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