A Travel Writer’s Inside View of Familiarization (Fam) Trips
A fellow member of an online travel writers group to which I belong posted a question about how to get the ‘free stuff’. Before I could put fingers to keys in order to tear him a new one, others had already done a masterful job of setting this misguided individual straight on the realities of travel perks.
This made me think about all the folks out there who believe that travel writers receive free and discounted travel, are treated like royalty and all we have to do is write about it. This is all true to some extent, but not the entire story by a long shot. So, for those who are wondering how it all works, here’s the reality of my life on the road as a freelance travel writer and blogger.
The reason we seek out Fam trips, hosted visits and media discounts is two-fold. For one thing, working with a Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) puts us in contact with people who know their area and what there is to see and do. I find more story ideas for blog posts and articles, hidden backstories and local insights than could ever be found in glossy travel brochures or online. This translates into better content and a higher probability of having my work published outside this blog.
To be blunt, the second aspect is that every dollar we save through perks stretches the travel budget, enabling Simon and me to travel farther and produce more content and photos.
For the CVB, hotel, or organization, the benefit of covering some or all of our costs allows them to expose us to the best they have to offer visitors in the hope we will write positive reviews. This, in effect, gives them virtually free publicity.
Just to be clear, showering us with freebees doesn’t automatically insure good press. I end each article or blog post with a paragraph disclosing any perks we received and assuring readers that all opinions are still my own. If the experience is negative – which, to date, has not happened – I will simply not write about it, unless it involves a potential danger to consumers. I’m an old mother hen, and I’ll always look out for my readers’ safety and interests.
So, how do we find free and discounted travel? Well, the sweetest way is to be invited on a Fam trip by a CVB or tourist bureau. This happens mostly when we already know, or are known to the entity doing the inviting. That’s how we recently spent four glorious days on Spain’s Costa Brava, staying in a beautiful, modern hotel in Girona, and enjoying in-depth guided tours of medieval town centers, breath-taking gardens, and the intriguing seaside town of Lloret de Mar.
All this came about through contacts made at TBEX (Travel Bloggers Exposition) North America 2015, a travel bloggers conference we attended in Fort Lauderdale.
We had a truly wonderful and productive time during our Costa Brava Fam trip, and our efforts pleased our hosts to the point where they want us to come back. Two posts on Girona and Besalu have already appeared on this blog, and there will be more to come.
Another way to receive assistance with travel costs is to simply ask. We have contacted CVBs with ideas on how we would like to present their city in print, and varying forms of help have been offered. We have been guests of Visit Hershey-Harrisburg and Destination Gettysburg, to name just two.
Either way, there is a great deal of generosity in the travel industry. The people with whom we have worked have been passionate and knowledgable about where they live.
The Fam Trip Experience
To give you some idea of what happens on a Fam trip, I’ll use our recent experiences connected with the TBEX Europe 2016 in Stockholm, Sweden as an example. Bear in mind, Fam trips vary in length, format and number of invitees.
TBEX offers a number of pre and post conference group Fam trips for attendees. We were accepted on an overnight pre-conference trip focusing on military history, and a one-day post-conference tour covering Swedish history.
Pre-Conference Fam Trip: Nässlingen/Roslagen, Hosted by Visit Stockholm and Stockholm Archipelago
At 10:00 AM, nine blogger/photographers and one guide dog boarded a boat for an hour-long trip through the Stockholm Archipelago to our first stop, Vaxholm Citadel. While en route, our host, Johan Pedersén, owner of the boat, the island resort where we were to stay overnight and the island itself, told us his fascinating story. He is in the process of transforming the island into a natural and peaceful paradise of unspoiled natural beauty and comfortable accommodations.
From 11:00 to noon, we toured the fortress with a guide who lives on the island where the fortress is located.
A second boat ride, and we arrived at Nässlingen, where we checked in and had a scrumptious lunch. We then toured the resort, followed by some free time.
Following dinner, which was interrupted by a sudden exodus of the photographers in our group scrambling to get sunset photos, we were invited to relax and try out the resort’s spa facilities consisting of sauna, hot tub, showers and comfy lounge with wood-burning fire.
By this time, it was after 10:00 PM, and one member of our group had already decided to called it a night. Having been invited to help ourselves to the contents of the refrigerator in the lounge area, the rest of us made a beeline for the spa. We piled into the hot tub, beer and wine in hand, and proceeded to enjoy the mild, clear evening, because it was mid-July, it never got completely dark, so 1:00 AM – when Simon and I took our prune-like selves off to bed – seemed much earlier than it actually was.
Now, I don’t know what goes on at similar Fam trips, but if you are having visions of drunkenness and wild behavior, I hate to burst your hot tub bubble. We soaked in the warm water, talked about all sorts of things, laughed a lot and occasionally refilled our glasses. I guess if you share a hot tub with a bunch of really good people you can’t help but become good friends.
The following morning, at 7:30, we had breakfast, then boarded the boat that took us to Siarö fortress, where we had another excellent guided tour. Our buffet lunch on the same island was at 11:30, in order to adhere to a tight schedule.
