Travel Agent Fam Trips: All Work And No Play?

by Richard D’Ambrosio
Travel Agent Fam Trips: All Work And No Play?

Tierra Chiloé Hotel & Spa Photo: Tierra Hotels

This is the first in a series of TMR reports on the state of the fam trip.

Like so many other core elements of the travel industry, the agent fam trip has changed dramatically over the past 20 years.

Trips are generally smaller, invitations are more selective, and suppliers seek social media super-agents who will not only book sales when they get home, but also help spread the word to their legions of digital fans.

Short for “Familiarization Trip,” the fam trip has been undergoing significant changes the last decade or so. Back in the 1990s, it was common for an agent to jet off with dozens of colleagues on fully-paid excursions to exotic destinations. Airlines were expanding their routes and had empty seats to fill. Lodging companies were opening new hotels and resorts with beds to fill. Agents were a primary marketing focus.

Now, agents most likely have to cover their own airfare, if they even receive an invitation. Trips are shorter and more businesslike. This has all resulted in an air of professionalism that permeates the whole fam experience, experts say, and helps make agents better informed and more successful.

“We’re paying more for fams, and it’s a lot of work,” said Karen Sheldon, owner of Between Trips Travel, Littleton, MA. “But I appreciate the knowledge I gain. You’ve got to work hard to stay up to date with the different properties and changes in the industry. I need to be thinking about how I can sell better when I get home.”

CheapCaribbean.com is a large company selling beach vacations at about 600 resorts across 60 destinations to consumers and travel agents. The company has two call centers, and hosts eight or nine fams annually for its own agents, said call center director Alyssa Scheppach.

“We hit our top three destinations each year,” Scheppach said—Cancun and Riviera Maya in Mexico, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic. “When someone calls in, we want them speaking to an agent who can speak from a recent personal experience.”

“The best way for a company to see a return, and nurture a market, is to get people there,” said Janine Cifelli, who represents about 20 luxury hotels and villas around the world with her own company, Janine Cifelli Luxury Representation. The Golden Door in San Marcos, CA, and Ballyfin in Ireland are two of her clients.

Cifelli just hosted a Valerie Wilson Travel agent to Ireland—and another agent in the same office already has made a booking there. “We know the agent we took is more excited, and fed back her excitement to all of her colleagues,” Cifelli said.

CheapCaribbean.com has formalized the post-trip debrief for fam participants. Agents fill out post-trip evaluation forms and produce presentations for other agents back at their call centers.

Invitations are harder to come by
Steve Kadoch, principal at Ultimate Jet Vacations in South Florida, believes hotels, especially in his luxury-travel niche, are increasingly focused on inviting agents who will provide incremental bookings. “Most hotels want to make certain agents haven’t been there recently, they know who they are, and they can produce,” he said.

Fam trip invitees “are clients who have booked us already,” said Georgina Godoy, director of sales for Velas Resorts. “Once they see the property, they’ll be that much more committed. I think that if I bring five agents to a property, at least four will make a booking fairly soon. They also drive business by talking about us and referring us to other agents.”

The obligation of either being recommended or having produced bookings prior to being invited on fam trips can cause agents difficulty. Sheldon is trying to break into destination wedding travel bookings, for example, but with so few bookings to date, she’s not yet on the radar screen for these trips.

“When I did my first AmaWaterways cruise, I came home and did a lot of river-cruise bookings. It’s a chicken and egg thing. You need to go on the trip to build the contacts and product knowledge, but some companies want to invite someone who has sold the product first,” she said.

With agents having to foot some of the fam bill, like the airfare portion, hosts are seeing agency executives more active in the selection process too. “Some of the agencies will look at productivity and make an [airline ticket] offer to employees with bookings,” Cifelli said.

Emerging markets, like Chile, have greater capacity, said Jamie Lynn Ensey, director of marketing for North America at Tierra Hotels. “We have seen a steady growth of fams, both in groups and for individuals, in the past five years. Considering Chile is growing in popularity, there is more awareness for our destinations and we believe fams are increasing because agents want to better understand the logistics of getting here and moving in between hot spots likes San Pedro de Atacama and Patagonia.”

Getting there is half the work
The lack of free or discounted airfares is a big change from years ago. “Back in the day, Caribbean airlines gave tickets or fam fares all the time,” Cifelli said.

“It’s rare today to get free seats for a fam,” Kadoch said. “We tell our agents, ‘We’re leaving from South Florida. We’ll pick you up at the Miami airport.’ If they’re successful, their business will pick up the airfare.”

“We have a pretty hefty air budget to make our fams happen,” Scheppach at CheapCaribbean.com said.

Having a financial stake in a trip has contributed to a more professional experience, Cifelli said. “Today’s agent doesn’t take the cost for granted. I recently took a fam to New Zealand,” Cifelli said, “and one agency came up with a ticket for one of their employees attending.”

Smaller groups and shorter, more experiential trips
As a result, fam trips tend to have fewer agents per trip than they used to.

“Fifteen or 20 years ago, some resorts would have 15, 20, 30 people on a fam,” said Godoy. CheapCaribbean averages 12 agents on each trip. In the luxury-travel segment, fams are ideally half that size, Cifelli and Kadoch said.

With fewer agents and a more business-like approach, fam trips are highly experiential. Hosts don’t just want to show off a property and whisk agents away. They want to immerse agents in the experience they hope the agents will sell when they return to the office.

“We used to try to get as much in as possible, but it was overkill. Our agents couldn’t get a feel for the property,” said Sheppach at CheapCaribbean.com. “Today’s trips have fewer properties and one tour/excursion per trip,” an industry-wide trend borne out by other veterans. Their typical fam is three nights and four days. If the trip is part incentive for high performers, the company will extend it a night or two.

Social pros get the nod
Agents who have a strong social media following increase their ability to get asked on fam trips, experts agree. Cifelli recounted one Smart Flyer agent she recently took to Ireland. “Almost every day since we’ve been back she has posted amazing photos. She’s followed by her clients. Her posts are poignant and meaningful.”

“You used to do this, and maybe someone took pictures, for themselves,” she said. “But now the incremental reach for fams is incredible due to social media. They reach so many more agents, and get so many agents excited about the property.”

CheapCaribbean has a supervisor travel on each fam with a GoPro video camera to document the trip and promote the host properties. Other agents “might send a photo to a client about a room they just saw,” Scheppach noted.

“Many of the travel advisors we host now are sharing their experience through their social media contacts throughout the trip,” Godoy said.

Times were different once
For the most part, agents and hosts agreed, another wholesale change has been how agents conduct themselves on fams. Sheldon recalls a 20-agent fam to Italy she attended in the fall of 2001. Ten agents departed from New York and 10 from Boston.

“There were a couple of agents who were drunk the whole time. On the return to the U.S., the bus left at 3 a.m. from the hotel. These two agents didn’t get their passports back at hotel checkout, so they missed our flight and had to buy a new ticket from Pisa to get home.”

“There’s always the one or two agents who don’t participate, who are grumpy the whole time. That hasn’t changed,” Sheldon said.

“Every now and then, you get a diva who has an issue, who doesn’t want to participate in the group activities, the meals,” Kadoch said. But poor behavior, he said, is extremely rare.

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