Tour operator familiarization trips (fams), long a mainstay in the educational journey of travel advisors, are evolving and becoming more monitored, more productivity-based and hopefully more valuable to both tour operators and their retailer partners.
In turn, advisors are focusing on getting the most out of the excursions – not just educationally, but in terms of networking and as a social media tool. However, despite good intentions on both sides, some think there is room for improvement.
One example of how much more rigorous fams – and their aftermaths – have become is high-end operator Tauck Tours. Steve Spivak, vice president-global sales and reservations, said the company operates Tauck Academy programs which are fully compensated by the company (advisors must pay for transportation to departure although there might be discounts on that.) These trips include significant classroom time in addition to the tour itself. Spivak said the operator created the academy because of dissatisfaction with traditional fams.
Tauck measures advisor productivity every month after the fam is over. “We want advisors to have a more complete understanding of who we are and what we offer,” said Spivak. “We also want to give them tools to become better advisors – not just in selling Tauck but in general.”
After the engagement of the fam, said Spivak, Tauck wants to see a lasting benefit, not just a bump in sales for a month afterward but for the long run. Advisors who complete Tauck Academy get extensive travel benefits, as do clients. There is also more communication in the form of email and personal connections.
Fam Trips represent a significant investment by tour operators, said Steve Lima, vice president of growth, USA and Latin America, for G Adventures. He said that to insure there is a return on the investment, the company has done two things:
Created a fam fan club. Fam participants are tagged in the system so their sales are tracked and they are held to some level of post-trip follow-up. Advisors are trained and helped with developing marketing plans.
Developed relationships with tourism boards to make sure that advisors get the best access to destination assets to help them convert sales.
Fam trips from Journeysmiths, a high-end tour operator that specializes in wild places, aim to really immerse advisors in a destination “rather than rushing around on endless hotel inspections,” according to Laura Burdett-Munns, managing director. While advisors do have to pay a substantially discounted rate for the trip, said Burdett-Munns, they can fully recover their costs incrementally or even fully once they reach a financial threshold of traveled bookings.
Following a trip, said Burdett-Munns, the advisor will get a call to provide feedback about their experience, to start planning a marketing campaign and to determine whether they would like additional training.
In addition to providing content and imagery to advisors after trips, Journeysmiths checks in with the advisors every three to six months to gauge interest in the destinations. It is at that point, said Burdett-Munns, that the operator would expect to have seen revenue generated or a booking well underway.
TTC Tour Brands, which operates many tour companies in every category, offers a variety of fam opportunities, according to Guy Young, chief trade engagement officer. This year, the company began offering multi-branded fams so advisors could experience the range of touring experiences available and gain an understanding of how the brands differ.
The company, said Young, tracks the sales production of fam attendees in its customer relationships management system and sales managers will work with fam participants to grow sales. On occasion, there will be post-fam booking incentives for advisors and clients.
At Collette, spokesperson Sam LaFrance said the operator does not offer set fam trips but does offer a 50 percent discount for advisors and a 25 percent discount for their companions. The operator stopped running set fam tours, he said, mostly because advisors had already been to destinations, so this is a more flexible method to accomplish similar goals.
Collette does monitor advisors after their tours and usually does a post-trip report every six months. The operator will then go through a local business development manager (BDM) to help it maintain a healthy relationship with advisors after they come back.
Advisors Look Beyond “Familiarity”
Advisors universally say they take fams so they can sell a product better, but they also stress that it helps them develop valuable contacts – with the host – as well as with hotels, attractions, etc. to help them gain VIP treatment for clients. Fams also provide content for social media marketing. Cali Stein, an advisor with Embark Beyond, said that meeting suppliers firsthand helps when asking for upgrades and special amenities. In addition, said Stein, she takes fams because when she posts on social media, that content becomes a lead generator.
Her post-fam experience could be improved, said Stein, adding that it would be helpful if hosts would immediately send collateral that could be posted online. While conceding that everyone is busy and follow-up is sometimes difficult and often forgotten, said Stein, “getting fact sheets and staying in touch is essential to keeping the fam fresh in mind.”
