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Familiarization trips can be an important part of any travel advisor’s strategy to stay current. But how do these guided programs fit into today’s reality, when everyone is just beginning to navigate the so-called “new normal” brought on by the coronavirus pandemic?
“Fam trips are more important now than they ever were,” said Natalie Browning, owner of Insider Travel Planners in Danville, West Virginia. “Given the circumstances, the general public is afraid to travel, or they have concerns. When they see someone they trust out traveling and experiencing new things, they are likely to follow suit. We need fams in order to show the world that we can travel and that things are open.”
Given the circumstances, the general public is afraid to travel, or they have concerns. When they see someone they trust out traveling and experiencing new things, they are likely to follow suit.
As the industry starts adjusting to new realities, some travel advisors have taken it upon themselves to set up individual fam trips. Rob Karp, founder and CEO of New York City-based Miles Ahead, recently took a three-week road trip that included stops in Massachusetts and South Carolina.
“I don’t know if I can characterize it as a fam because I paid my own way,” he noted. “But the hotels were generous, and I met with people and took notes. I would characterize it as a research trip.”
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Also taking an individual approach to familiarization trips is Chelsea Martin, a luxury travel advisor at Full-Time Travel, an affiliate of Embark in New York City. She took advantage of her Marriott STARS Celestial status to arrange a recent stay at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel in Dana Point, Calif. Rather than simply inspecting general standards of sanitation and cleaning, Martin wanted to learn about creative ways the hotel is addressing the current situation.
“For me, the biggest thing that I looked for, and that I’m continuing to look for, is what the hotel is doing to maintain the five-star luxury service that our clients are used to and expect,” she said. “This includes how they’re being innovative and offering unique experiences that make up for the things they still have to keep closed.”
In general, both advisors and suppliers are devising new approaches to the concept of the fam trip, according to Aanchal Gandhi, vice president, west coast leisure and independent advisors at Ovation Travel Group.
“Fam trips with sunset welcome cocktails by the pool and lavish dinners graciously hosted by hoteliers seem a distant memory,” she said. “The new world of fam trips is going to be very exclusive, focusing on changes adapted by hoteliers to provide consumer confidence.”
The new world of fam trips is going to be very exclusive, focusing on changes adapted by hoteliers to provide consumer confidence.
Destination Fams Will Focus on What’s UniqueCapitalizing on predictions that domestic travel will surge before international vacations, several U.S. destinations are ramping up organized fam trips. The Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, for example, was about to welcome its first fam trip as of press time, focusing on its airport, ports, restaurants and hotels as well its new Safe + Clean standards protocol. Following the visit, a new video will be produced to share with additional travel advisors.
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (CVA), meanwhile, is planning a fam trip for September. The number of participants will be lower than previous programs, according to Kelly Messina, the CVA’s senior director of leisure sales. In addition, rather than highlighting cleanliness measures that are becoming an industry standard, Messina says the trip will showcase what’s “unique and different,” such as inventive hotel app check-in services and behind-the-scenes casino operations.
The Las Vegas fam trip will also include experiences that Messina says are now top of mind for visitors: shopping, outdoor activities and pampering.
“We’re not going to go with a cookie-cutter fam,” she said. “We’re going to focus on what the traveler wants.”
Suppliers Are Looking at Fams Differently Various hoteliers and suppliers are fine-tuning their approach to fam trips, as well. Smaller groups and individual trips will likely be the norm for AIC Hotel Group, which handles sales and marketing for multiple properties flying the flags of Hard Rock Hotels, Nobu Hotels, UNICO 20º87º and Eden Roc Miami Beach.
“Moving forward, we will be hosting smaller and more personalized fam trips with a stronger focus on social media,” said Carilis Felipe, the company’s director of field sales. “We want to encourage agents to document their experience on their social platforms for consumers to see and feel comfortable traveling to our destinations.”
We want to encourage agents to document their experience on their social platforms for consumers to see and feel comfortable traveling to our destinations.
In terms of on-the-ground logistics, fam trip organizers may shy away from some previously common activities, according to Santiago Gonzalez Abreu, vice president of development – Latin America for PHG Consulting, which works with various travel and hospitality entities on public relations and strategy.
“There used to be a real craving for authenticity through experiences that involved being in crowded places with local people, such as food markets or shopping areas,” he said. “I expect that to shift to more controlled spaces — for example, a food demonstration at a hotel or restaurant instead of attending outdoor markets.”
Regardless of how they take place, fam trips are likely to become an increasingly important educational source for travel advisors, according to Thomas Carpenter, owner of Huckleberry Travel in New York City. As he plans an upcoming “do-it-yourself” fam excursion to several national parks, Carpenter says that it’s up to advisors to take the lead.
“The key to the recovery is going to be travel advisors getting out there and showing that it’s safe to travel,” he said. “That’s one reason I’m traveling.”