Cynthia Ord pulls back the curtain.
What is a fam trip?

Inside the travel industry, a place is not a place — it is a “destination.” An organized trip is not a trip — it is a “tour product.” For travel tradespeople, part of the job is to get familiar with the destinations and tour products that we handle. This is the perk of our work, a tradition known as the familiarization trip, or “fam trip” in travel-speak.

Essentially, there are two kinds of fam trips. The most common kind (let’s call it type I) is a travel company-hosted trip for its owners, staff, and agents to learn a destination. These trips are usually heavily discounted or entirely compensated by the company, minus airfare. Type II is a state-sponsored variety, where a country’s ministry of tourism will host a handful of travel specialists as part of a larger destination promotion campaign.

Today I’m in Quito, reeling from 12 days of full-on fam trip glory.
The way in

My path to the inside of the travel trade has been a fun one. After graduating with a degree in tourism from a university in Spain, I found myself working via internet for a group of travel tech startups. That gig landed me my first fam trip — Uzbekistan, type II. From there, I kept up the online work to fuel my indie travels through South America for almost a year.

When I finally bounced back to my hometown in the US, I found a job at an adventure travel company based there. I adapted to office life, looking forward to the perk of the trade. After a few months, a type II fam trip opportunity arose. A rep from my company had been invited by Ecuador’s ministry of tourism on an adventure travel tour of the Andes and Amazon.

Today I’m in Quito, reeling from 12 days of full-on fam trip glory. It’s its own species of travel, so different from my own long-term solo travels on a backpacker budget. Here’s a dissection of this particular trip into its constituent elements:

1. The whirlwind itinerary

To me, a good itinerary is a piece of literature. It pumps your imagination with all sorts of ideas about what your trip will entail. It walks the line between nonfiction and fiction, pushing the bounds of reality in terms of what can really be done in one day. An itinerary is like a covenant made to be broken (or at least tweaked).

About a week before the Ecuador fam trip, I got a hold of the itinerary. I read it cover-to-cover. I traced the route on a map and Googled all the accommodations. I checked to see what YouTube had to say about the places and activities. I blogged the whole thing, word for word. It had a manic energy to it. So many names of places! So many adjectives! Such active verbs! Its premise was simple — we were to see as much of Ecuador as physically possible in 12 days.

Sample day:

Breakfast at Samari. We’ll use mountain bikes to begin our descent from the Andes into the Amazon basin, stopping along the way to hike into the awe-inspiring ‘Pailon de Diablo’ or Devil’s Cauldron. A rushing river which crashes down in a 200 ft. waterfall into a small stone bowl, you can feel it thunder in your bones! We’ll continue our travel down into the jungle and the frontier town of Puyo. Here we will visit the botanical gardens and their orchid conservation project with many species cataloged as the “biological heritage of humanity.” Amidst orchids we’ll enjoy an al fresco lunch. After lunch we’ll visit a community tourism and reforestation initiative in Cajabamba and plant a tree! Dinner on the banks of the Napo River and overnight at the Casa del Suizo — a very comfortable jungle lodge.

2. The hotel inspections

The fam trip moved fast enough to keep us in new accommodations almost every night, but we couldn’t stay in all of the hotels available for us to sell to clients. So the inspections began. Almost every day, we would detour to properties of interest for an inspection. It wasn’t as formal as it sounds — no white gloves or UV lights. We’d just go in, wander around with an owner or manager, and decide if the place would be a good fit for our trip-designing services.

A rhythm emerged: Enter the hotel, drink the welcome fruit juice, take a ton of photos, note the amenities, grab a business card and/or sales material, and pile back into the bus. This part of the trip felt the most like work, but I liked it. We got to peek inside Quito’s ‘fanciest boutique hotels,’ the Andes’ ‘most charming haciendas,’ and the Amazon’s ‘newest chic ecolodges.’

3. The wining and dining

A piece of advice for fam trippers — bring pants in the next size up. Food greets you at every turn, from the moment you wake up to a full breakfast buffet to the moment you fall asleep next to the hotel’s complimentary wine and cheese tray.

The trip coordinators will have you sampling a bit of everything. Say yes to it all. Yes to the rare fruit tasting! Yes to the ceviche showdown! Yes to the local ice cream shop! Yes to the cacao-into-chocolate workshop! Yes to the fusion of traditional-nouveau! Yes to the local lunch with an Amazon community and their live bug snacks! Yes to the fried plantains on the bus! The food parade never ends. Every meal is a production. Cuisine highlight on the Ecuador trip: We were served pâté appetizers inside wind-up music boxes at Le Mirage.

Travel professionals are a thirsty bunch. For every serving of food, a beverage follows closely. The national beer, imported wine, locally distilled homebrew, touristy mojitos, blackberry martinis, fermented chicha, warm mugs of spiced mulled fruit juice and mystery liquor — this is hospitality in liquid form. Cheers!

4. The fam bus

Local transport is added to the itinerary for the ‘experience.’ A scenic train ride here, a traditional chiva ride there. But for practical purposes, the best way to move a group of people quickly from point A to point B through Z is by private bus. Somehow, the itinerary failed to capture how much time we’d be spending together on that 30-passenger tourist bus. It became our mobile home, our storage unit…a nest of sorts.

Each leg of the journey was a lesson in group dynamics. Would I sit with the giggly gossip circle or the cranky hungover? Would I swap travel stories or read travel magazines? Or would I just curl up with my eye mask and headphones, drifting into transport non-sleep?

In each of my companions, I saw little pieces of myself. We had all built our livelihoods on the craft of travel. We were all counterparts, rivals, colleagues, new friends. Even the most eccentric was also a member of the fam.

5. The swag souvenirs

Before the trip, my boss gave me a medium-sized duffel to pack inside my luggage. “You’ll need this for all the stuff you’ll be bringing back,” he advised. Now, at the end of the trip, I try to organize the bag. It is indeed stuffed.

We’d been regaled with an entire collection of Ecuador-branded swag. We all knew the tourism slogan by heart — “love life.” It was printed on our new drawstring backpacks, our new water bottles, and our new Ecuador soft-shell jackets, which we’d received from the ministry of tourism at the grand welcome dinner. Inside my duffel is also a Panama hat (actually an Ecuador thing) with the logo and slogan on the band. Then there’s the branded key chain and the Ecuadorian chocolate.

Underneath my personal alpaca wool souvenirs from Otavalo market, I stow even more industry swag: brochures of boutique hotels, CDs of destination marketing material, folders, media kits, even a coffee table book about one of the traditional haciendas we visited. Business cards piled upon business cards.

I’ll sort this out later. I’m still traveling like it’s my job.