If you are a journalist who covers tourism or travel destinations, anyone involved in site selection for businesses/economic development, or a public relations person who works with clients in the travel and tourism industry, you are all-too-familiar with FAM Tours. The FAM Tour (an abbreviation of “familiarization tour”) has long been a standard-issue tool in the PR professional’s tool belt when marketing or promoting a city, town or tourism destination.
Here’s how a FAM Tour works: A public relations practitioner schedules a number of journalists (preferably writers/broadcasters who cover towns for economic development or tourism and travel) to come to town at the same time. The trip is paid for by the host town or destination being featured by the journalists along with the restaurants, hotels and attractions they will see while they are in town. The 15 to 20 (sometimes more, sometimes less) journalists will then go back and produce stories about their trip – hopefully telling their readers/viewers that the town is amazing and a must-see destination.
While FAM Tours may sound like a great way to showcase a town or destination, there are more than a few gaping holes in this approach. With the rise of the internet and the struggles most newspapers are having, the quality of journalists participating in FAM Tours has dropped dramatically in recent years. Most legitimate media outlets will not permit their reporters to take a free tour – which excludes many high-value media targets right out of the gate. Also, journalists HATE the concept of getting the same exact story as 15 or 20 other journalists – which flies contrary to the entire concept of a FAM Tour.
To make the whole FAM Tour concept even sleazier, many of the large national public relations firms that specialize in FAM Tours now require journalists who want to participate in awesome tours of Aspen, New York City, Orlando, New Orleans, and other travel hotspots to first cover FAM Tours to towns like Des Moines, Canton, Omaha, Chattanooga, etc. This leaves many FAM Tour journalists simply faking interest and tolerating one tour so they can get to the FAM Tour they are truly interested in – and the coverage from these “required” FAM Tours is less than enthusiastic (if they generate coverage at all).
In light of the significant challenges outlined above (real reporters not being permitted to accept free trips and the fact that respected journalists hate the concept in its entirety), public relations “pros” have lowered the bar on what they consider “high value media targets” for their customers. The end result is that many “journalists” who now get invited to FAM Tours (paid for by the client) have little or no audience at all – and the PR “pros” know this from the start. I have worked on FAM Tours (arranged by others) where I was interviewed for TRAVEL STORIES by sports editors from weekly newspapers with circulations below 2,000, where I took bloggers who had 20 to 30 weekly readers to expensive restaurants and hotels (paid for by clients), and where I found myself wining and dining “freelance” journalists who hadn’t published a story in a known publication for years.
The only reason this kind of scam continues is that most clients never do their homework on FAM Tour participants. Public relations firms know that as long as they have breathing bodies on their FAM Tours, the client will believe it’s a success. It is one of the most pervasive and blatant rip-offs in the industry … and anyone who does a little digging can find out what a colossal waste of time and money it is.
Over the past twenty years, I have found that for far less investment, one can target a high-value journalist from a respected media outlet, pitch a story specifically tailored to his/her audience and areas of interest, and bring him/her to town for a one-on-one tour designed entirely around that publication/reporter that results in a FAR more valuable feature story in a respected national media outlet.
A series of large features in high-value media outlets delivers far greater visibility for a client while reducing the cost. And a feature story from a major national media outlet is infinitely more valuable than 15 or 20 stories in tiny local publications or on blogs no one reads. (Clarification: There are truly valuable blogs that have millions of readers – but, like the mainstream media, they typically don’t participate in FAM Tours for the same reasons respected print and broadcast media typically avoid them.)
I have successfully used this approach to attract publications including New York Times, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Constitution Journal, Charlotte Observer, USA Today, Parade Magazine, People Magazine, Southern Living, etc. This highly targeted approach also worked to get coverage by MTV Productions, National Geographic Channel, BBC/Channel One, the Travel Channel, ABC News, CNN and Walt Disney Productions. None of these outlets would have had any interest at all in a traditional FAM Tour.
Finally, the real estate market may be struggling, but Realtors are a creative bunch that may have found a solution to the old, tired and no longer viable “traditional” FAM Tour. While “Virtual FAM Tours” already exist, no one really calls them that because they aren’t being used to showcase destinations or towns … they’re used to showcase real estate. Take a look at Home Debuts - a great example of a “Virtual FAM Tour” already in use. Even the federal government provides a virtual tour of the White House, albeit a static execution.
Here are some virtual city tours that are moving in the right direction. They demonstrate the potential for successfully applying this concept. None are strategically on target, but they are proof the concept can actually be executed.
If you Google “virtual city tours”, you will find many other examples. Most have a decided travel & tourism focus. You can also read a thought-provoking piece by The Burghard Group about the potential of Virtual FAM Tours here.
If you are paying for traditional FAM Tours, you should do some investigating right now. Ask who the journalists are, who the outlet is, what the circulation/viewership is, and what they are looking to accomplish by participating in the tour you are paying for. If you don’t believe you are getting a solid return on your investment, why are you doing it?