By Andy McNeill

Along with the long hours spent on site at your meetings, the countless airport hassles you endure, and the weekends you sacrifice, there are a few perks that come with being a professional in the meetings and events industry. A familiarization (or “fam”) trip is one of them. In exchange for your time, the fam host, or hosts, will usually pay your expenses or provide a significant discount in order to give you an up-close look at a destination, cruise ship, hotel, venue—even an entire region. Before you pack your bags, however, consider the following:

1. Check your company’s fam-trip policy.
This should always be your first step. Know what you can and cannot accept in terms of expenses paid and gifts proferred.

2. Don’t go if you know you’ll never book.
As they say, nothing is free, and there is a reason you have been invited. Your hosts want your future business. Organizations invest significant time and money ensuring they invite the right guests on fam trips. Show professional courtesy and politely decline invitations when you know there is no opportunity for bringing them business.

3. Know and understand the sponsoring organization.
The sponsor may be a tourism board, a hotel, or a cruise line. It may be a consortium of partners in a specific area of the world. Make sure they are quality partners who can meet a future need. For example, while a destination may sound amazing, if the venues and vendors are not of the type your groups like to work with, it won’t be worth it for you or the host.

4. Remember that you are not on vacation.
You should plan to see lots of destinations and have one-on-one meetings throughout the trip; usually most of your time is scheduled. Be respectful of the sponsoring organization. Attend to learn about the destination and to become a seasoned expert, not to have a vacation.

5. Do some research ahead of time.
Before accepting, always ask to see a schedule of venues and activities, to determine if they meet your needs. If venues are not the star or diamond level you typically work in, then don’t attend. Do research online and grab a Frommer’s guide. The more you know, the better the interaction you’ll have with the suppliers on site.

6. Ask who else is going.
Check out the list of other invited attendees; an added fam benefit is the opportunity to meet and network with industry peers. (You may also want to scan for competitors, or conflicts of interest.)

7. Make a plan.
Now that you have done your research, to get the most out of the trip, plan like you would plan for any other networking opportunity. Whether it’s with the hotels, local destination management companies, venues, or the other guests, socialize with everyone, not just old friends or a few people with whom you feel comfortable. If a particular property is of interest, set aside some time to have an extra meeting with representatives from that site. Most likely, there will be planned networking during private meetings, receptions, and meals. Ask for business cards at each meeting and be honest with venues. If you would never use an activity or venue, be upfront and tell them why: “My group is too large for your property,” or “Your activity does not fit our theme.” Be respectful but firm. It will save both of you time.

Fam trips can allow you to see the world while increasing your knowledge and your network. When you are respectful of your hosts, and you make ethical decisions about your attendance, fams can be the best way to choose destinations and activities and provide incredible value to your clients.

Andy McNeill is president and CEO at American Meetings Inc.