Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland. Photo: James Wims
While fam trips have become smaller and more business-driven across much of the travel industry, the luxury segment is investing heavily in this time-honored educational marketing tool, hosting agents committed to becoming experts in selling high-end vacations.
Properties whose rooms cost over $1,000 a night are creating itineraries that resemble the customer experience of a travel agent’s guest. And tour operators are introducing agents to deluxe treatment that starts at the airport departure.
As a result, agents looking to create a niche in the luxury travel segment have ample opportunity to provide direct experience in their client consultations, improving customer loyalty and enhancing their close rates, insiders say.
“The luxury segment allows you to experience the spa, excursions and food, which you want to be able to tell your clients about,” said Jessica Younginer, a luxury specialist with Imagine Travel, Greensboro, NC. “These trips help you understand which resort fits which client, which city is best for them, which tours and excursions.”
“I always return with renewed passion and a fresh perspective about where I’ve been,” said Ethel Sher, owner of Vagabond Travel Agency, Inc., in Little Silver, N.J. “After a recent fam to Ireland, I’ve been raving about a falconry experience I had there. I enjoy finding interesting extras like this to share with my clients.”
Vagabond agents recently traveled to both Ireland and Thailand, Sher said, increasingly popular destinations with her clients who are generally luxury travelers. The participating hotels were four- and five-star properties.
Added Younginer, “Luxury fams are more relaxing and you get a real feel for the resort, where some destination fams or supplier fams just shuttle you through hotel after hotel. Rooms start to look alike, you don’t get a feel for the service.”
Steven Kadoch, principal at Ultimate Jet Vacations in South Florida, likes to invite “one or two raving fans who love working with us, and ask them to invite a couple of colleagues who would fit. This way we can create a casual and laid-back experience that feels like what their client would experience.”
“We’re in a niche, where we only book five-star clientele,” Kadoch said. “Fams are a chance for us to build a relationship with agents and explain what we’re all about. It’s much more effective than a sales call.”
Deluxe fams are more selective
Because luxury hotels generally are smaller and more expensive than a typical resort, deluxe fam trips are more selective in who attends. “This is not a free-for-all. You have to pick agents carefully,” said Janine Cifelli, whose company, Janine Cifelli Luxury Representation, has about 20 luxury hotel and villa customers.
Cifelli looks at prior relationships with her properties as she pulls together an invitation list. “I’m asking myself, ‘Are they booking our other hotels? How did their inquiries come in? Have they tried to close on a reservation recently? Do they just need a little more information to get the client there?’
“I have a couple of agents right now who over the past six months visited two-thirds of our hotels because they book across this portfolio.”
Another factor that impacts luxury fam trip size is the hotel’s sales staff. “A lot of hotel sales people are doing multiple roles, so they don’t have time for a full schedule hosting fams,” said Kadoch.
Inviting fewer agents affords a host the ability to customize agent experiences and allows agents to form connections with key contacts. Cifelli says a five-person fam is ideal for her clients. “Then you have a table of six for meals, and the GM can join you and you can have an effective discussion about the hotel and develop valuable relationships,” she said.
For luxury properties, Cifelli said, “you want to make sure it is not just a walk-through. You want it to resemble life as a guest as best as you can.”
Pleasure = business
With such a steep investment of time and money, deluxe properties and tour providers are seeing the returns. Amy Zebala, a travel consultant with SmartFlyer Saint Louis, St. Louis, MO, has traveled with Ultimate Jet to Turks and Caicos and to Cartagena on five-day trips, with one of the trips a reward for being a top producer. Zebala has booked the Turks property several times since she visited.
Ultimate Jet sees fams as such a key business driver, Kadoch recently hired a new business development manager to grow their fam itineraries and drive more results. The company hosted seven fams in 2015, Kadoch said, and has 12 scheduled so far this year.
For the full ultimate experience, Kadoch’s company has begun offering “private jet fams.”
“The whole concept we had for the company when we started was introducing the luxury leisure traveler to flying private,” Kadoch said. One of the company’s co-owners owns his own jet and has been a pilot for 25 years. “When an agent travels on a jet, it is so much easier for them to sell private air to their clients,” he said.
“For our business, it’s all about the relationships. If my hotels see production, they’re anxious for us to participate in more fams in the future,” Kadoch said. “Our conversion rate is very high.”