The Familiarization (FAM) trip is a cherished institution travel suppliers and destinations use to reward top producers and encourage them to keep booking more sales. It’s also a carrot on a stick for advisors looking to build their business with a supplier.
But in a time of coronavirus, this time-worn tradition may be in need of a major upgrade. Both travel advisors and their hosts have taken huge hits to their bottom lines, so funding trips isn’t the easy decision it was before March 2020. Every penny counts.
At the same time, nothing makes consumers more interested in traveling again than seeing their favorite travel advisor checking in from somewhere refreshing, showing off what their experience is like, and describing the health and safety protocols in place.
Can the industry maintain a status quo that many travel advisors find deficient for their needs in good times, let alone now, when leisure travel is suppressed as much as 70%?
Vet Them for Serious Travel Advisors
Travel advisors offered me a variety of opinions about how to improve fam trips. One thing that was nearly universal was the hope that destinations and suppliers will endorse tighter vetting.
Experienced advisors told me stories of being on fams where other hosted agents openly admitted to having little to no experience or training. Others have met lesser experienced agents who skipped site inspections and scheduled functions. Other fam participants were seen handing out their business cards to resort guests.
“A lot of people who go on fams are not going for the purpose of education,” said Diane DeWitt Frisch, owner at Diane Frisch Destinations. “On the good fams, they weed those people out.”
“There’s not a tremendous amount of vetting going on,” said Angela Hughes, owner and president at Trips & Ships Luxury Travel, Orlando, Florida.
Advisor Brenda O’Neale recommends suppliers and destinations have at least have one discussion about the advisor’s business strategy – prior to inviting an agent. “BDMs should know if they have a business plan in place. They should be asking, ‘What is your goal for this destination? What clients do you have that match with our product?’”
DeWitt Frisch recalled a Norwegian Cruise Line Encore inaugural. She had only sold a few cabins with them, but had met her BDM at a Nexion event. “They knew me directly. We had talked about my business, and we agreed the Haven suites were a good match for my clients. I went to all of the trainings, did the activities on board, and now I have sold many Haven suites.”
She and other advisors I spoke to understand that attending fams can be a chicken and egg proposition – your ability to sell a product improves dramatically when you see it yourself. But advisors still want to see stronger vetting of their peers to ensure that they are true professionals, and will act professionally while on the fam.
“I think the days of a fam as a vacation have to come to an end,” said O’Neale, owner of With This Ring Travel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
DeWitt Frisch added that she wouldn’t mind seeing higher price tags to attend fams, to help weed out the part-time agents. “I’m about the bottom line,” she said, “so make every advisor pay more. Charge me $2,000 for a place like Africa. That motivates me to sell it, and weeds out the people who aren’t serious.”
Make Fams More About Business
Other experienced advisors called for more intensive workshops, focused less on marching agents through one resort after another, and more on marketing and sales, and meals with key host executives to discuss mutually building their businesses.
“The best trip for me is a mastermind tied with a fam trip,” said Kathleen Sullivan, founder at Anthology Travel, Washington, D.C. She rarely attends fams anymore because they don’t meet her needs, and puts together her own site inspections now, choosing properties and destinations she believes fit her business best.
Hughes would like to see entry level agents separated out from those much more experienced. “I want the host to have a true understanding for my company’s needs, and help me collaborate on a marketing strategy to build our business together,” she said.
“I am so tired of the ‘Brochure tour,’ said Glenda Beagle, a travel advisor and found of Travel Business Coaching. “I can stay home and read the brochure. Fams should set people up for selling.”
She recounted a 7-day fam with Trafalgar, attended by the company president. “I had the opportunity to talk business and strategy. We sat together at a dinner and hammered out an idea for a 38-person, 18-day customized tour.”
Experience the Experiences
Other advisors said suppliers and destinations should spend less time on showing off resort rooms and cabins, and more on letting advisors experience a product the way their clients would. That time also would be ideal for building a portfolio of marketing photos and videos.
“I don’t need to do the 15 properties in three days anymore,” said O’Neale. “All of the resorts start to look alike, and the hotel rooms are more of the same. Show me the experience. Then, when I am qualifying my clients, I can tell them, ‘this is what will work for you.’”
