When a fam invitation arrives, so does a conundrum.

As fabulous as the itinerary might sound — five-star hotel, world-class dinners, one-of-a-kind experiences — all you're thinking is business, business, business.

How relevant, you ask yourself, is this fam? Can I justify taking the time to go? Is it worth it?

Fams vs. The Real Thing

For starters, should you use the fam as a site inspection? According to some planners, they're two different things.

Chris Pentz, CMP, president of Pentz Group Communications, Levittown, Pa., goes on one or two fams a year. She uses them as a first step. If she hasn't been to the destination, the fam offers her a glimpse. “This first-hand knowledge is what would prompt you to recommend a city or property. Then you would do a full-fledged site inspection. That's the time I want to see ‘my’ meeting room, ‘my’ food function space.”

“Fams let planners explore numerous options within a destination,” adds Martha Sheridan, vice president of sales, Newport (R.I.) Convention & Visitors Bureau. “They can pick and choose what might suit their group's particular needs. And fams also allow planners to network with each other and share opinions about the destination.”

Different Strokes

The value of a fam comes from the sponsor knowing what the planner wants and the planner knowing what the fam is about. Naturally, when a meeting planner and an incentive planner look at a destination, they see two different things.

“When I'm planning corporate meetings, the ceiling height of a meeting room can determine if I can use a property,” says Pentz. “But when I'm evaluating a location for an incentive, I need to find out about the area's attractions and activities I can plan for my participants.”

And sometimes it isn't the planner on the trip, but his or her client. “We recommend that our clients go on the fams,” says Joan Eisenstodt, president, Eisenstodt Associates LLC, Washington, D.C., who has only been on a couple of fams in her 30-year career. “We work with them on a checklist of all they need to see. We don't need to be there.”

For independent planners specifically, a fam trip comes at a cost. “We trade in a whole lot of billable hours to participate,” says Pentz. “This is a downside not encountered by an [on-staff] corporate planner.”

Not All Fun and Games

It's not that planners like Eisenstodt and Pentz are opposed to fams. The problem, Eisenstodt says, is that the format of many of these trips adheres to “the old way” — lots of social events and not enough “real education” about a destination, its properties, and vendors.

“A light itinerary with no educational programs and unlimited free time is a vacation,” she says. “It seems it would be easy for a planner or other person to take tremendous advantage of the situation. Why dangle the carrot?”

Sponsors have responded to those concerns. Larry Meehan, director, public relations and tourism, Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, says fams are turning toward more education events and less lavish reception events. “It's more important to showcase the quality of the destination and to provide educational options than to put out so much food it can't possibly be consumed and will be thrown away.”

Do Your Homework

However, planners who do their homework can mine valuable gems from a well-designed fam.

“The really good ones,” says Eisenstodt, “give you so much: stuff that is not in brochures. Really good ones customize some portion to the people attending and limit the social part and focus on business.”

“In my opinion, it's never just about a property in a vacuum. It always has to relate to the location, to the destination. It would be wise for properties involved … to realize that we don't just book a hotel — we book a destination,” says Pentz.

One recent Vienna fam had all the right ingredients for Pentz: a group of planners with similar meeting needs, so the sponsors could target what they experienced; time to appreciate the city; visits to several key properties; free time to venture alone, possibly to even visit an additional property; a knowledgeable DMC; and responsive staff that stayed with Pentz's group throughout the visit.

“Did I leave convinced I should return? Most definitely.”

Decision Time

So how do you answer the burning question of whether a fam is right for you? Here are some suggestions to help you decide:

  • Know the itinerary

    If the program is too entertainment heavy and you're a planner who wants just site information, the trip could be a waste of valuable time. But if you know the site you want to use, but need a feel for what the city has to offer, it could be just what you're looking for.

  • Contact the sponsor

    If the agenda doesn't serve your needs, but you're still interested in the destination, call the sponsor and see if other options are available.

  • Know what you're getting into

    Fams are anything but relaxing. “Expect a fam to be fast-paced, informative, and hopefully fun,” says Sheridan. “Since there is a limited amount of time to showcase all that a destination has to offer, a fam's itinerary is usually quite extensive, and adhering to a tight schedule is imperative.”

  • Above all, be ethical

    “The question should always be, ‘Can I really use this property? Can we meet in that destination?’” says Pentz.

“Think carefully about them,” adds Eisenstodt. “Know why it will be done, what the goals are, and how they will be achieved and measured. It's not a party. It's about business. And in today's climate of accountability, I'd think that all parties would want to be very, very careful.”

Wham, Bam, Thank You Fam

Think of them as the meeting industry's Most Wanted: about a half-dozen “fam scammers” who know all the ins and outs, twists and loopholes, to get a free ticket to destinations around the world. CVBs and tourist boards know them by name, but they still play their tricks.

They're not the only ones. Of the thousands of scammers out there, they've being doing it the longest — for decades, says Niki Clarke, director of research, International Conference Research, Inc, Sarasota, Fla. For 25 years, Clarke has been qualifying travelers who have responded to her clients' fam invitations. Her database of known scammers and unqualified invitation respondents has grown to 3,000. These scammers are costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

It is an ethical and financial problem that continues to grow, especially internationally. On the domestic side, things are still troublesome, although many suppliers are catching on to the cheats.

“The real crux of the problem,” says Clarke, “is that … U.S.-based airlines and hotels are constantly under pressure to produce bodies — in the seats and sleeping in the beds.” And though a dozen fam attendees looks great on the surface, it's a problem when only two or three are actual business decision-makers. “The people who are qualified can pick up the scammers quicker than anybody. And they hate riding with scammers.”

Another issue: Qualified decision-makers who can't attend the fam and pass their invitation on to an employee as a perk. But it's not a perk for the supplier, who foots the bill for someone who is, in essence, using the fam as a vacation.

Clarke is calling for the industry — tourist boards, CVBs, and other suppliers — to work together to defeat the scammers. The first step, she says, is to not be afraid to turn someone away, regardless of their title or how important they seem to be.

“I encourage my tourist board clients to be bold and say, ‘No,’” says Clarke.

“We typically only invite those planners who have previously expressed interest in holding a meeting in Newport,” says Martha Sheridan, vice president of sales, Newport (R.I.) Convention & Visitors Bureau. Her CVB also requires each attendee to fill out a form outlining the last two meetings they have planned. The sales team then reviews the information to make sure that the planner is a good fit.

“All the suppliers who are concerned about this problem should work as a team,” Clarke adds.

Only then will the days of the fam scammer be over.