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Familiarize yourself

Seeing is believing. Many convention and visitors bureaus have found that old saw is especially true when trying to attract leisure travel groups to their cities.

A long-time staple in CVBs’ marketing kit has been familiarization tours, or fams, where they give tour operators and group leaders a firsthand look at what they have to offer.

“In our region, between Boston and Cape Cod, two well-known and desired places to be, we have history no one in the world has, but we do get lost in the shuffle,” said Paula Fisher, marketing manager for the Plymouth County Convention and Visitors Bureau in Massachusetts. “If I can entice them [tour operators] to spend time here, by actually physically seeing things we have here, it definitely makes a difference.

“It’s important for the operator to see what they think will work for their clients and maybe have time to investigate something they don’t know about.”

“We want to encourage them to visit during shoulder season or during the week,” said Isabelle Gonzalez, sales manager for the Long Island, N.Y., Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We try to show them that we are not just a summer destination but that they can come spring or fall, when they’ll find better rates, beautiful weather and that it’s less crowded.”

Fam trips can take many forms. Some involve a busload of operators or group leaders; others are individualized for a single person. They may be tightly scripted itineraries or filled with free time for participants to explore on their own. They may involve a single city or a region. But all are intended to put a destination’s best foot forward.

The short of it

One of the first things a CVB has to decide when planning a fam trip is how long to make it. Most agree that a short, focused site visit is best.

“Keep it small, keep it simple, and really wow them with a couple of good sites,” said Michael Lavery, deputy director of the Westchester County Office of Tourism in White Plains, N.Y. “We try to keep it to two overnight stays.”

Catharine Fox, tourism director for the Roanoke Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau in western Virginia added, “The ideal length of time is an opportunity for an overnight stay. We can give them the experience of what they can see in an afternoon, evening and morning, and how they could potentially do an itinerary. It allows them to experience a nighttime activity.”

Some CVBs like to build a fam around a theme.

“We have so many options and things to explore in Greater Phoenix that it’s a great idea to apply a specific angle or theme to our fam,” said Trish Hendrickson, media relations assistant for the Greater Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We will develop the itinerary based on that theme.”

The Phoenix CVB recently ran a Myths, Legends and Southwest Stories fam that focused on outdoor adventures and activities such as the Apache Trail, Tortilla Flat and Goldfield Ghost Town.

The Westchester County Office of Tourism combines fun and games at Playland, N.Y., above, and tours of the area’s mansions, such as Gothic-revival-style Lyndhurst Estate, right, on its fam trips.
Courtesy Westchester County Office of Tourism

“We tried to stay consistent with this theme and asked hotel partners with a similar theme to host, like the Radisson Fort McDowell,” said Hendrickson.

Lavery said the Westchester County CVB is offering a fam trip this month “that is geared toward summer fun activities.” The two-day fam includes racing indoor miniature Grand Prix cars at Grand Prix New York, slot-machine gambling at Yonkers Raceway and a visit to Playland in Rye, America’s first totally planned amusement park.

“Despite Playland’s designation as a National Historic Landmark, our guests will still be able to enjoy up to 50 different rides and attractions during their visit,” said Lavery. “To end the day, we’ll wind down with some shopping at our leading luxury store mall, the Westchester.”

“The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Tourism Department has been conducting fams for international leisure group leaders for years,” said bureau spokeswoman Celia Morales. “Our managers are constantly looking for new experiences to tailor fam itineraries depending on the specific interests and country of origin.

“For example, Europe and Asia love the ‘cowboy experience,’ and for these groups we include a visit to George Ranch Historical Park, a working ranch that preserves Texas history by using actors and actresses who characterize the family of Texas’ early settlers. Another successful option is Cowboy Solutions for a group-bonding experience at a ranch.

“Latin American visitors love shopping, and we have also worked with the Texas Medical Center for presentations and tours of some of the hospitals offering latest technologies available in order to promote medical tourism.

“One great example is a German group who recently had motorcycle rides from the local Eagle Rider Dealership,” said Morales. “Eagle Rider has a program that rents motorcycles for tours, where the client can pick up at one city and drop off at another.”

The Geauga County Tourism Council in Middlefield, Ohio, in the heart of Ohio’s Amish country, has built a fam based on the area’s food.

“Since fams are supposed to be short and informative, we know that talk is cheap, but happy tummies speak volumes,” said Lynda Nemeth, the council’s director. “So we do a great combination Brown Bag fam that gives operators a little taste of Geauga County.

“When the Rachael Ray Show filmed here last summer featuring us as a hidden gem, food was one of their favorite parts of the tour, so we decided to go with something everyone loves.”

The Geauga County fam itinerary includes the Middlefield Cheese House; Ridgeview Farm’s produce market; Mary Yoder’s Amish Bakery, where they get a mini loaf of fresh-baked bread; the Fig Tree Bulk Food Store, where they receive a jar of jam; and an Amish wedding feast in an Amish home.

“The menu includes chicken, real mashed potatoes and gravy, seasonal vegetables — literally whatever they have the most of in the garden that morning — seven-layer salad, Amish date nut pudding, fresh bread, jams, coffee, tea and pie,” said Nemeth. “No one will leave hungry.”

