Familiarization or FAM trips allow meeting planners to visit a destination and determine if it’s a good fit for future conferences or other events. They usually last two to three days and provide opportunities to see a wide variety of hotels, event spaces, restaurants and local attractions. Trips are typically sponsored by a local CVB or DMO and their member organizations, which means they’re provided at no expense or a low cost for planners.
“FAM trips are an inexpensive way to see a destination and cram in as much information about a ton of different hotels as possible,” says Lynn Beierschmitt, CIS, CMP, executive director, sales and operations for Liaisons Meetings & Incentives, a division of World Travel Service, Inc., which is a full-service meeting and incentive planning company based in Knoxville, Tennessee. “When you’re looking at a city, it’s nice to get an overview of that city and see as many potential properties as you can that might fit your needs.”
CVBs work to make FAMs fun and entertaining, but they’re far from a vacation. Attending one means taking time away from the office and spending long days touring a high volume of properties. Keep in mind, too, that while there’s no requirement to take a meeting to every destination you visit, you should only attend if you think there’s a good chance you’ll eventually do business there.
When should you say yes to a FAM? Here are some tips to assess whether a trip is right for you, and what you should expect before, during and after each visit to a new destination.
Andy Smith, program manager for the Road Runners Club of America in Arlington, Virginia, the largest and oldest national association of running organizations in the United States, recently attended his first FAM in Orlando. He spent two packed days visiting properties and local attractions. The staff at Visit Orlando also showcased the many fun things attendees could do in town. “There’s a perception that [a theme park] is the primary reason to go to Orlando,” he says. “They did a good job of identifying ways to include [that] in your event, but they also showed us that there’s more to Orlando.”
This ability to become familiar with the nuances of a destination is one of the primary advantages of FAM trips. There are some things you can learn about a destination from reading about it online, talking to a CVB or hotel representative or asking association members who live there for advice. But there’s a lot you don’t know unless you experience it firsthand.
“I walk through a new destination almost like an attendee would. …I walk the hotels and learn everything I can about the city.” — Darla Huckaby, CMP
That’s one of the things Darla Huckaby, CMP, a global account executive with ConferenceDirect, an event management and meeting planning agency, likes about FAM trips. “I walk through a new destination almost like an attendee would,” she says. “Your first touchpoint would probably be the airport, so I look for the ease of getting in and out and the cleanliness. I walk the hotels and learn everything I can about the city. What is the transportation like? Is it a safe city? That’s especially important for women.” FAM trips allow her to work out details that are hard to ascertain over the phone.
In addition to learning the specifics of a destination, FAMs can give planners concrete ideas for how to partner with the CVB and local vendors. “Understand how the destination organization, such as Visit Orlando, can help make your planning life easier,” says Stephanie Naegele, the organization’s vice president of convention sales operations. “Our team of destination experts can assist with everything from comprehensive site inspections to attendance-building and share those local insider tips to make your event unforgettable.
“We highly encourage planners to interact with our members and learn as much as they can from each location we include on the destination orientation itinerary,” she adds. A destination’s hotels, offsite event venues, excursion organizers and other service providers are in the best position to offer memorable, one-of-a-kind experiences that will have event participants raving.
There are also benefits to FAM trips that aren’t readily apparent from reviewing the agenda. Because they bring a group of peers together, they provide great opportunities for networking and learning.
“Those of us on the trip connected really well,” Smith says. “You get ideas from other people and pick up on things they’re asking. You become inspired and have questions or turn over new leaves in your own planning by being with other people who do this.”
He notes that while some of the planners on his trip had larger groups with different needs than his, hearing how they made events more efficient or overcame problems gave him a new perspective on how to solve challenges with his own conference.
Huckaby says some FAMs she’s attended recently have offered an educational component, which she really likes. “They’ll bring in a speaker of some sort, so you’re learning, as well.
Perhaps you can bring in that speaker for that conference, or they can just help you understand trends. It could be food trends, it could be technology trends, it could be a CSR project trend. Providing education at a higher level like that is really beneficial to someone considering attending a FAM. I look for that because I want to go back to my association clients and be better equipped to assist them,” she says.
While FAM trips offer many advantages, there are some disadvantages. “The downside is probably the time away from the office,” says Huckaby. “When you’re on a FAM trip, you’re there for a reason — to scope out the city, the destination, the properties — and you don’t have a lot of free time. It becomes difficult to stay on top of office needs.”
Some trips build in an afternoon break, she notes, but others don’t allow much time to catch up on emails or return phone calls.
Smith found his first FAM trip a bit overwhelming. “There’s a lot packed together,” he says. “It’s an intense experience and by the end, you’re a little worn out. I tend to have a pretty good memory, but it’s amazing how when you’re seeing your seventh hotel for the day — aspects of one run into the other. Be aware of that and take good notes.”
