One Travel Agent’s Fam Experience, Beginning To End, Part One

by Lila Fox with Richard D'Ambrosio


Detailed knowledge of destinations and suppliers has never been more important to an agent’s success. That’s why this year Travel Market Report has been reporting on travel industry fam trips. We launched the series in June with a general “state of today’s fam trip” article, covered luxury fams, explored the future of fam trips with Club Med, and published two stories regarding the cruise industry’s fams and educational offerings.

We wrap up our series following travel agent Lila Fox, of SmartFlyer in Madisonville, LA. In this two-part diary, we see Lila preparing for a November fam, join her on her trip, and experience what it’s like returning back to the office. You can follow Lila too at: @lilathetourist on Instagram, and Lila Fox Ermel on Facebook.

Accepting an offer to go on a fam trip isn’t simple. Last year, Janine Cifelli, a U.S. representative for a small collection of luxury properties around the world, invited Lila Ermel Fox, an independent agent who works with the Smartflyer/Virtuoso brand, to visit several properties in Italy. Among the many properties Cifelli represents, this trip was designed to educate agents about the Hotel Lungarno and Portrait Firenze in Florence, and the Hotel Monteverdi, a small privately owned property in Tuscany.

Go? Or no go?
Familiarization trips these days are moving more toward small groups of targeted chosen agents (2-6) versus large groups (20+) of agents, so being invited is an honor, always. It’s exciting too. But I will not accept an invitation if I’m not currently selling the destination/hotel, or don’t think that I can sell the destination/hotel to my current clientele.

This said, there have been instances where I did say yes even though I had not sold the destination and was unsure I would be able to. Saying “yes” to visit The Ranch at Rock Creek and Paws Up, luxury all-inclusive dude ranches near Missoula Montana, is one example. Seeing the properties, getting excited about them, and sharing photos and stories during my time there put the hotels and destination at the front of mind to folks who may or may not have considered them for a vacation. It got people talking. I’ve since sold both properties to folks from across the country. So, it’s a lot of “gut feel” too as to whether I say yes or no.

In this case, Florence and Tuscany are two destinations that I send a lot of clients to, so the invitation to go back is always an easy one to accept.

I also have to consider the cost of airfare, because it is rarely if ever included in any familiarization trip. That’s a business expense I have in the back of my mind when I plan out my annual business plan.

Getting ready
Once I made the decision to go, I need to let people know. I used to use an out-of-office automatic e-mail message, but I found that it just made clients anxious about when I would actually get back to them—and some would just book something themselves. Since I’m always working while I’m away, I decided to not use an out-of-office message anymore if I know I’ll have Wi-Fi.

I do reach out directly to my business clients to give them a heads’ up that there may be a delay in my normal response time but that they can always call me if there is an urgent need. All my clients have my personal cell phone number. I’m checking and responding to emails throughout the day on a fam trip. (Many hotels know that I pre-order a pot of strong coffee to be delivered to my room at odd hours!)

Also, usually one to two weeks out, I’ll make mention on my social media accounts that I will be traveling, with a photograph. If any shopping is involved for clothing or gear specific to an upcoming destination, I’ll post about that too tying in (local) retailers as I’m able to.

The week before I leave is pretty much business as usual. The day of the week that I’ll be traveling, whether I’ll be flying domestically, or if I have a trans-oceanic flight, all plays into how I handle workload the week before. Usually, I try to plan to fly on a Saturday or Sunday because emails and inquiries from clients are generally slower.

The night before is usually a late night; I’m clearing my inbox as much as I can, and I don’t get up from my desk until every ball in my court is out. Last-minute laundry, and getting the suitcase to about 75% complete. I always change my mind on things in the suitcase day of a flight, so I leave a little room for decisions in the morning.

The morning of departure is just like any other morning (I try to keep the same routine wherever I am). Wake up, coffee and the news, followed by emails and last-minute packing. I generally like to fly in a bit early to a fam in advance of anyone else arriving (usually a night or two depending on destination).

I’m checking e-mail on the plane, and I use airport lounges to take phone calls with clients as necessary. As long as I have phone service and an internet connection, I’m connected in every sense of the word. I monitor the time back home and stay connected accordingly.

I like to schedule a spa appointment at the hotel shortly after arrival to combat any jet lag, and I also like to have a bit of time to do some things on my own – see any friends that I may have in that destination and to also see other hotels/restaurants/local shops that might not be on the fam itinerary.

As a rule of thumb, I don’t branch off on my own during organized fam trips out of respect for the host. For this particular fam trip, I flew in two nights early to scope out Milan in advance of meeting up with colleagues in Florence. I had never been to Milan so I scheduled meetings with seven hotels the day of arrival.

I land and go straight into site visits, back-to-back, seeing all seven hotels and meeting with management of each. I am back at my hotel (Armani Milano) by 5 p.m., and go straight to my massage appointment there. Then it’s room service, and lights out by 10 p.m. That’s a fairly typical first day of arrival for me, so I have the next day (more if I can arrange it) entirely on my own to scope out a city.

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