Hospitality is the common denominator of the travel industry, and every segment views its target market as "guests" rather than customers. This spirit of service extends to partners and, I've observed, even competitors who, through happenstance or invitation, are in a position to be hosted.
This is not to say there aren't razor-sharp elbows that flash when travel companies compete -- multibillion-dollar corporations and small enterprises alike engage in fierce struggles for market share -- but courtesy is one of the core competencies of the travel industry, and it's no exaggeration to say that the ability to attract business is dependent upon the creative and sincere ways in which travel companies work to make others happy and comfortable.
The supplier side of the industry figured out long ago that as a service industry, its products must be experienced to be sold effectively. "Five star" can mean many things, and photos of idyllic beaches and newly renovated rooms or descriptions of menus designed by celebrity chefs aren't necessarily enough.
The instrument that developed to incent and influence the industry's retail sales force -- travel advisers -- to recommend specific products is the familiarization trip, or fam. In these hosted or subsidized events, a supplier spares no effort to demonstrate its expertise in service, the quality of its amenities, its skills in the kitchen and spa and its ability to deliver against the high expectations of people who have the deep experience necessary to critically assess their performance.
Any professional who has been on a fam knows this can be a lot less glamorous than it sounds. It often entails long days being shuttled from hotel to hotel and inspecting five categories of rooms in each, but it nonetheless beats digging ditches by a long shot.
The system is not without its critics. Some agents consider fams a waste of time because they may feel obligated to inspect aspects of products they know won't match their clientele.
And the ethics of fams (and hosted media trips) has been called into question by industry watchdogs from time to time. Critics assert that they provide a distorted, VIP experience to which regular guests aren't privy.
Practices that are standard in the industry can appear insidious to some. Currently, local officials in Bergen, Norway, are looking into whether it was appropriate for the city's mayor to have accepted the perks -- a trip to a shipyard in Italy and a two-day local cruise -- that came with being named godmother of the Viking Star. Questions arose because she also has the ability to influence policy that could impact the company.
Viking, which was drawn into the investigation, said in a statement that it engaged in nothing outside "normal business practices" and is cooperating with authorities.
Do fams and related perks fall into an ethically "gray" zone? Journalists are routinely brought to shipyards, and I and hundreds of travel agents and Viking partners have been Viking's guests when it christened clusters of river Longships over the past several years.
The extent to which one might be compromised by the fam experience is a fair question to explore. Fams can certainly be viewed as legitimate, professional tools that offer the basis for an agent or journalist to provide guidance. In other industries, the equivalent of fams might not be necessary; movie critics can easily pay for their own cinema tickets, or a reviewer of computers can test and return products.
But flying halfway around the world and spending a few nights inspecting hotels that might become part of a wide portfolio of hotels isn't really economically feasible for most businesses that provide travel guidance.
And travel products are, in a sense, consumed when they are reviewed. Believe me, there have been fam experiences I would have gladly returned, if only that had been possible.
Ultimately, it comes down to professionalism. Anyone who has been on a fam or media trip has witnessed unprofessional behavior on the part of guests that raises deep suspicions that the participant isn't truly evaluating the product for their clients or readers but is simply on a junket. The organizer might be a perfect host, but the invitee is a far-from-perfect guest.
Although Travel Weekly is a trade publication and understands that most in the industry are familiar with the concept of fams and media trips, we recently instituted an editorial policy of disclosing within an article whether the writer gathered material for the story on a hosted trip.
For consumer media, policy on hosted or subsidized travel varies widely, and I have been told that some social media "influencers" are even paid by a supplier to tweet or post favorably.
But travel agents and media actually have a huge incentive to be professional in their guidance, whether trips are the result of a fam or not: Future business is reliant on one's ability to parse which aspects of a travel product will appeal to whom, then convey that information in a meaningful fashion. To praise a product beyond its abilities or overlook limitations constitutes a disservice to everyone, from the client/readers to the host of the fam.
In other words, it's not only unprofessional; it's a very poor way to repay hospitality.