Although this isn’t always possible, Smith found it helpful to go into the FAM with a good sense of his event’s needs and requirements. “Think about the event that you’re having — the size, the feel you want it to have — because that will help you be able to spot specific things and ask the right questions at spaces that meet your needs,” he says. “It can be easy to get overwhelmed going in if you don’t have a vision for what you’re trying to create.”
Huckaby has additional advice for making FAMs a positive and productive experience. The host should present an itinerary well in advance of the trip so you know what you’ll be seeing and who you’ll be meeting on the trip. Use that to educate yourself about the properties and attractions, she says.
Let the CVB know in advance if you need to learn about specific things at a hotel or restaurant. “If I have a wellness client, I really need to understand what the hotel would offer in a gym,” Huckaby says.
If there are several places you want to see that aren’t on the itinerary, it’s fine to ask the host if you can come a day early or leave a day late so you have time to meet with other potential partners. CVBs want you to have all the information you need to make a decision about their destination, and can often accommodate pre- and post-trip meetings. If the host has built downtime into the agenda, it may also be possible to schedule appointments during those breaks.
Don’t feel pressured to commit to a destination by the end of the trip. “I approach FAMs as an opportunity to get an overall view that gets the ball rolling,” says Beierschmitt. “It’s a start. I’m definitely not going to finish any decision-making on the trip.”
Many CVBs also organize FAMs for journalists. If you’re exploring whether a destination has an upcoming FAM, make sure you look for one geared toward meeting planners.
There’s certain etiquette to pay attention to on FAM trips, as well as some ethical considerations to take into account before committing to one. “A FAM is a business trip, so you want to wear business-casual clothing and look professional,” says Smith.
Naegele concurs. “For a planner attending a destination orientation in Orlando, we recommend business-casual dress with comfortable shoes,” she says. The latter part is important because you’ll be doing a lot of walking.
Although CVBs do their best to meet the needs of everyone on the trip, there will always be times when you visit a hotel or attraction that isn’t appropriate for your group.
Beierschmitt stresses that it’s important not to skip hotel or other visits because you think they aren’t a match for your association.
“The etiquette is to attend everything because you’re a hosted individual,” she says. “You’re basically going to do whatever the destination has planned for you. On most FAMs I’ve been on, there’s very little personal time. It’s busy seeing properties and venues and going out to dinners with the group. It’s very important that you do what they want you to do. These trips are sponsored, which means the sponsors are paying for you to be there. Ethically, you should be doing what they say.”
“Planners should attend every site visit and event during the destination orientation and be ready to engage with the staff,” says Naegele. “Be on time and be respectful of the work that is involved.”
As is true of any event, it’s possible the tour will run into some snags along the way. “If something goes wrong, be patient and don’t be afraid to offer suggestions for future destination orientations,” she says.
When you end up at a property that isn’t right for your event, listen to the salesperson’s pitch and allow people who are interested in the property to ask their questions without distractions. “You shouldn’t be saying things on the side or talking on your cellphone,” Huckaby says. “I’ve seen people do some obnoxious things. It goes back to respect. You have to be respectful. The word gets out if you aren’t. It’s a very tight industry, and it’s all about reputation.”
After the trip concludes, it’s a good idea to send the host agencies (and potentially some of the partner companies) a thank you note. “Relationships are very important,” says Beierschmitt. “It’s important to leave a nice, lasting impression.”
In most cases, the destination with follow up with additional information about the properties visited and people you met. If they don’t, reach out with questions soon afterward so you can get them answered before they slip your mind.
When you get invited on a FAM trip, think carefully about whether there’s a good chance you’ll be able to give the host a good return on their investment. “Although Orlando destination orientations are very fun, they are an educational business trip for the planner and should be treated as such,” says Naegele. “When the planners sign up to attend a destination orientation, they should have legitimate business opportunities that would consider the destination.”
It’s appropriate to attend any FAM offered by a city that seems to meet your association’s needs. “But if you already know a destination isn’t going to fit within your criteria, don’t go,” says Huckaby. If it’s a place you’d like to explore for a future event, consider asking the destination to keep you in mind for later trips.
That being said, there may be circumstances when it’s appropriate to attend a FAM even if you don’t have a specific event in mind for that city. “As far as taking the trips, I say the more the merrier,” says Beierschmitt. “I’ve been on many FAMs that have introduced me to a destination I didn’t think I’d like, and I’m surprised by it.”
Whenever you can afford time away from the office and potentially bring value to a destination, FAM trips are worth the investment. AC&F