Sakeysha Williams, CEO of Key Vacations, said she takes fams partly to build her portfolio of content for digital marketing. She creates “an abundance” of videos and photos to share on social media and with clients. She also likes to use the content to show clients the exact layout and inclusions of various room categories.
Some tour operators do not follow up after a fam at all, said Williams, As a former BDM herself, she said, she knows that a key to selling after a fam is the follow-up support provided by the supplier.
Jack Ezon, managing director of Embark Beyond, said his company aims to operate at least one fam (which the company calls “epics”) of its own per month and the agency has worked to “elevate” fams and turn them from educational experiences into marketing opportunities.
The company, said Ezon, brings a cinematographer to do photo shoots with a well-known photographer and requires participants to send postcards to at least three clients while on the road. The agency also does a full interview on return and has the attendees present to the rest of the company.
Ryan Doncsecz, groups manager for VIP Vacations, said that his company recommends that advisors attend the types of trips that will help in their respective concentrations. For instance, in 2019 a more specialized Africa expert was needed. Two advisors attended a fam that helped introduce the agency to the destination and link it with tour operators. Bottom line: VIP Vacations ended up using the same tour operator for Africa travel for the past few years.
On returns from trips, said Doncsecz, the agency tends to encourage a sales push as a “thank you” to the hosts. This push – in combination with newfound knowledge, and the ability to share new personal marketing content – usually benefits the agency and the trip organizer, as well as travelers.
Simone Collins, co-CEO of Travelmax, said her agency primarily takes fams to establish better connections with vendors so that when clients experience emergencies or have special requests, there are relationships with “insiders” who can secure expedited solutions and otherwise-inaccessible VIP services.
With these new-found contacts, said Collins, there is no reason that advisors can’t set up some sort of marketing plan, promotion to clients, or even bonus structure with the supplier. “Open that dialogue with the tour operator and see what they can offer you,” advises Collins.
Trish Smith, an InteleTravel advisor and owner of Trish’s Timeless Travel, said that aside from education and networking, she also answers questions for her host agency, InteleTravel, for whom she is a certified trainer.
Getting to know other advisors and BDM’s is a plus for fams, agrees Marissa Daniels, owner of Spread Your Wings Travel Agency, an InteleTravel affiliate. By meeting them, she said, she gains valuable tips and stronger relationships.
Similarly, Jarmal Stevens, owner of Travel for Fun, another InteleTravel affiliate, said he takes fams to meet other advisors from whom he can learn. And he too develops relationships with BDM’s and other tour operator staff.
Karlyn Bauer, retail operations leader for Flight Centre, a large travel management company, said fams are typically selected by the company’s advisors because they have not been to the destination – thus extending the range of products they can offer clients. But, since advisors want their clients to have a good time, they should experience that as well. “Let’s be honest,” said Bauer, “a good fam should also be a great time. It offers the opportunity for advisors to have fun with like-minded people in the industry, all while expanding their network and learning about a product.”
Post-fam consultations are not the norm but do exist, said Bauer. The larger value, she said, is based on the relationships built while on the trip. Typically, there will be a product representative on the trip where a connection is made. These reps will be available to back up the advisor during client meetings.
Advisors believe they are better sellers of a tour or destination after a fam – often because of social media. Stein said she has a very good rate of return though sometimes she might not end up booking something right away. It can take a year, she said, but usually, within six months of a fam, she will have made a booking.
Embark Beyond, said Ezon, has seen clear and significant ROI on every company fam it has orchestrated, sometimes ten-fold. He said that once his agency did a fam and walked away with almost $1 million in business to that location.
“We definitely see a bump in sales for a particular airline, hotel, or tour operator following a fam trip with them,” said Collins, “assuming we had a good experience and solidified a stronger relationship.”
After one Jamaica tourism board fam, said Stevens, his production “exploded” and his bookings to the island really took off.
Smith said she has sold many group trips on cruises because she was able to take pictures and videos and post them to her social media and client group forum, showcasing room categories that fit client needs and budgets, as well as giving real-time answers to questions via Facebook Live.
After a fam, said Bauer, the product is front of mind when selling to a customer. Historically, she said, “we have seen this is one of the first bookings advisors make after returning from a fam, largely because they are excited to share their experience with clients.”