FAMs Today

Hosted trips get down to business

Who Goes Where?
The four people in the travel marketing division at Fusion Performance Marketing, a third-party planning company in Plano, Texas, go on at least one fam trip each per year. Here's the criteria travel-marketing director Kathy Fasciano uses to decide where to send them.

  • Is it time to update the company's files on a destination that has been pitched or sold to clients in the past?
  • Has anyone been there? When? Fascia­no says her company keeps a running spreadsheet of where all staffers have traveled.
  • Is it an up-and-coming destination?
  • Will planners be taken to more than one hotel?
  • Is there an educational element as part of the trip?

 Upon returning from a fam, the planner has three things to do:

  • Update the travel grid to show where and when she visited the destination;
  • Complete a fam trip report on the properties and the transportation company, and
  • Give a PowerPoint presentation to the team on the destination. "Through these presentations, I have learned which properties to use and which properties to stay away from," says Fasciano.

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."


Online vs. On-site
Planners waffling between going to check out a site in person and letting a virtual look suffice should heed one corporate planner's experience in a popular resort destination: "Based on photos, colleagues' recommendations and the flag's name, I was leaning toward one property. I got there and it was horrible. [My suite] had a broken patio door, rust on the bath mirrors, it smelled like mold, etc. I met with the sales rep the next morning, and she discussed the ongoing renovations. I asked when my floor would be renovated, and she looked at me blankly and said, ‘It already has been.' I booked elsewhere. I had gotten a lot of flak from people in Chicago about doing the site inspection. Thank goodness I did."

Class is in session

1009 FAMS taking noteSome fam hosts are stressing that the purpose of the trip is to educate planners. Visit Denver, for example, has dropped the term "fam trip" for events where planners are flown in to get a taste of the city. The new term -- "buyer-education trip" -- allows the bureau to craft itineraries around planners with common interests and then offer an educational component. For example, with planners from midsize medical associations, Visit Denver might offer a seminar on how to move a growing group from hotel meeting space to a convention center, says Rachel Benedick, vice president of sales and services.

Such offerings help Kathy Fasciano of Fusion Performance Marketing weigh the value of the trip invitations her team receives. "If a trip has education included, that is the best option," says the director of travel marketing for the Plano, Texas-based third-party planning firm. "This year, over three days in Phoenix and Scottsdale, I toured three Starwood properties, was exposed to two more during evening events and had the opportunity to hear the president of the U.S. Travel Association speak. And I sat in breakout sessions and learned from my peers."

A yearly fam offered by Las Vegas Meetings by Harrah's Enter­tainment even offers seminars that garner CEU credits. The trip, called the Las Vegas Educational Experience, ostensibly showcases how planners choosing one of Harrah's seven Vegas properties can use the venues and services at all of them. But because the trip offers sessions with speakers and awards CEUs, planners have been beating down the door to attend.

"We have to do a reverse-qualifying process," notes Amy Dosa, marketing manager, Las Vegas, for the gaming company's meetings group, which hosts the trips. "Last year, we had close to 1,200 applicants. We only accepted 175 people."

Ethical Guidelines
1009 FAMS JEisenstodtIn Joan Eisenstodt's 28 years as a meetings professional, she has taken just one fam trip, in that case because her client couldn't afford to send her to New Orleans to see the hotels the company was considering.

"I don't think fam trips are bad," she says. "If the organization sends the appropriate person, you can see a city that you might not otherwise have a chance to see. That said, you don't take a spouse or partner, you don't take your children and you don't take an extra day unless you're willing to pay any additional expenses."

Here are some other suggestions Eisenstodt gives for making sure the trip is on the up-and-up.

• Tell the host your objectives. Discuss exactly what you want to see that will help you with your buying decision. "Let's say this is a city you're really considering. You might say you want to learn about the history, the transportation, how taxes are applied, the labor situation -- all really important considerations."

• Look at the value of the fam.
Is it taxable as a gift to the planner?

• Consider what to do with gifts. To whom do they belong? The fam participant? The meetings department? The client? Do they violate the organization's ethics policy?

• Establish a policy on fam behavior.
Even formal ethics policies generally do not specifically address how to handle oneself on a fam trip. "Spell that out," Eisenstodt suggests, "and make the policy known throughout the organization." Such a policy might include the value limit for gifts received, how the planner should comport herself on the trip and what information she is expected to bring back. Eisenstodt adds that anyone considering accepting a fam should communicate to the host in advance regarding any limits the organization places on planners.

Whatever works for you

1009FAMS attendeesWhile Harrah's 175-person trip might sound unwieldy, it illustrates an important message, says Dosa. "Until people actually experience [the interaction between the seven properties] in a larger group setting, they don't know how viable it is," she notes. "Having a larger group and allowing the meeting planner to see how that works, the idea really hits home."

But not everybody wants to see a destination this way. Beth Cooper-Zobott, director of conference services for Equity Residential, a multifamily housing company in Chicago, doesn't take any fams, preferring to set up her trips solo. "I pay my air and other travel expenses, like a rental car or other ground transportation," she says, "along with my meals on site, except for maybe a lunch with a sales rep, and all other aspects of the visit except for the comped hotel nights."

Jodi Adcock, CMP, an event marketing manager for third-party planning firm Aquent who works on-site at Texas Instruments in Dallas, says she has no choice but to pay her own way. Planners for the technology company are not allowed to take fam trips. When she and her colleagues travel on site inspections, they pay all their own expenses, except for the occasional room night.

The rules are hard and fast at Shell Oil Co. in Houston: "Fam trips are against our company's ethics and compliance policy," says Mary Monaco, manager of select business support. "If we want to see a destination, there must be a specific business purpose for the trip, and we pay for everything."

On the other side, many third-party firms take fams to bolster their knowledge database. "Trips add credibility for when you're talking to a client," says Michelle Gerd of Encore Planning. A member of Gerd's team went on last November's trip sponsored by Harrah's to shore up her relationship with the company, whose properties her team often uses. "Even with all the familiarity," she says, "it still made a lot of sense to go, because they are one of our clients' customers."