The road to FAMs and fortune

With more than 30 years as a photojournalist and world traveler under his belt, Christopher Batin knows the ins and outs, and ups and downs of FAM, or familiarization, trips. Photo courtesy of Christopher Batin.
With more than 30 years as a photojournalist and world traveler under his belt, Christopher Batin knows the ins and outs, and ups and downs of FAM, or familiarization, trips. Photo courtesy of Christopher Batin.

An outdoor writer’s guide to profitable familiarization trips

Author’s note: As a contributing editor for TravelAge West magazine, I wrote a story on how travel agents can best make the most of their FAM – or familiarization – trips. Writers and travel agents share much in common, and successful ones follow many of the same rules. A FAM is a trip that can generate thousands of dollars in profit, but only if you know the inside secrets to making one work for you. I have recast the story to take into consideration the subtle yet distinct differences of the outdoor photojournalist angle. Following is Part 1 of a two-part series. By Christopher Batin Most writers know a FAM is a reduced rate or gratis travel destination offered to qualified professionals tointroduce them to a tourism research far in advance. bureau, tour provider or des-They take lots of photos or tinations of mutual interest. video. They take notes, and The power of the FAM in the hands of an experienced outdoor photojournalist is impressive. Savvy communicators use FAM trips to discover new or revisit renewed destinations, where they analyze a site, take photos and hopefully find the destination profitable to sell, sell and sell in many types of media. I’ve spent 32 years rating and reviewing FAMS and journeying around the world, and have observed that a FAM trip requires the same prep as any press trip. The goals of a travel journalist and a travel agent on a FAM are nearly identical, in scope and purpose, and require much of the same planning, preparation and research. Both utilize FAMs to learn more about an operator, obtain the facts to sell the trip to readers or clients, who in turn book trips based on the information. And like travel agents, travel journalists know a profitable FAM is more than just luck. They plan and research far in advance. They take lots of photos or video. They take notes, and develop contacts and build both short and long-term relationships. They plan the work and work the plan. Pre-trip planning The profitability of your FAM trip begins months before your departure. Create a folder for your travel research, based on the needs of your existing clientele or investigating a new market. Post this “theme” such as “convention and meetings,” “foreign individual tours,” “fishing destinations” “family escapes” or a combination of categories on the folders. Now research the destination on the Internet to generate some leads. Create a contact address book, and add information from local tourism and convention and visitors bureaus.  Analyze and digest the information, and work the potential contacts or directions into a rough outline based on the travel itinerary. For example, if you have only three hours in New Orleans, schedule ahead of time to meet an industry rep at one of the tour highlights along the way, or make the most of your time and chat on the bus.  Lily Shum, vice president of marketing and business development for China Travel Service, offers some organizing pointers to writers and agents who take FAM tours with her company.

  • Participate in every activity planned for the FAM and review details as if you are a client visiting the destination for the very first time. Please bear in mind that it is an educational trip, not a holiday.
  • Conduct all hotel inspections, as arranged.
  • Provide feedback to both local hosts and the travel service.
  • Offer suggestions to improve the trip from your readers’ perspective.

