With three decades in the meetings industry, Sandy Catrone knows her way around a familiarization, or "fam" trip. So when the invitation came to visit Biarritz, France, the president of European Connection in Roslyn, NY, jumped at the chance.

"I'd been there briefly in the early 1980s and had a good impression, but that was 20 years ago," she says. "This latest trip was definitely a carrot to get me to go back."

In fact, the trip proved so successful that upon returning home Catrone enthusiastically contacted several clients about booking in Biarritz. "I had a pharmaceutical client that did a luxury program there last summer, and they were very happy," she says. "Now it's high on my list of 'push' destinations."

Catrone's experience illustrates how fam trips, often dismissed as no more than quickie sun-and-snooze breaks, can still serve as a great planning tool, be it for scouting new destinations, rediscovering old favorites, or even networking with peers. The price -- free airfare, hotel accommodations, and meals -- is certainly hard to beat, and the time spent out of the office is minimal, most often about three days. Granted, no fam is perfect but by being selective and working with the sponsoring host, planners can avoid the occasional pitfalls and come away with a productive and perhaps financially rewarding experience.

Stay Home or Go?

If there's one overriding key to making a fam work, it's selectivity. Given a typical planner's time constraints, choosing where to go, when, and why can prove paramount to a trip's success. Sure, a week in France, the Caribbean, or exploring South Africa sounds dazzling, but how important is it to the planner's job as decision-maker?

"We all have an obligation to be very careful when accepting invitations," says Lynn Averill, director of travel and conferences for the Vermont-based National Life Group Insurance. Averill's rule of thumb: Don't go unless there's true potential for booking the site. "In most cases, you accept knowing that you either haven't seen the site or need to because you may use it in the future," she says.

For example, until two years ago Averill had never been to Jamaica, never mind booked a group there. When offered a fam to the island, though, she viewed the experience in terms of its educational and networking potential. "As I recommend these sites to others, I felt that I owed it to myself to experience this one firsthand, and be able to share my ideas about the destination and properties," she says. "It was a delightful trip, and I have a bid out now for a couple of properties that I wouldn't have considered otherwise."

When Frank Bronchello opts for a fam, perhaps once or twice a year, the destination, its properties, and the overall learning experience determine his choice. "It could be somewhere I've already been, but maybe it has one or several new properties opening up," says Bronchello, a meeting planner with American Express Travel in Ardmore, PA. Such was the case recently with a trip to Puerto Rico. "I was invited to the Westin Rio Mar, which materialized into a booking for next February for four days and 2,800 room-nights," he says. "They were wise to invite me down there, as I realized this resort was, in fact, quite suited to one particular incentive group of mine."

Nick Caldarola has seen London top to bottom, yet he accepted when Marriott and British Airways invited him over on a recent fam. "I decided to go because of two new properties," says Caldarola, senior meetings manager at Deloitte Consulting in Wilton, CT. "It was a good trip -- theater, off-site events, nice restaurants -- and they made us feel very comfortable," he says. More importantly, Caldarola was impressed enough with the new hotels to recommend them when he returned.

Having agreed to participate in a fam, planners expect an efficient and productive stay, even though there's bound to be an occasional glitch. Thus, a good itinerary makes for a good start, and this is an item where planners often have a say. "I like a two-day trip in the middle of the week, rather than weekends, which tends to interfere with my personal life," says Caldarola. His ideal program: Arrive on day one in the late morning, do a short tour and an evening reception; start day two with breakfast, followed by some site inspections, lunch, free time, and then return home. "That's more than sufficient for me to assess a destination," he says.

Within the itinerary itself, not only time but timing can be critical. Not every participant needs the four-hour, 10-hotel tour, so there's often some tension between the host's priorities and those of each planner. "It's important that I tailor my visit to properties I can use, rather than things that don't work for me," says Emogene Mitchell, VP, meetings and events for the Urban Land Institute in Washington, DC.

Mitchell avoids potential conflicts by consulting with her host on the fam trip itinerary well before she commits to going. "I'll call and ask about flexibility in the program," she says. "The tour is usually general, so there should be enough free time and resources for me to schedule other appointments, like in-depth follow-ups at hotels and convention centers."

A full day isn't necessarily a negative, though, especially if it's packed with useful information. "If the agenda is well structured, and I'm learning a lot about the destination or property, then I feel obligated to participate," says Linda Davis, a longtime insurance industry planner. "They're hosting this event, and their intent is to give us as much information as could possibly be useful, and it's okay with me."

What's not okay to some planners is the endless stream of amenities, from bathrobes to golf lessons. "I don't eat chocolates, and gifts do nothing to sway me, so amenities are often a waste," says Bronchello. Adds Davis, "I'd like to see a little less of the 'wow' stuff. True, it's sometimes beneficial to experience the spa or golf course, but those things won't convince me that your destination or hotel is terrific. And I sure don't want to walk away feeling obligated to bring some business there."

The Bigger Picture

The trend in planner fams now seems to eschew the gift-laden, dawn-to-dusk site-inspection tours in favor of more relaxing, big-picture trips that capture the spirit of a destination. Follow-up evaluations are proving that less is often more for planners, and the idea is resonating with host sponsors.

"We found that bringing in a large group for a detailed site inspection was a waste of the planners' time and counterproductive for us," says Norwood Smith, VP of sales for the Tampa Bay CVB. Instead of dragging planners through endless hotel rooms, the bureau now takes them shopping, sailing on the bay, riding the streetcars, and on leisurely waterside luncheons. "They get to relax and experience the real Tampa, meet the people they'll eventually work with, and establish those relationships," says Smith. "We then use follow-up visits to talk about their convention and putting together a bid book."

The Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB follows a similar course. Having formerly run several big planner fams each year, they now they offer but one: the Fish and Chips Invitational, featuring a morning of deep-sea fishing, a morning of golf, and two afternoons of free time. "Planners wanted quality, not quantity, so we downscaled," says Dennis Edwards, senior VP at the bureau. "We tie in food functions with a chance to see hotels, but otherwise give them plenty of free time to explore and do individual site inspections."

The idea behind the St. Louis CVC's planner fams is productive fun rather than all business. "We try to avoid showing them stuff they can see in other cities -- everybody has a shopping mall, for example, but we have an antique shopping area, so we'd incorporate that into their experience," says Beverly Totten, director of membership and convention services. Come nightfall, Totten arranges an evening that's entertaining and potentially useful. "We'll split up at three restaurants, then meet for dessert, after-dinner drinks, and maybe some live music," she says. "Should they want to skip the late-night stuff, it's no problem."

By Mark Boisclair.