Anatomy of a fam trip: Ireland

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amiliarization trips -- or "fams," in industry shorthand -- are, well, familiar territory to most travel agents. In fact, most retailers have taken at least one subsidized inspection jaunt to a given destination, hotel property or cruise ship.

But what exactly goes into creating the perfect fam? And are they worth taking?

To find the answers, I tagged along with 60 graduates of the Shamrock Club, a destination specialist program run by Tourism Ireland.

The participants were enjoying the fruit of their online labors: a heavily discounted educational fam to Ireland.

On our escorted, six-night motorcoach tour of the country's north and south, east and west, I had the opportunity to pick the brain of John Daly, my traveling companion and program manager of the Shamrock Club since 1998, to learn how he goes about crafting a fam. I also cornered several agent participants to get their reactions to the trip.

Because the first order of business in organizing such a trip is securing airline seats, US Airways Flight 70 from Philadelphia to Shannon Airport is a fitting place to begin my tale.

ABCs of a fam

In years past, participants flew to Ireland on the obvious candidate, Aer Lingus, but this time Tourism Ireland partnered with US Airways for the nearly six-hour flight. The carrier had launched summer service to Shannon and Dublin from Philadelphia in May and was eager to promote the new routes to the trade.

US Airways allocated Tourism Ireland 60 seats: 30 each into Dublin and Shannon. As the U.S.-based sponsor, the airline also assigned two representatives to accompany agent participants.

Transportation secured, Daly said he next turned to the itinerary -- keeping in mind previous years' fam trips.

"You have to make sure you're achieving a fair regional spread and not always going over the same product and areas," he said. "Being visible in each region has to be a priority for us, as is supporting the supplier base marketing to us in Ireland."

With half of the agents flying into Shannon and the rest into Dublin, Daly decided to split the fam into two groups, following mirror-image routes on a northward arc between the airports and crossing paths midway for a joint celebration.

Much of our time would be spent in Northern Ireland, as it had the year before. Tourism Ireland, a joint venture of Failte Ireland in the Republic and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, has committed a lion's share of resources to raising the profile of Ulster, less popular with U.S. visitors than the south.

But we weren't there yet. Upon arrival in Shannon, my troop boarded a motorcoach and headed to the Dromoland Castle Hotel in nearby Newmarket-on-Fergus in County Clare. The 100-room, 375-acre resort -- although extremely high end -- is typical of the sort of property and stay that Tourism Ireland is looking to promote: historical, rural, remote and picturesque.

Although some participants complained about a lack of time in city centers, "what we're really selling is the countryside, the heritage and meeting the people," Daly said. "That becomes easier to market when more agents actually visit the countryside."

True to his word, Daly -- assisted by our freelance tour guide -- led our agents to a mix of off-the-beaten path resorts, attractions and regions.

Securing free or discounted accommodations -- or at least site inspections -- never poses a problem for Tourism Ireland.

"The hotels are eager to help," said Daly. "Especially in their off season."

And while Daly said he can chime in on his top picks, the final hotel selections are left to the headquarters in Ireland.

"They might tell us they don't want to use one hotel because a German fam group just visited it, so they'd rather we used another," he said.

Balancing time spent sightseeing versus inspecting hotels is a consideration. Many fams include as many as a dozen site inspections a day, but the Shamrock Club limits such visits to four per day. That sat well with participants such as Janis Emery of Travel II in Nashville.

"With Ireland, you've got good resources such as [bed-and-breakfast] guides, so as an agent you don't really need to go in and do a lot of inspections," she said. "You bring clients here to have an experience, so becoming familiar with the historical sights is more important to me."

Fellow fam-er Joyce Briggs of Cruise Holidays of South Charlotte in Charlotte, N.C., agreed, saying, "There's no way we could actually see the multitude of places to stay here. Seeing a few choice properties helps."

That said, the pace of the fam was at times breathtaking -- even with limited site inspections. And even though they enjoyed taking in as much of Ireland as possible, agents like Susan Marshall of Travel Advisors International in Maple Grove, Minn., said they would have liked to slow down a bit.

"I wanted maybe a little more time," said Marshall. "It's a short trip with so many things to see, but it felt a little rushed in parts."

Who goes there?

After securing flights and itinerary planning, selecting agent participants is the third step in planning a fam, Daly said.

That's not an easy task with a fast-growing program like the Shamrock Club. Although he only had 60 US Airways seats, Daly and his staff e-mailed invitations to about 1,200 of the 2,000 program graduates -- and received more than 300 replies.

"There's no science to the way we selected," Daly said. "We tried to be even and fair, so the way we picked was to simply pull names out of a hat."

Tourism Ireland was left with a waiting list of 340 or so applicants, 30 of whom got on board when original invitees canceled. Next year, the organization will up the ante by budgeting for 150 participants. In addition, it's considering reinstating what it calls "super-fams," or back-to-back, express fams for as many as 300 graduates a year.

"We're looking at the concept because with our numbers in the Shamrock Club, bringing over even 150 agents isn't effective anymore," Daly said. "The goal, after all, is to bring as many people who've done the course over to Ireland as possible."

The investment will be substantial. Daly estimates each trip costs Tourism Ireland more than $120,000 per 100 participants -- despite supplier freebies.

Of course, managing hundreds of fam-trippers can pose more than financial challenges.

Our groups of 30 agents per motorcoach got along well enough, but weeklong jaunts with greater numbers of participants can slow things down and increase the chances of friction.

For his part, Daly said he's never had a nightmare fam -- outside of the occasional flu outbreak or near-drowning. But the agents on my bus said that despite the harmonious on-board atmosphere, they'd prefer even smaller groupings.

"Everyone's gotten along so well, and I look at group travel as the price we pay for the trip, but if I had my druthers, I'd rather be with no more than 12 other people," Emery said.

Our numbers temporarily doubled when both groups met up halfway through the trip in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, for what many agents deemed a highlight of our stay: a mini-trade show with dozens of local suppliers, followed by a graduation dinner and evening of entertainment at the new City Hotel.

The occasion gave rise to discussions of the value of both our locale and fam trips in general.

Picking up on a thread in Daly's commencement speech, Becki Fogle of Villa Travel Service in Lebanon, Tenn., said fam trips are a key to success in today's era of specialization.

"It would be a mistake not to do a fam," she said. "You don't get the real flavor of a destination until you get there."

Emery agreed. "I went through Londonderry a few years ago, and we couldn't stop because we were traveling on a southern (Irish) coach," she said, referring to Northern Ireland's occasionally violent sectarian and political frictions.

"Now that I've been back and see how things have improved, that was worth the entire trip right there."

As for comparing an online DS course with a fam trip, Daly said the Shamrock Club's top-of-the-line "interactive experience shows enough so that agents can visualize what our product is like, but it never beats seeing and experiencing Ireland."

In the end, it was the spontaneous moments -- unscheduled stops at the tour guide's suggestion, sharing pints and laughs at hotel pubs -- that made the trip a bit more than just business. On a successful fam, they always do.

To contact reporter Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

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For more details on this article, see Anatomy of a fam: Itinerary.

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