Ask about any travel writers or agents who have been on a FAM tour recently and e-mail or contact them for their views or highlights of the tour. You’ll soon get an idea of what to look for, both pro and con.  Prepare your identity Your hosts possibly won’t know who you are, especially those based in a foreign country. Have a business card or other marketing materials about yourself and your business ready to distribute. Most cell phones have slide show capabilities, which allow you to show the host photos of your business, published articles and publications. Your job is to sell them on you, so they take you seriously. Impress them to the point to where they will remember you after seeing countless writers in the course of a year’s time.  Here’s a tip: Visit your local CVB and obtain city pins at little or no cost to distribute. In places like Beijing or Moscow, these are treasured items.  While touring once in Russia, I had some city pins with me that I had obtained from the Fairbanks CVB. The CVB was happy to donate them for just such a purpose. The pins impressed and wowed my hosts, and I received royal treatment during the entire tour. Building relationships is important; should there ever be a problem with your tour, you’ll have the recognized clout to get the problem resolved, immediately.  But here is a caveat: Despite royal treatment, your obligation is to report the trip as you see it, putting the glitz and 24-course meals aside, and ask yourself, “What will my readers experience?” Record it accurately so there is no misrepresentation. Objectivity exists in each one of us to make the right call. Never sacrifice your integrity over any form of travel story or complimentary tour. While business and ethics can work well hand in hand, when in doubt, use your moral compass as a guide.  Of course, how many supplemental trips your story will generate for the host after the FAM will be the ultimate reminder of your professionalism and the clout of the publications you represent. Ask your hosts their views on the published story (no matter if your review was good, bad or indifferent). If you have people corresponding with you via letter and e-mails about a trip they enjoyed based on your story, send copies to the host.  Review your itinerary This is where the research pays big dividends. Review the schedule and based on your research and type of FAM tour, work in meetings, questions and tours based on your needs. FAM tours are often treated to better meals than regular group tours such as your readers may experience. Visit the restaurants where the standard tours eat, the buses used and the guides employed. Add additional days if the group tour will not allow you to accomplish all you have scheduled.  Inquire who your escort will be, and communicate with him or her in advance. The lead guide will be able to advise you accordingly if your goals are possible on the tour, or whether you need to spend additional time on your own. It’s also a good time to find out the details before the FAM. Will you be rooming with someone? A snoring roommate doesn’t allow a good night’s sleep and can create havoc when the hotel is full. Can spouses travel at a discount, and if so, at what cost? Arrange ahead of time and foresee any potential conflicts. Ensure the final itinerary has full contact information, and leave it with family and keep a copy, and double-check all flights and any special menu-item requests.  On planned tours on your own, print out maps from Internet sites such as Yahoo or Mapquest, or Google Earth, where you can obtain GPS coordinates of hotels and other destinations you will be visiting.  Coming next month: What to do and say during the FAM.  Christopher Batin is editor and publisher of Alaska Angler/Alaska Hunter Publications, a contributing writer for Outdoor Life and a contributing editor for TravelAge West magazine. His assignments have taken him around the world in search of adventure. Contact him at\


DIGITAL CAMERAS  Digital cameras rule the world of photography. No film or X-ray hassles, plus delivery to printer, e-mail or Web site is a snap. I have used a pocket Nikon for years, and it has taken quality cover pictures for numerous magazines. This is good for quick and easy photos as you hike around. If I had to buy a new pocket digital camera today, I’d choose something like the Canon SD 750. This $200 camera fits in a pocket, has a large viewfinder, and simple to use graphic use interface, or GUI. For nearly all of my magazine or assignment work, however, I use the larger DSLR Nikon D200 cameras, which take superb photos. The DSLRs could make you the target of thieves in crowded cities. Buy extra memory cards, and always carry spare charged batteries. Digital cameras also work as an on-site mini-photocopier. Weight and space is at a premium on overseas FAM trips. I put my digital camera to use and photograph important cards, brochures and press releases. I enlarge these back in the office and print out those I need, plus you always have them ready to send to prospective clients. VOICE RECORDERS  FAM presentations are often made at dinner, or important narration is being made on a bus from one destination to another, making it hard to take notes while you are listening and being cordial to hosts. Take along a digital tape recorder to record these presentations, take verbal notes or read signs into the recorder. Top models include those by Olympus and Sony. Audio files can be uploaded to your laptop and listened to on the return flight home. LAPTOP  The smaller the better, to allow you to check e-mail while on the road, upload and store and back up photos to DVD, in case a memory card is lost or stolen. (Never erase memory cards until you are home or have backed up the pictures onto a computer and a DVD or external hard drive). A notebook computer helps you review photos and keep in touch with the office along the way. I upload photos to the computer at night and review them in detail. This helps pinpoint camera problems and allows me to send a few to editors looking for immediate content. POCKET GPS  I carry a pocket GPS with me and am always able to walk the streets and find my way back to the hotel, even late at night. The GPS shows the route I walked and the directions I need to return to my origin. It is unobtrusive, and unlike a map, which broadcasts your vulnerability to thieves and hecklers, a GPS looks like a cell phone. A quick glance for direction and you can keep walking. DAYPACK  I use a small backpack to carry camera, notebook, recorder and other items such as water, notebook and literature that hosts provide, with leftover room for purchased goods. Buy a Cordura-fabric pack, which thieves with razor blades find difficult to cut. Lock zippers with twist ties, or attach mini-locks to zippered openings while walking crowded Shanghai streets, or simply carry the backpack in front or on the side, with a safety strap attached to your belt to deter snatch-and-run thieves, or to assist forgetful writers who set down bags while shopping and forget them. – Christopher Batin [print_link]

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