After months of planning your company’s annual offsite meeting, you are excited to arrive and have the meeting begin. This year, you’ve selected a completely new locale, with new accommodations and uncharted venues. But you’ve heard great things about your selected city from fellow meeting planners and are confident the meeting will be a success. Unfortunately, you arrive and realize that this isn’t the ideal locale for your company or the 200 attendees who have traveled near and far to this destination. The venue is smaller than expected, the hotel lacks the amenities it promised, and the city is difficult to navigate. You should have accepted the Fam trip invitation for this location that crossed your desk months before.
Many cities, hotels, resorts and other meeting venues offer familiarization trips, often referred to as Fam trips, to meeting planners on a fairly regular basis. Fam trips are a way for professional meeting planners to familiarize themselves with a destination and determine if it is a good fit for a future meeting or event.
“Remember this is not a vacation. As a Fam attendee, the planner is a guest. Show up on time, be engaged, courteous and respectful to the hosts. This is a working, onsite opportunity to learn about the city and the hotels and venues. And potentially book business.”
— Cookie Walner, CMM, CAE
While Cookie Walner, CMP, CEM, CMM, CAE, the director of events at American Hardware Manufacturers Association, doesn’t attend as many Fam trips as in years past, she believes meeting planners should always determine if the trip is worth the time out of the office. Walner says, “You need to evaluate if the ‘stops’ on the trip will be appropriate to the organization’s needs. I personally recall a Fam trip that included a site of the city’s large university’s meeting space and dorm rooms for attendees,” Walner says. “That would be great for high school and college groups. But this would never have been a consideration for my meeting. Instead, my time would have been better spent elsewhere.”
What deciding factors should planners evaluate when determining whether to attend a Fam trip? Michelle Crosby, CMP, CTA, DMCP, senior national sales manager, AlliedPRA Dallas/Fort Worth, says that some of the key questions meeting planners need to ask are:
Crosby also suggests that planners “have a specific program in mind prior to attending the Fam so that activities offered can stay focused around what the actual attendees of your meeting may be participating in.” Crosby adds, “Have a list of questions regarding hotel lodging rates, inclusions, CMP packages and how flexible the venues are with these items. Request information about who their destination management partner is and how they can assist with onsite and offsite needs and requests.”
Walner also says it’s important for planners to do the research about the city, hotels and unique venues. “Come prepared with questions and as many details as possible about your program,” Walner says. “Remember, this is not a vacation. As a Fam attendee, the planner is a guest. Show up on time, be engaged, courteous and respectful to the hosts. This is a working, onsite opportunity to learn about the city and the hotels and venues. And potentially book business.”
Deborah Cohen, CMP, director of meeting and convention sales at Branson Convention & Visitors Bureau, sees many Fam promotions throughout the industry and feels it is still the best tool for developing new relationships and introducing destinations to new potential clients.
“We now offer one to two Fams per year,” Cohen says. “The challenge for us is that we select a set of dates that works for our team, our destination and does not conflict with any industry events — but it can still conflict with planners’ personal schedules or meeting calendar.” Cohen and her team invite planners who have not visited their destination in the last five years.
“The exception is a scenario where someone has been here on vacation, but did not tour our convention center and hotels,” Cohen says. “We would invite them to come back and learn more about how Branson can also host meetings and conventions.”
It’s important for meeting planners to accept a Fam invitation only if they have a real piece of business and have sent out an RFP. Planners should be prepared to share the history of the meeting, what the deciding factors are and when a decision will be made.
Industry experts agree that planners should ask themselves if the destination is one they’ll really utilize, book business in or seriously consider in the coming years. They should determine if they have the time to attend, the knowledge of the potential of putting business there and if realistically their budget would accommodate such a location.
Phyllis Klasky, director of events at the NYC-based American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), advises planners to come prepared to discuss their potential meetings and their specs when visiting the city.
“Planners should be able to provide a real date when a decision for the respective meeting/conference will be made and the other cities under consideration,” Klasky says.
According to Klasky, invitations for familiarization trips are sent to ASME meeting planners as a result of the volume of meetings ASME conducts and their buying power.
“Acceptance of Fams is one of ethics,” Klasky says. “If ASME is seriously contemplating holding a conference in a certain city to which a site visit is required and the planner is not familiar with the site or hotel and time is available, and an invitation for a Fam is received at that time, then ASME will accept the invitation.”
She adds, “Fams should be accepted by planners who make decisions about meetings and have a real piece of business — it should not be used as a vacation.”
Gregorio Palomino, CDMP, CEP, CWP, CMP, CSEP, the executive officer at San Antonio, Texas-based CRE8AD8, an International Event Management Agency, has this rule of thumb: A Fam shouldn’t be taken unless a planner seriously thinks they can place business in that location within one to three years or they already have business there and need to finalize their plans.
“I also believe that a planner should have a ratio of 1:3 for events to Fams,” Palomino says. “So if an organization annually plans three events a year, they should limit their Fams to about nine annually.”
Crosby adds that it’s tempting to bring along a spouse on a Fam trip to the Bahamas instead of a colleague who helps plan meetings. “This turns into a vacation, and the focus turns away from the reason for the Fam invitation in the first place,” Crosby says. “This takes advantage of the generosity of the destination and the vendor partners that have spent time and money preparing for the Fam trip and the invited guests.”
Preparing for Fams means planners should have some questions and be ready to share those questions about the events they are willing to place — from numbers of attendees to budget constraints to entertainment needs. The planner also needs to take photos and make notes about the options at the location.
It also may be helpful to create a customized briefing guide to share with salespeople at hotels and various venues. The briefing guide should capture any open or anticipated RFPs and other high-level information.
Most companies have a policy that only one individual from the organization may attend a Fam, and that individual is often required to provide a Fam report, which can include these questions and observations:
All the paperwork should be completed during the Fam registration process; the more information provided, the better the suppliers can prepare.
“Every planner prepares differently, but it’s obvious who’s there for the trip and those who are there for the free trip,” Palomino says. “To make the most out of your Fam, prepare to walk a lot, see a lot, hear a lot of numbers and try to remember it all. Some destinations don’t do a good job at preparing for a Fam. Some pack conference space one after another and before the third one, you’ve lost it. Only go on Fams you can keep up with. Make the Fam your own, and be ready to move at your pace.”
And while attending a Fam, it’s important to meet as many local service professionals as possible, and to participate in as many activities as possible, all of which allow planners to speak from firsthand experience and more confidently sell the destination to their stakeholders. AC&F