There’s never anything to do in your own hometown

Here’s one of the challenges with young frontline staff- they always think there is nothing to do in the area. In fact, I had a student that I have been training for a position in the hotel industry tell me she didn’t know why anyone would even come to her hometown! And this from a resident of a town with women’s history, wineries, state parks, lakes and the Erie Canal! But her view is not unique. I think that many staff feel that way if they haven’t had the opportunity to see their hometown through a visitor’s eyes. As tourism professionals, our job is to make sure they have the experiences and information they need to sell the area and inform guests about all there is to see and do. Here’s some ideas to consider for getting front line staff fired up about their destination:

– Develop Frontline FAM (Familiarization) tours. This is a great way to get a lot of staff to see many places in a short amount of time. However, for this to be effective, managers must be willing to pay the frontline staff for their time on the FAM. Very few frontline staff are motivated without it, but it is a worthwhile investment. The payback will be when your waitresses or front desk employee can tell guests about an attraction they have visited. These FAM’s are most useful at a time just before the busy season hits; your employees have been hired, but are not working full time yet.

-Establish a reciprocal program with other attractions. Ask local attractions to give 2 passes for each interested employee. That way an employee can visit the attraction with a friend or family member. Ask employees to write a one page review of the visit and post it near the time clock so everyone can read it. You should extend this invitation to everyone – from the dishwashers, to housekeeping staff to the groundskeeper. Some staff might need help writing a review -please provide the help. Not only will it be seen as an employee perk, but your other staff will know who to ask about different attractions.

– Have a Chamber staff member or Visitor Bureau member speak at your next employee meeting. They will be happy to attend and will bring visitor’s guides and answer questions. It is in their best interest to have residents who understand their jobs and can help to promote the destination.

– Create a Frontline Passport Program. This is a booklet with various stops of the area listed by page. Frontliners will have their passport stamped at each location. Completed passports can be submitted for prize drawings. There can be sponsors for this program, which will help offset printing costs.

All of these ideas are not one time events.  The hospitality industry has a very high turnover rate and the same programs should be run every year. Knowledge of your area and the ability to answer visitors questions is a valuable asset for any frontline staff. Involvement in these programs could also result in a certificate for attendance and participation. A potential employee could use that document  in job interviews to show that they have made a commitment to learning about their hometown. And that’s a win-win for all of us.


Do you want International Visitors in your Small town? Think Big!

Many Americans think that international visitors to our country only want to see the big cities such as NYC, Las Vegas, the Disneys- both East Coast and West, and the National Parks. After that, what else is there to see? Those destinations are also the ones with big marketing budgets, so we can’t blame visitors for wanting to see these places when they vacation in the U.S.  But there has been a growing trend for visitors to want to see the real America- small towns, friendly people and interesting attractions and activities that they can talk about back at home. So what can smaller destinations do to be noticed and attract this type of visitor? FIT’s, or Foreign Independent Travelers, tend to stay longer and spend more. They are more likely to buy bottles of wine with meals, shop for all kinds of items they can’t get back home, and often stay midweek.  Here are some helpful ideas to consider: 

1. Language Barrier. By the time most international visitors decide to venture out to the rural areas of our state, they have been to the U.S. several times and speak English well. Most children take English classes and like to practice while they are here. For those guests who do not speak English well, just remember to speak slowly and clearly (not loudly!) Maps and brochures are handy for pointing things out. And don’t be embarrassed to ask someone to repeat themselves by simply saying  “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand you.” 

2. Big picture. As lovely as your destination is, most international visitors are here in the states for up to two weeks and will plan on seeing several states. That is why it is important for you to be familiar with other destinations throughout New York, New England and Pennsylvania. That is where most of the visitors coming through Upstate NY will also visit. When is the last time you traveled to Niagara Falls, NY? It is a huge draw for the international market and you should definitely be familiar with all there is to offer. My favorite spots? Cave of the Winds, Maid of the Mist and the Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours. There is a free shuttle that travels through Niagara Falls State Park. Other sites you should be familiar with are Corning, and Lancaster PA, which is popular because of the Amish population. 

3. Booking. Unlike Americans, most international visitors still use travel companies and rely on their travel agents for ideas and to make their travel arrangements. However, they do use the internet for searches. Make sure your website is up to date and has crisp photos. Your business is often competing with options in Spain, Greece, Turkey and Eastern Europe. There is a free website widget called Babelfish which will translate the text on your webpages into 12 various languages. It’s not perfect, but it does work pretty well. 

4. Timeframe. The international market is complex, with several layers of intermediaries from regional and state marketing directors, to receptive operators here in the U.S. who put together the driving tours and then sell them to tour companies overseas. It takes a few years once you have decided to pursue this market before you will see the benefits. I started working with an Israeli tour operator in 2006,  and brought him to NY in 2008 with some of his top tour agents  to see what Upstate has to offer. He just completed another tour with top media from Israel in the spring of this year and now business from Israel to Upstate NY is taking off. But it has been a long process. 

5. Education. Because this is a complex market, it is best to take advantage of any and all training opportunities that your state tourism offices offer. I Love NY, along with the Erie Canal, is sponsoring a series of ‘Tourism Readiness’ Workshops across the state at the end of the month. It will be a great way to learn how the process of promoting tourism to the world is accomplished, at what you can do to reap the benefits. 

If you think that international tourism is too small a market to pursue, I will leave you with these  recent charts from the U.S. Department of Commerce. International visitor spending has grown every month this year, and as of May, was contributing almost $11 billion dollars to our economy. Do you want to start taking advantage of that market?

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis (June 2010).


