Getting on the Road for an Exciting Familiarization Tour
By Debra L. Karplus
Riding westbound out of Chicago on Amtrak’s Empire Builder route at dinner time, I headed to the dining car where all tables seated exactly four people. I was seated with three people I had never met, a typical procedure on these long distance trains, and always interesting for us passengers. After ordering our meals, (very delicious food!) my tablemates and I shared details about each of train journeys, our departure cities and planned destinations, and some of the adventures we had experienced along the way. With that dialogue behind us, we exchanged a bit more personal information, including each of our occupations. The woman sitting across the table from me stated that she was a writer. Then it was my turn, “I’m a writer, too”, I shared, “some of it travel writing.”
I was quickly asked if I had ever been on a fam tour. “I don’t think so; what’s a fam tour, anyway?” I quickly questioned. It was explained to me in detail that a “fam tour”, short for “familiar tour” or “familiarization tour”, was an expense paid trip for a writer following an invitation to a specific place, attraction, city or town, or county by a tourist bureau with the hope (but without obligation) that the writer who was on the familiarization tour would feel obliged to write some upbeat and interesting articles and with photos, to help promote the tourist site.
“Ah, Ms. Tablemate”, I have in fact been on a fam tour. I just had no clue that was what it was.” Over the past several years, I have written several travel articles including some of my amateur photographs, when I happened to be on vacation. I never went to any of these places just to write, I simply planned vacations, and then wrote some articles and submitted them to our local News-Gazette. Though the Gazette does not pay guest contributors like me, since they have their own crew of staff writers and photographers, I was pleased to have local friends read my articles and offer praise. That was my pay!
But writing for free once in a while has really paid off for me. Because that is how I ended up being invited on my first (and so far, my only) fam tour. Someone in a county in another state from where I live somehow read some of my News-Gazette travel articles and invited me and a guest for a three day weekend of fabulous restaurant food, a lovely quaint bed and breakfast for lodging, theater tickets, and so much more packed into this long weekend. Though we drove there (a beautiful, scenic, and relatively short drive) on our own dime, once there, we were driven around and treated to everything. It was a fabulous trip, and upon my return home, relatively effortless to write several articles for different publications and online sites to get the word out that this travel destination was extraordinary.
After returning home from my Empire Builder train trip with Writer Tablemate, I shared with friends about my interaction and about fam tours. People had the same initial reaction that I did; that is, the term “fam tour” or “familiarization tour” is rather generic and not at all specific to what it really is, therefore somewhat confusing. No matter. I searched online to learn more about fam tours.
In a perfect world, another tourist bureau form some dream destination such as any place in Hawaii; Portland, Oregon; Albuquerque, New Mexico; the Florida Keys, or Barcelona, Spain, for example, would read our News-Gazette, and decide that they should fly me to their area, wine and dine me and a guest, and know that I would write something flattering about their tourist attractions, and not just take the free trip and give nothing back. Perhaps it would be prudent to mention a few other travel destinations on my bucket list, in case per chance, someone from one of the tourist bureaus should happen to be reading this article. Well, truthfully that just hasn’t happened yet for me.
And, in all honesty, I have half-heartedly sent out a few emails to nearby places where I could and would drive if a tourist bureau was interested in treating me to lodging, a few meals, and some of the sights. But, so far, no nibbles on that either. But, I have a lot of perseverance and don’t give up easily, so I’ll keep trying.
What I have discovered online is that the proper letter seeking out a fam tour invitation requires the same sort of skill as a good query letter. There is an art to it that is unique and different than just being a good or even a good-enough writer. It’s not unlike having a great product you want to sell; unless you know how to market it, potential buyers will simply ignore you and look the other way and shop elsewhere.
In my quest to get invited on a familiarization tour, I am learning that some tourist bureaus have very well organized itineraries for the media. Others are far less prepared and are typically less organized to welcome writers and photographers for a planned visit to their area in hope of promoting it through various publications, travel and otherwise. So I guess I will keep trekking on, sharpening my tool to get invited on another fam tour to some place that I wish to visit or maybe, like the fam tour I was already on, some interesting and quirky place that is great to visit, but I just haven’t heard of it, At least, not yet!