Fam club

Fam club

Investments in travel press pay off for Atlantic Canada’s destination promoters

Once, when travel journalists accepted freebie accommodations, meals, drinks, and entertainment on the understanding that they would write about their hosts in (presumably) glowing terms, their more journalistic peers derisively described them as “junketeers”, hardly worth consideration for all the quid pro quos they gathered in their figurative money belts.

Now, the FAM business is booming, especially here in Atlantic Canada, where research suggests that tour organizers routinely guarantee a multi-fold return on investment for jurisdictions that jump on the international bandwagon.

For the uninitiated, FAM stands for “familiarization travel trips”, typically offered to seasoned travel agents, as well as writers for popular newspapers and magazines. According to Ellen Tucker, the Saint John, New Brunswick-based principal of Freedom Tours & Travel, they operate pretty much the same way everywhere in the developed world.

“Generally, media familiarization trips are conducted by tourism boards,” she says. “Here, in Atlantic Canada, that would include the provincial departments of tourism. Once in a while, an individual resort will offer something to an individual reporter. But mostly FAM marketing is undertaken by provincial authorities on a group basis in conjunction with local operators of tourism destinations.”

Of course, the purpose of these exercises hasn’t changed over the years. It’s still all about sending the message effectively to a mediasaturated public. Says Ellen: “To get people’s attention on anything, these days, is very, very hard to do. We are bombarded with information.”

Still, says Don Cudmore, spokesman for the Atlantic Canada Tourism Partnership (ACTP) – an organization that represents the federal government and the region’s departments of tourism, along with its major industry associations – it can be done, and done successfully.

“Media FAMs are very important components in what we do,” he says. “It’s one of those things where whenever you can get someone to visit your market and experience your product, and they go back and write about it. . . well, it’s really invaluable.”

Ellen Tucker concurs: “This kind of publicity is worth a lot.”

The numbers in Atlantic Canada, at least, seem to bear them out.

In an industry that’s worth, conservatively, $4 billion a year in revenue and employs upwards of 35,000 people in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador, ACTP’s investments – mostly on FAM-related activities – have amounted to $421,785 over the past three years, targeting American media. The three-year earned media value (the metric standardly used around the world) tops in at $14.8 million. That’s a 35 dollar-fordollar return on investment.

The picture is even rosier in ACTP’s 2012-2015 United Kingdom marketing efforts. There, the investment was $492,000 for a return of $21 million (or roughly $42 for every dollar spent on FAM-related activities).

In fact, between 2014 and 2015, the ACTP hosted travel writers from Everything-Everywhere.com, Forbes.com, AOL.com, Huffington Post, Amazon.com, OK!TV, the New York Times, the Sunday Times, Wanderlust Magazine, The Telegraph, and the Financial Times.

Thanks to one of these FAM engagements, Elaine Glusac of the New York Times wrote, “Bruce Miller throttled back the engines of his 27-foot boat and entered the pinched harbor at Ireland’s Eye, an uninhabited, rock-rimmed island that lies eight miles off another, much larger island: Newfoundland. Scattered piles of weathered, gray boards dotted the steep, grassy banks like forgotten kindling. The captain held up a black-and-white 8-by-10 photo that echoed the view circa 1940. Back then, the timber stacks were clearly houses, schooners rested at anchor, and on the farthest hill stood a white church. Now, in the church’s place, a steeple lay in the tall grass. Worshipers last attended a service here in 1965, before a government resettlement policy forcibly moved the 157 residents of the remote fishing village, or ‘outport,’ to larger communities in order to centralize the population.

“‘It was all about economics to take people from small communities and put them closer to the infrastructure,’ Mr. Miller said, his voice modulating between resignation and anger, ‘but you can’t take a man who’s lived all his life on the fishing grounds and put him in a city.’ The 55-year-old former cod fisherman, born in the similarly abandoned town of Kerley’s Harbour, began guiding outport ghost-town tours three years ago. ‘It was often said (that) they moved, but they never arrived,’ he said.”

Or as British master chef Gregg Wallace wrote in the Sunday Mail last September, “For my first visit to Canada I headed to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick for a ten-day break. I’m not sure what I expected to find: Mounties, of course; the odd moose; perhaps a bear – actually, to be honest, I didn’t see any of these. Canada’s a big country – the second-biggest in the world, and 45 times the size of the UK. The province of New Brunswick alone is more than twice the size of England, but with a population of just 750,000.

“As I drove around, I began to wonder why they actually bothered to build roads because there was never anybody using them. It makes driving in Canada a sheer delight – especially where we were, in what they call the Maritimes, on the Atlantic coast.

“The country is stunningly, stunningly beautiful. I hired a Dodge pick-up, the sort of thing I’d only ever seen in movies, and it was an absolute beast, a massive truck with a five-litre engine. My girlfriend Anna loved it. I was slightly nervous about the cost of filling it up, but I found out to my relief that fuel is a lot cheaper in Canada.

“It was a journey of surprises, the first being that Eastern Canada was just a five-hour flight from Britain – I had no idea it would be such a short trip. Another pleasant surprise was that the exchange rate with the Canadian dollar is extremely favourable. And, perhaps most importantly for me after all my years as a MasterChef judge, the food is incredible.”

Agreed, you can’t buy that kind of publicity – not for Yankee sawbucks or pounds sterling, or even Canadian loonies. Or perhaps you can. The question still remains: Is any of this FAM business actually ethical? Do readers know what they’re getting from a writer who has taken professional favours in order (potentially) to return them?

It’s a tricky question that neither Ellen nor Don duck. This is not, they intimate, the bad, old days of wink-wink, nudge-nudge. Today, they say, travel writers adhere to strict, often self-imposed, guidelines of comportment and behavior. Those who don’t simply don’t get published – at least, not for long.

Says Ellen: “It’s important to recognize that most (FAM arrangements) do not require the writer to submit his or her work to the travel operator or authority prior to publication. Those folks take their chances. . .Most travel writers are very ethical anyway. They don’t want to betray their readers in any way.”

As a tourism authority, Don confirms that the ACTP has no opportunity – nor does it demand one – to approve what FAM writers produce. In fact, he says, “Sometimes we don’t even know what they’re doing until our media trackers tell us about that.”

All of which suggests, for now, that the days of the junket – the freebies, the mutual backscratching sessions – are over. Enter the FAM boys and girls, with no apologies to make.

1 Comment to “Fam club”

  1. I am a travel writer who has participated on organized FAM trips and self-directed press trips, and I prefer the latter. FAM trips or media junkets can be jam-packed with as many activities as the tourist board can fit into a day’s itinerary, whereas self-directed trips, if a writer can engage an agreeable host, can offer an authentic experience, worth sharing with readers. The best “freebie” I received this year was a $45/night stay in a tent at a Campground in Digby Neck, which I arranged with the owner directly after hearing murmurs about the place. It was hardly luxurious, but an amazing place; well-worth writing about! I always promise to write a piece that is “positive in nature”. If something negative happens, I leave it out and contact the host directly to explain why I could not address that aspect of my stay. That’s sort of standard, I think. There’s definitely no mutual back-scratching, but there’s no bridge-burning either. You can heck out my stories on the Travel Website, Family Fun Canada 😉

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