by By Sarah J.F. Braley | October 01, 2009

1009FAMS collageCan anyone justify taking a free trip these days? Familiarization visits, or fams, have long suffered from a reputation for being heavy on leisure activities and light on business value. However, in an effort to attract only serious buyers, smart hosts have modified their agendas to provide visits packed with site inspections, educational elements and, ideally, a smattering of fun. Here's a closer look at what the typical fam looks like today.

Cost of doing business

This year in particular, the economy is shaping how destinations present themselves, how vigorously they qualify the planners they invite, and how willing and able planners are to participate.

"Our sponsorships are down from airlines that would help us fly people in," says Beth Stehley, vice president of sales and convention services for the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Amtrak continues to be a good supporter, as are the hotels and some transportation companies. We want to make sure that when we do have to use those dollars, the person coming up is in a buying mode."

Once upon a time, Boston held what was called a "superfam" over the weekend closest to St. Patrick's Day, bringing in about 150 people. Such excess is gone. "We're tailor-making every fam," says Stehley, who has found more success with smaller groups. "Most are under 10 people, even down to five. We're very focused and very targeted. For the planners who are saying yes, there is no fluff involved."

This approach suits Michael Mecham just fine, since the economy over the past few years has turned the event manager for Levi's Brand, based in San Francisco, into the sole surviving member of his department, down from a team of six just six years ago. While he's too busy to take trips that don't have a strong business purpose, an invitation to New Orleans last October came at the perfect time.

"We had a lead out for that market, and I was available," he says. "We ended up booking two programs in the city as a result." Unfortunately, the events were canceled when the apparel company's policy changed to require that nearly all meetings be held on-site at the San Francisco, New York City and Dallas branches. Mecham  is planning one off-site event for February, which he was going to take to Chicago, but now he is leaning toward using credits from the cancellations to bring the meeting to New Orleans.

With business travel still sluggish, planners might receive more invitations in the coming year.

"We have had a lot more offers," says Michelle Gerd, part owner of Encore Planning in Golden, Colo., which counts MillerCoors and Jones Knowledge as clients. "Hotels have more vacancies on their calendars. I have noticed an influx of fam trips being presented to us."