Why are you a travel professional? Ask any travel professional this question, and one of the top three answers is ‘because I love to travel.’ I’m certainly not an exception: I was bitten by the travel bug at a very young age, and each year I go somewhere I’m having the time of my life. Yet, so many of us are so busy that getting time away is difficult. It becomes easier to justify by combining a FAM trip with a personal vacation.
FAM trips, as you know, are “familiarization trips.” They exist at the pleasure of a vendor to assist the travel professional in becoming “familiar” with their product, a destination, or an experience. FAM trips can be any sort of travel planned for the purposes of educating oneself in order to become more knowledgeable as a consultant. This includes simple travel agent rates at a hotel or on a cruise, but for the purposes of this article I will refer to vendor provided FAM trips, not site visits one may undertake on their personal vacation.
Let’s be honest: the idea of getting away from the office for a while is thrilling, even when it really is for work! What attracts you to a FAM trip offering? Some agents I spoke to mentioned a desire to see a destination or experience they aren’t personally familiar with, or something that has changed drastically since their last visit it requires a new one. “A FAM to Africa would be awesome, but since it really isn’t my market, I pass on those,” reports Kimberly Roebuck of Sunnyland Tours & Travel in Springfield, Missouri. “I first consider FAMS in areas that I have never visited or need a refresher course.” TRO Columnist Tim Richmond of Craig’s Travel agrees. “The first thing I look at is if it is a destination I sell often and may not know very well. Next would be my personal interest in the destination. I do look at FAM’s as working vacations. As sole proprietor, it is hard to take “vacation” time, so these types of trips do offer a reprieve from the office and a chance to learn.”
On a personal note, I have sold cruises for quite some time. I learned how from shadowing more experienced agents, asking questions of them incessantly, pouring over cruise line brochures, and taking advantage of any product training they offered. It wasn’t until I went on a cruise myself and actually experienced what it was like that I felt I actually had confidence to answer any cruise question that could arise. We all can identify with that. “If we cannot EXPERIENCE the destination, then how can we EFFECTIVELY sell it?” asks Susan Schaefer of Ships N’ Trips Travel in Brentwood, Tennessee. Susan recently took advantage of a FAM opportunity to New Zealand with Contiki Vacations. “I feel like I learned a LOT about New Zealand. I was only there 8 nights and stayed in 4 cities, but WOW it was educational. And I learned a LOT about Contiki. Yes, I had a lot of “book smarts” already about Contiki by virtue of how much I’ve sold in the past 2 years … but I really did learn more on the FAM.”
So, we have established that FAM trips benefit us, and in turn, our clients. That, in turn, benefits the supplier. So what could the supplier do to improve the experience? Many of those I spoke to agreed on the same thing: it seems rather unfair to restrict FAMS to those who have high sales numbers for that product or destination. If you think about it, it’s rather backwards: you want your sales force to learn about your product so they can sell it, but you won’t let them experience the product until they have sold it. Another common issue was the amount of product knowledge crammed into a FAM session. “A FAM should have a mix of site visits and sightseeing. Yes, I can describe many hotels in Hawai’i after my FAM there, but we didn’t do any of the optional tours so I cannot give firsthand accounts and have a tougher time selling the add-ons, “ says Roebuck. And, she’s right – some vendors have developed a reputation among travel professionals that while their FAM trips are needed, there is too much information thrown at attendees that it really negates any positive benefits one may receive from the trip. Richmond identified with this sentiment. “The worst FAM had to be to Hawaii. We did four islands in three days and we saw literally every hotel on each island. After a while it was hard to remember one hotel from another, they all seemed to blur. It would have been better to have selected a few hotels that represented the price categories, budget, moderate, luxury then every single hotel.”
What about the agents themselves? How can they contribute to a positive FAM experience? Two words come to my mind: BE PROFESSIONAL. I’m not alone in this, either. Several I spoke to mentioned the lack of professionalism on fellow attendees as being a major factor in a poor FAM experience. A couple of years ago, I attended a FAM with Carnival Cruise Lines. It involved a visit to their Miami, Florida Headquarters, meetings with all of the major department heads, a tour of the area including a first-hand look at the Miami and Fort Lauderdale terminals, and culminated in several ship inspections. It was a really good trip for me at the time, but I was slightly embarrassed. A few agents on the FAM were habitually late meeting the rest of the group in the mornings. Over the course of the week, they would go out clubbing or bar hopping in Miami or South Beach, and the next morning would have a tremendous hangover. Even though it was a small number compared to our group as a whole, it was still embarrassing to be associated with those agents.
Another issue raised concerned those who have been on a particular FAM before. It’s important to understand that a FAM trip is not intended to act as your personal vacation every year. “The one thing I’d ask is that agents who have already taken advantage of a FAM to specific destination or resort not keep going on them every year as though it’s a perk. Leave some seats for the newer folks who’ve never been!” implores Jackie Counts, of Sunnyland Tours & Travel in Springfield, Missouri. Schaefer had this to say: “Approach FAMs as an educational opportunity, not a “free” vacation or chance to “party” like there’s no tomorrow. I’m not saying skip the socializing; don’t go overboard, and don’t have that be your primary goal.” She goes on to give these nuggets of advice: “Be respective of your host, whether it’s a supplier or a tourism board. Be respective of other agents on the FAM – don’t view other TAs as “the enemy” out to steal your clients.”
In the end what makes a FAM trip an experience worth the time and money? Richmond relates: “The best FAM I had been to Scotland with Prestige Tours. Since I had sold them and highly recommended them to other agents, the owner personally picked me up at the hotel before the FAM and gave me a private tour of Glasgow and we discussed our mutual companies. While on the FAM, when we had free time, the driver took a few of us to local locations not on the FAM and really let us experiences the destination.” Barbara Oliver of All Together Now Travel in Valencia, California spoke highly of her Princess Cruises Seminar at Sea with her BDM, Bob Fredman. “My BDM was very organized and professional. We had a clear agenda given to us upon boarding and the expectations were made very clear. Any changes were given to us in writing. We had seminars we were required to attend sprinkled throughout the week – usually no more than one or two hours at a time (I think one sea day may have gone four hours and was intense power learning). We always met in a different venue, so not only did we tour the ship and see that it had xyz – we spent some time in several lounges and dining venues to get the feel of them. We also were given plenty of time to network with each other and were encouraged to experience the ship. I came away with not only a lot of knowledge about Princess but also a true sense of what the “Princess Experience” was all about.”
In the end, it’s important to understand the role that FAM trips play in the career of a travel consultant. They serve a purpose, but have been taken advantage of in horrible ways. Suppliers have stopped giving them, or they’ve put heavy restrictions in place as a result. This hurts everyone, and truly benefits no one.
In my next column, I will expand on how you can get the most out of your FAM trip experience, including tips on managing information, and how to make a good impression on the supplier.
Steve Cousino, ACC, CTA, LS is a three-year industry veteran with Sunnyland Tours & Travel in Springfield, MO. He holds Lifestyle Specialist designations in Luxury Travel and Gay/Lesbian Travel, and is known for specializing in cruises, Western European tours, group travel, and culinary-themed travel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through his website at http://www.JourneysBySteve.com.