.
But the question is a good one. What is the value of a fam trip? How important is the first-hand experience of an agent verses a well-educated simulation of an experience via a destination specialist course, videos and websites?
Darren, no offense but I can’t really believe the question you pose was seriously asked. As many of your commenters indicated, fams are typically hard work. Even most of the consumers responding to your article indicated that they preferred to work with an agent with firsthand experience of a destination or tour operator.
Does it go without saying that travel agents should travel? It is easy to ignore the very advice we give our clients. For a travel professional, however, travel is more than a divertissement…it’s our business. When a travel professional journeys, it is an opportunity to reconnect with the passion that first moved you to become a travel agent. By traveling, you are reminded of both the pleasures and the pains of the experience – it creates a greater degree of empathy for your clients. And let’s face it, without the availability of fams, many agents would not be able to afford to experience properties and destinations that are reserved for luxury clients.
That is not to say that the system is not abused by some. One of the chief complaints with card mills is the way in which their members treat fam opportunities as a cheap vacation and occupy seats that should be reserved for travel professionals. Suppliers would do well to put stricter requirements in place and reserve fams only for agents that can demonstrate production. The burden this would place on professional agents would more than be offset by the impact of removing one of the primary marketing tools of the card mills as they recruit many of their victims by highlighting fam trips as a “benefit”.
Whether on a formal review of a destination or on your own vacation, a professional travels differently than do civilians, with a keen eye to the critical aspects of the experience. Some misguided souls may think of fam trips as a “perk”. Experienced travel agents know, however, that real familiarization trips are at best a revitalizing education and at worst a forced march through too many hotel properties in too few days. One of the key characteristics of top travel agents is the amount of travel they do personally – especially to their niche destinations where they have traveled dozens and even hundreds of times.
Suppliers who provide fam trips have a right to expect a return. It is a great expense and no small undertaking to arrange and execute a learning experience at a destination. But the relationships formed between top agents and a supplier as the result of a solid fam experience can mean years of productive booking activity for the supplier as the agent applies newly found knowledge to their local travel planning practice. Moreover, the other agents in the office usually benefit from a co-worker’s fam experience as the details and enthusiasm are communicated upon return. The agent experiencing a proper fam becomes the local expert, a reference point for other agents and clients alike.
Travel agents owe it to themselves, to their profession and to their clients, to travel. Every travel agent should carve out time in each year’s marketing plan to hit the highway. Budget for personal travel as surely as you budget for your office supplies and advertising expense. Keep meticulous notes as records and try to see the experience from the perspective of a client. Keep the trip in professional perspective – many of the complaints about poor professional conduct occurred on fam trips. When you return home, turn the trip into a marketing opportunity. Write a “Just got back from…” newsletter for your clients. Write property reviews and share them with your co-workers.
Fam trips are as necessary to the industry as pen and paper. Fams are a way of reminding yourself, your professional associates and your clients that between you is a passion that unites.