Event Management

How to Keep Freeloaders Away From Your Event

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Skift Take

Pirates can be lurking around the edges of your events poaching time and, in the worst-case scenario, business, from your attendees. There are ways to prevent these dubious characters from stealing your business.

Pirate exhibitors, outboarders, suitcasers, no matter what you call them, these dubious individuals may be lurking around the edges of your events, poaching time and, in the worst-case scenario, business from your attendees.

There are ways to prevent this from happening.

The Scenarios

Here are three common scam scenarios to keep in mind that threaten the success and reputation of your events.

1. During the pre-event planning process, unofficial vendors, known as outboarders, reach out to exhibitors to offer services such as computers, audio-visual equipment, carpeting, and other booth-related rentals. Meanwhile, attendees are being approached by third-party housing firms not connected to the show offering rooms at properties the host organization does not sanction.

2. In the weeks leading up to a show, in another form of outboarding, attendees are invited to a dinner, reception, or some other kind of event by an organization that is not an exhibitor or sponsor and is not sanctioned by the host organization.

3. While the show is on-site, a suitcaser, posing as an attendee, walks the aisles, public spaces, and even visits the booths of paid exhibitors, soliciting business from legitimate attendees.

“There are no actual studies on how prevalent the practice of pirating is in the industry,” said Scott Craighead, CEM, Vice President of Exhibitions and Events for the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE). “In my experience, suitcasing and service poaching are more prevalent than outboarding.”  But one thing is certain — exhibition and event sponsors invest significant financial and other precious resources in the planning and execution of their events. Their financial resources are at risk, as are the business reputation and goodwill that are vital elements of a sponsor’s and a show’s business success.

Buyer Beware

Predatory practices also hurt attendees. More often than not, attendees will fall prey to scams run by housing organizations. “Hotel room poaching by third-party housing firms has been the most widely reported practice,” said Craighead. “Stakeholders who decide to use those unauthorized firms for hotel rooms could very well show up to the event to find they do not have a hotel reservation.”

The same goes for exhibitors who use service poachers as well. Show organizers select their preferred vendors based on various factors, including past experience working with the companies. It is like the host organization’s seal of approval, and it can come in handy for exhibitors to use as leverage when things go wrong. An approved vendor has an incentive to put things right, while a service poacher does not. “That’s why exhibitors who select service providers who are not affiliated with the event need to be cautious,” said Craighead.

Fighting Back

In June, the Hospitality Industry Technology Exposition and Conference (HITEC) celebrated its 50th Anniversary with over 6,100 attendees and more than 300 exhibitors at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando. What most of them probably didn’t realize was that the show organizers, Hospitality Financial and Technology Professionals (HFTP), had enacted preventive measures to restrain pirate exhibitors, including rules prohibiting unofficial companies from associating themselves with HITEC, stepping up security, and increasing awareness of the issue among HITEC constituents and official HITEC hotels.

“Pirate vendors ultimately damage the overall success of the show for all involved,” said Thomas Atzenhofer, CPA, HFTP Deputy CEO. “The official exhibitors and service providers spend thousands of dollars to be part of HITEC, and we feel it is our responsibility that they get the best experience possible at the show.”

Some of the protocols included:

  • vigorous promotion of the official HITEC exhibitor list, hotel room blocks, and allied organizations
  • review of dubious invitations voluntarily provided by targeted attendees
  • cooperation with official hotels to prevent non-exhibiting companies of booking meeting space

Once outboarders are identified, the IAEE suggests show managers issue cease and desist letters and notify exhibitors and other show stakeholders of the activity. IAEE also has a suitcasing tool kit to assist show organizers in preventing this practice.

“Show organizers should post the suitcasing policy in the exhibition hall and enforce the policy with staff and floor managers,” said Craighead. “We suggest issuing a warning upon the first offense and removal from the show floor upon the second offense. An outboarding policy is more difficult to enforce since it is off-premise from the event. The best solution for this is prevention by communicating with all host hotels and major venues to direct any venue space reservation inquiries to the show organizer.”