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August 29, 2013

Industry Pros Discuss Suitcasing and Outboarding

Ever since Rick Calvert, founder of BlogWorld and the New Media Expo, posted a scathing indictment of “suitcasing” and “outboarding” at conventions and conferences last month, the industry has been discussing the issue and spreading the word—as well as raising many questions. What, exactly, do these terms mean? Are there grey areas where the terms may or may not apply? And perhaps most significantly—what can event planners do to prevent suitcasing and outboarding.

While the weekly #ExpoChat on Twitter has officially been on a summer hiatus, the buzz surrounding Calvert’s article was enough to bring it back for one day. Hosted by frequent contributor Stephanie Selesnick, the chat session brought a range of industry insiders together with Calvert to shed more light on a confusing problem.

Selesnick began the session with a basic question: How do you define outboarding?

Calvert described it  as a company hosting an unofficial event off-site—“but using your event's name to attract attendees...It can be a competitive event, but often times, it’s a company that should be exhibiting in your event.” 

Selesnick herself defined it as “when a semi-competitive show comes to town same dates as yours after you're established there to use your audience.” And Dan Cole, Vice President, Sales and Business Development for The Consumer Electronics Association and Consumer Electronics Show, used a one-word answer: “Cheating.” 

Traci Browne, who frequently hosts the ExpoChats, defines it as events held by non-participating vendors and marketed to show attendees. “I think the key is that it's someone who should be exhibiting or sponsoring the event but isn't.” 

Suitcasing, meanwhile, could be defined as when a company is soliciting business on the tradeshow floor or common areas, Calvert said, oftentimes without a booth. 

Browne posed an interesting question to Calvert’s answer: “Would you consider a vendor who is not exhibiting but attending and just doing everyday networking a suitcaser? And then there are the lobby lurkers...those who don't pay to attend but hand out in hotel...bar.

Calvert acknowledged that suitcasing can be a grey area. “In today’s marketplace, nearly every attendee can network an event as well as attend.” But, he added, when an attendee's main focus is selling instead of buying, they are a suitcaser. 

Marketing pro Lois Martin noted what she called "subversive suitcasing," when a vendor does not  invest in a booth yet appears and distributes business cards everywhere. Exhibit Marketing Consultant/Speaker Marlys Arnold said that she was once approached by two women with a pitch and a pocket folder of information after her in-booth presentation. “It went straight in the trash!”

But while meeting planners may be familiar with the practices of suitcasing and outboarding, the terms are relatively unknown, especially outside of the industry. Selesnick asked if different words or terms could be made popular to spread awareness, and to make their destructive natures clearer to people who may not understand. She suggested “unsanctioned events” instead of outboarding, and Dana Freker Doody of general contracting company The Expo Group likes harsher terms: “Unapproved Use of Marketplace” or “Violation of Community Rules.” To warn against suitcasing, Doody suggested posting a sign at the entrance to the expo: “Sales activities limited to exhibitors only!” Browne, for her part, suggested warning attendees against "Selling or Prospecting on the show floor outside of your booth."

But Calvert acknowledged that buying and selling at trade shows are different practices than they were just a few years ago, and that these changes can make distinctions between authorized and unauthorized business difficult. “Show managers need to adapt,” he said. Arnold pointed out that there is a difference between networking with other exhibitors and pitching one’s wares to a seller in their own booth. One is a win-win for both parties. The other is detrimental.

Stay tuned for the second half of the chat recap, analyzing illegal behavior and looking at how planners can handle suitcasers and outboarders once they're caught. Read the full chat transcript here—and be sure to follow the #ExpoChat hashtag on Twitter when the chat sessions resume on September 18.

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About the Author: Jena Tesse Fox

Jena Tesse Fox





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