O’Neale uses fam trips to try activities that clients may be interested in. “I take lots of pictures. I’ve staged photos of me on an ATV, on a scooter in Bermuda, hanging out with the juice man at the juice bar. I make my own marketing materials, and people are more impressed that I was there.”
“There are so many agents who only care what the resort looks like, and not about what the experience the client will have,” said Donna Manz, owner, Dream Vacations by Donna. She laments how, for example, typical Caribbean fams “are devoid of local culture and food. That’s what I want to sell.”
“Fams can be fun, but they are completely exhausting,” said Margie Jordan, Vice President, CCRA International’s TRUE Global Network. “We spend our time running from property to property. I was on a Dubai fam a year ago. I adore Dubai. I saw some of the best high-end properties you’d ever want to stay in. However, I learned little about Dubai’s culture.”
“We did start with a sit-down meeting at the Cultural Center. It was the highlight of the trip. We learned more about why women dress the way they do, while we sipped Arabic coffee and had a traditional Arabic meal. It lasted for an hour and a half. And really, that was it.”
Added Jordan: “In my mind, a FAM should include understanding the destination, its culture (arts, entertainment, sports, museums, social life), and a bit of history. There should be a food component. National dishes, how to cater to dietary restrictions (vegans, gluten-free, etc.). Where to stay and what experiences are available. I’d want to understand safety there and any customs I should share with clients. Are they able to handle someone with a disability? If there is a medical emergency, how is it handled? What should clients know in that instance?”
Rhonda Feimster, Luxury Travel Specialist at 1 Bag Travel, has a mobility challenge and finds that fams aren’t designed well for advisors like her, or her clients who share her challenge.
“Large groups with multiple property visits become difficult for me to keep up with the group,” Feimster said. “Even going as a host to Breathless, Riviera Maya, they have these steep steps from the back of the property. Unless you’ve been there before, you wouldn’t know that. I had to order a walker with wheels to navigate.”
Feimster would like to see more intensive visits with fewer properties. She recalled a 3-day, one property trip to the Bahamas, designed so that the advisors experienced the property the same as the customer. “We used the spa. Enjoyed some of the excursions. And we were able to meet on property with all of the staff” who could help her book and care for her customers.
“I don’t want to walk into a restaurant and have a salesperson tell me about the ambiance. I can see that. What I need is someone to help me sell the resort’s approach to food. That’s what my clients are interested in.”
Get Off the Beaten Path
Other advisors want to visit new places that fit their custom FIT business model. “I feel like a lot of the DMCs aren’t always offering the less traveled places. The hidden gems,” said Belkys Lastra Pastor, CEO and founder at Distinct Vacations. “Don’t offer me the fam to Rome. I want to see Sardinia, Puglia, and unique experiences, like the Lamborghini factory, or a Parma cheese farm.” She complimented IC Bellagio, who has hosted “wonderful fams” to Tuscany and Umbria. “I want to educate my clients on new places.”
Manz feels the same. “I sell local, bespoke, activities and tours. So, if you’re taking me on a fam, don’t take me to a castle everyone visits. There’s nothing for me to uniquely sell if they’ve shown the same thing to every other agent.”
If suppliers and destinations won’t change their group fams, the more experienced advisors said they get more value booking their own individual trips.
Susan Hoffman Shure, owner, Susan Shure Travel, Monroe, North Carolina, regularly sells Disney vacations, and last year took one trip around Halloween and one during the December holidays to experience those unique times of year.
“Disney at Christmastime is amazingly magical. Everything gets decorated. The parades are different. Being there and being able to experience it helps me explain it to my clients in a way I couldn’t have before I went.”
Finally, several advisors said that they wouldn’t mind suppliers holding agents accountable after attending fams. “If you invest me, I owe you back,” said O’Neale. “Make attendees book at least one time within a certain period of time.”
Richard D’Ambrosio is a master storyteller who, for more than 30 years, has helped leading brands like American Express, Virgin Atlantic Airways, the Family Travel Association (FTA), and Thomas Cook Travel tell their stories to their customers, the media, and employees. A professional business coach and content marketing consultant with his own firm, Travel Business Mastermind, Richard most recently has worked with The Travel Institute, Flight Centre USA and a variety of host agencies and tour companies, helping entrepreneurs refine their brands and sharpen their sales and marketing skills. Richard writes regularly about retail travel agencies, social media & marketing, and business management.