Unfortunately, the schedule was shot to hell when one of the boats taking us to our next stop refused to start. Simon, Otto and I were in the group on that boat, and we had to wait until the first boat dropped off the rest of the group members, and come back for us.
Sadly our tour of Wira Bruk, a historic ironworks where swords and other weapons were once made, was rushed.
We were then bussed back to Stockholm to spend the late afternoon on our own.
Post-Conference Fam Trip: Old Sweden in, Östergötland, Hosted by Visit Sweden
The morning following the TBEX Conference found us at the train station in Central Stockholm at 9:00 AM. We boarded a first-class car that took us southeast, through naturally beautiful scenery for an hour into Östergötland for a look at some of Sweden’s history.
Don’t get too excited. First Class turned out to afford us a bit more leg room – which Otto appreciated – electrical outlets and free coffee and tea. Sorry, no free-flowing booze or hot towels. But it was a pleasant and comfortable ride just the same.
We were met in the city of Linköping by Maria from Visit Linköping, who took our group of four to the Swedish Airforce Museum. Due to a break-down in communication we were already behind schedule, and had to rush through this unique collection of aircraft and equipment. If we ever find ourselves in Sweden again, I’m heading straight for this museum, and I won’t come out until I’m good and ready.
Although lunch wasn’t rushed, it wasn’t exactly leisurely either. We were scheduled to take a short cruise through some of the locks of the historically strategic Göta Canal, and definitely didn’t want to miss the boat.
Our cruise was followed by a guided tour of an open-air museum, a city walk which included the cathedral, castle and a walk down to another canal. We had a delightful dinner with Maria, then boarded the train back to Stockholm.
We arrived at around 8:00 PM, tired in body, and saturated in mind, but with a sense that we had seen enough to get a good feel of the town, and what it had to offer visitors.
And that, my friends, is fairly typical of Fam trips. Individual trips such as Girona and Hershey-Harrisburg are usually less rushed with more time to wander, uncover hidden gems and get ourselves into trouble. We prefer the more laid-back trips, but we’ve proven we can keep up with the younger folks when we need to.
The Fam trip is over. We’re back home, loaded down with information and various goodies, courtesy of our hosts. Now what?
The first thing I do is write thank you letters to our hosts for their generosity. In this email I include our appreciation, mentions of specific highlights of our trip and the promise to work hard to write high-quality content for publication. I also assure our hosts that I will send them the links to anything published on the blog and/or in print and online magazines.
The next step is to make damn sure I keep my promises. To begin with, I have to organize my information, ideas and recorded notes into a workable plan.
Next, I write pitch letters with ideas to editors in the hope they will be interested enough to want me to write full articles.
If I already have assignment letters from editors who have committed to publishing specific articles prior to our trip – very helpful in securing Fam trips – these will be the pieces I will complete first.
Meanwhile, I post to the blog sooner than later, so our hosts know we haven’t forgotten them.
Is this beginning to sound like hard work? Well, it is. Although I love to write, and Simon loves to take photos, most people don’t know how much time and effort goes into meeting our obligations to our hosts. But, of course, we wouldn’t have it any other way.
To us, freelancing is a job: a job that comes with obligations as well as privileges.
Remaining professional is key to establishing good relations with our hosts. We tip wait staff and guides, don’t abuse free alcohol and are respectful to everyone involved with our Fam trip.
Sadly, the same is not true for all travel writers. There are too many in our profession who see what we do as an opportunity to mooch. They use questionable credentials to take advantage of organizations and individuals in the travel industry, get what they can and do nothing in return. I despise these scumbags because they make us and our fellow travel writers and bloggers look bad. We sometimes have to deal with jumping through more hoops and being looked upon with suspicion by potential hosts, because they have been burned by con artists. This makes the work of legitimate writers and photographers that much more complicated.
I will now get off my soapbox, before I go into graphic detail regarding what I would like to do to some of these jerks. But please give me some credit for not once having dropped the F bomb during this entire tirade.
So, why am I telling you all this? Well, some of you are curious about what we actually do, and wonder if the travel writer’s life is as glamorous as it seems. If it’s still clear as mud, here’s the bottom line. Travel perks are a win-win for us and for the people who host us on Fam trips.
We have had the opportunity to do some amazing things in the last three years, and we hope to continue to do so, as long as our health, our budget and our creativity hold out. It’s all about the experiences, the people and the opportunity to share what we learn with our readers. In this respect, Simon and I are definitely winners.
For those who so generously host us, the win is having access to a free marketing tool, and a chance to show off their area’s best aspects to a large audience of print and online readers.
Hopefully, there is yet another winner in this scenario, and it’s you, the reader. Nothing is more satisfying than knowing that our writing and photos have entertained and/or inspired someone to hit the road.
Shortly after our return from Sweden a friend told me that, when she reads my writing, she feels as though she’s alongside me. She can hear my voice and even see my hand gestures. This is what I want to do for you. Taking you along with me on my adventures and misadventures, and giving you a peek at some of the wonders this incredible world has to offer, has far more value to me than any amount of travel perks ever could. If I can do this for you, I’m winner number four.