Some bureaus like to plan individual fams for tour operators and group leaders based on their interests. “We custom-build itineraries for fams, individual group leader visits and for groups themselves,” said Hannah Smith, communications manager for the Athens, Ga., Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“We offer I-fams, individualized fams, to any tour operator who wants to visit anytime of the year,” said Fisher. “My feeling is, individualizing a fam is easier for everyone — the CVB and the supplier — and also is better for the tour operators, as it can be customized to their type of tour.”

Plimoth Plantation with its first-person living-history interpretations, is a main stop in Plymouth County, Mass.
Courtesy Plymouth County CVB

However, Julie Scholle, sales manager of the DuPage Convention and Visitors Bureau in DuPage, Ill., said that although she will conduct a fam tour for an individual, she usually tries to set up events with multiple group leaders, “because it is more efficient and also much more fun and rewarding for the participants.”

Roanoke’s Fox said she does all types. She recently played host to a large contingent of the North Carolina Motorcoach Association and a smaller fam in conjunction with the American Bus Association Marketplace in Charlotte, N.C.

“We will also do individual fams,” she said. “We have a guest pass for up to 14 area attractions. It gives them the opportunity to see what they want.”

Fox said she likes to meet with individual operators but leaves them alone if they want. “Most of these people are sophisticated enough to do it on their own,” she said. “But we will help if the need be.”

Sometimes CVBs will band together to bring in operators and group leaders.

“Visit Charlotte has recently partnered with other tourism folks in our region to offer a more regional approach to the ordinary fam trip,” said Amy Rieth, public relations assistant coordinator for the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. “They have even partnered with the Asheville CVB to conduct an entire western North Carolina fam.

“These regional fams are different from the fams the state of North Carolina organizes, as the folks participating in organizing the trips banded together on their own. The hopes are that attendees will see all the wonderful things the region has to offer as opposed to the cities competing with each other,” she said.

Athens is part of Georgia’s Antebellum Trail, which has adopted a regional fam tour. “This method offers a built-in common theme for the seven communities along the trail while still giving the tour operator or group leader the opportunity to view distinctively different locales,” said Smith.

“Furthermore, for

Members of North Carolina Motorcoach Association were on a live Web cam shot from atop Mill Mountain with its scenic views of the Roanoke Valley druing a fam sponsored by the local CVB.
Courtesy Roanoke Valley CVB

a two- to three-day familiarization tour of this 100-mile stretch, the partnering communities have the chance to share the cost and time investment of hosting operators and group tour leaders, while the whole region benefits from the comprehensive exposure.”

No matter how many are on a fam or how long it lasts, the key to a successful fam can often rest with the extra attention paid to the participants and the innovative touches added by the CVBs.

A group of bank program directors came to Beaumont, Texas, as part of a multicity fam following the BankTravel Conference in Grapevine, Texas.

“We photographed the group all along at various locations, and the last day, I downloaded the photos and created a custom-designed collage,” said Stephanie Molina, director of marketing for the Beaumont CVB. “We printed them all a nice copy on good-quality photo paper, inserted it into a large stand-alone matte that doubled as a frame and presented it to them at the conclusion of the fam.

“They were surprised and really wowed by the attention to detail and extra special attention we paid them. We aim to give our fams that little lagniappe that keeps them smiling and guessing on what we’ll do next.”

Fox said she takes all fam tours to the Roanoke Star and Mill Mountain Overlook, where they can call people to watch them on the live Web cam at the site.

“While at the Mill Mountain Overlook, we take a group photo and give all fam participants a 4-by-6 photo in a special wooden frame with Roanoke carved in it as a fam memento,” she said. “I like the idea of them taking back that memory.”

During the North Carolina Motorcoach Association fam, Fox created a scavenger hunt of downtown businesses using a deck of cards and a poker hand as a lure.

“Each [fam] participant picked a card at each retailer,” she said. “The more they participated, the better their hand potentially could be. Each participating retailer and attraction contributed an item to a gift basket, and the best hand won the basket.”

Attention to detail is also important in organizing a fam tour.

“There are so many small details,” said Long Island’s Gonzalez. “You have to make sure the timing of the itinerary works, and you have to constantly watch the clock to make sure you don’t get behind schedule.

“Most groups want the same person the whole time. They like to have the connection. They become comfortable with the guide. It should be the person in the CVB office who specifically works with the tour and travel market. And this person has to be enthusiastic the whole time.”

The Beaumont, Texas, CVB created a custom-designed collage for participants on a fam tour.
Courtesy Beaumont CVB

“It’s important to have someone from the bureau with them,” said Ashley White, communications specialist with the Beaumont CVB. “It provides a better image that you are devoting someone to pay attention to this group, that they are important enough to take someone out of the office and make sure they have a good time.

“Also, if something goes wrong, there is the opportunity to fix it.”
Phoenix’s Hendrickson said, “When they get here, all you can do is hope that everyone will mingle well and that there are no glitches in the itinerary.”