FAM tours- 7 steps and 3 tables to success

A FAM, or Familiarization trip, is an important activity in the tourism industry. Even in these days of virtual tours and Google, actually visiting a destination is always better than just looking at photos or reading other’s impressions. The problem is that very few people can afford to take extended time away from their offices so FAM’s have to be worthwhile. Not too long ago, FAMs were a fun, all expenses paid way to visit a destination and be wined and dined. Not anymore. Corporate travel policies, overburdened staff and diminishing CVB budgets have turned FAMs into a business transaction in which all parties have specific expectations.

Here are some helpful hints to make sure your guests have a memorable experience at your facility and will want to use your business.

  1. Keep it brief. Remember that these are not regular visitors who want to spend an hour or more with you. They are usually on a tight time schedule and need to see your highlights in an abbreviated time frame. Don’t spend your precious minutes complaining about the limited time- instead tell them the 3-5 things that are great and unique about your business.
  2. Know your audience. Meeting planners, tour operators and travel writers are the typical FAM attendee groups. Make sure you understand who you will be touring around – they have different requirements and there is no need to show a tour operator your extensive meeting space that they will never use. Check out the tables below to give you an idea of what is important to each of those clients.


Lodging Facilities

  Sleeping rooms Banquet space Menus Quirky facts
Meeting planners XX XXX XXX X
Tour operators XXX   X XX
Travel Writers XX   X XXX


Attractions- Museums, Gardens, Historic Homes, etc

  Highlights Pricing Interesting stories Hours of operation, etc
Meeting Planners XX XX X XX
Tour Operators XXX XX XX XX
Travel Writers X X XXX X



  Menu Pricing Unique factor Seating Capacity
Meeting Planners XX X XX XX
Tour Operators XX XX XX XX
Travel Writers XX X XXX X


X- Somewhat important

XX – important

XXX- very important

3.Limit your collateral. Unfortunately, I speak from experience when I tell you that 60% of what is handed out on a FAM as far as sales kits, gifts and other collateral ends up on the hotel room floor at check out. A business card and one sheet of information will be sufficient, unless someone asks for more.

4.Remember to follow-up with any requested information. If someone asks to have information sent to them, it is because they want to do business with you or feature you in an article. Do it quickly and include a hand written note thanking them for their interest.

5.Limit gifts. The craziest gift I ever got was a blow up Shamu in my hotel room bathtub when I was a meeting planner and on a FAM trip to San Antonio. It was about 6 feet long! Remember that these clients most likely arrived by plane and have limited space to carry things home. A better idea is to mail it to their office. An even better idea is to mail a basket full of goodies that everyone in the office can enjoy.

6.Remember that you are a part of a whole. When you are talking about your facility, put in context of how you partner with attractions, restaurants and the CVB at your destination. Planners, operators and travel writers see so many places that it helps them to put the pieces of a destination together if everyone else does it as well.

7.Hosting potential customers at your facility does not guarantee business, and it almost always means business will not appear for a while. International tour operators work 12-18 months in advance of a tour package being promoted. Meeting planners and motorcoach tour operators may be looking at 6 months to a year in advance. And travel writers often write the story and then have to find a publisher; their articles may be published a year after they visit.

If you follow these simple rules, you will look a FAM tour pro: giving potential business partners the information they need in an efficient, simple manner tailored to their needs. Good luck!

FAM tours – good, bad or unnecessary?

FAM tours, or Familiarization tours, have long been a component of yearly marketing plans for destinations. FAM tours involve inviting a group of tourism professionals to your destination and giving them a concentrated, fast paced tour of your city or region. The tours are developed to help these people see as much as possible in a reasonable amount of time and often run from early morning until late at night.  Destinations strive to impart the flavor of their location, show some highlights and an overview of lodging facilities, with the ultimate goal of bringing in new business from these efforts.

I have been involved on both sides of the FAM world. As a corporate meeting planner back in the late 90’s, we were wined and dined and seemed to have gifts placed in our rooms at least twice a day. More recently, as a receptive tour operator, we enjoyed the camaraderie of the group, but were always gently reminded that this was a business trip. We had quizzes on places we had visited the day prior, as well as follow up emails from the hosts, asking for our business. FAM coordinators have definitely learned to start looking for ROI from their attendees.

As a staff member at a DMO, I was involved in the planning and execution for FAM tours aimed at Travel Writers, Motorcoach tour operators, and international tour operators and receptive operators. Each group has different needs and quirks, such as travel writers who put you two hours behind schedule because they have to stop and take pictures every 15 minutes, group tour operators who might be using your FAM as a free vacation, and international professionals who think we Americans eat too early and too fast – dinners go until 11 pm!

However, they have always been an effective way to show off the destination. And secondly, when you are hosting a FAM, you get a chance to develop a personal relationship with your guests. That is as valuable as the site inspections. There is also collaboration between attendees as they talk about ways to put together tours to your destination and share ideas. All the work you put into to hosting a FAM usually pays off; you are now a trusted source to the tour operators or writers and they will feel comfortable calling you with questions or advice.

But in these days of Trip Advisor and other online resources, are FAM’s still necessary? Most tour operators and meeting planners have very limited time to be out of the office. Neil Salerno, of Hotel Marketing Coach wrote this article about the fact that meeting planners have been leaning towards online site inspections instead of FAM’s. He lists some great ideas for hotels to consider for their websites if they are catering to the lucrative meeting market. Hotels looking to interest the group tour market would do well to add group tour friendly information to their websites as well. Another great idea- adding a Trip Advisor widget to your website so people can look at your Trip Advisor reviews without leaving your site. Bad reviews on Trip Advisor you don’t want people to see? That’s another topic for another post.

So in 2010, FAM’s are still a viable way to educate potential business partners on your destination. The key is to make it worth their time- and all your efforts.  Please send me your stories on how you make your FAMs successful – I’ll share your ideas with all my readers.