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September 5, 2013

Suitcasing & Outboarding: What You Can Do About It

Ever since Rick Calvert, founder of BlogWorld and the New Media Expo, posted a scathing indictment of “suitcasing” and “outboarding” at conventions and conferences, the industry has been discussing the issue and spreading the word—as well as asking 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.

Last week, we looked at some basic questions: What are suitcasing and outboarding? Are there grey areas where the activity may not be readily apparent? And how can planners spread awareness of the terms? 

In the second part of the chat recap, we’ll look at why event attendees participate in illegal activities, and what planners can do to prevent them.

By understanding the logic behind suitcasing and outboarding, a planner might have an easier time combating the problems. “Not everyone is a criminal if we understand why companies suitcase & outboard then we can begin to solve the problem,” chat moderator Stephanie Selesnick noted. Frequent #ExpoChat host Traci Browne suggested that some would-be exhibitors simply may not be able to afford the exhibition fees. “They have every intention of being exhibitor once they grow, but[are] not there yet,” she said. Marlys Arnold, an Exhibit Marketing Consultant and Speaker, suggested developing “some type of showcase” for smaller companies to begin getting exposure at the show while paying what they can afford to attend.

Calvert believes that some perpetrators simply don’t understand how harmful the actions can be--though some, he adds, know exactly what they are doing and are simply running a scam. Until a planner knows what the case may be, Calvert advised giving a suitcaser or outboarder the benefit of the doubt. “We always assume its an honest mistake,” he added. “If we find out through the conversation it was intentional, we take action.”

“Part of that conversation of understanding should include, ‘how can we include you next year?’” Browne suggested, and referenced an article in INC Magazine that advocated suitcasing as a money-saving tactic. (Lew Shomer, Executive Director of SISO, soundly condemned the article in one of the comments.) “We call it suitcasing,” Browne added. “Small companies call it guerilla marketing.” “I call it stealing,” Calvert replied. 

Dana Freker Doody of the Expo Group noted that outboarding is harder to prevent than suitcasing. Selling  on the trade show floor without a booth is obvious, but organizing an event off-site is a bit less clear.

This brought the chat to the next question: What can planners do when they catch a suitcaser or outboarder?

Calvert reaches out to the perp on the phone (“never email,” he added) to explain what they have done and how its harmful to the organizers, the exhibitors and the attendees. “We explain it as nicely as possible and offer solutions. Most of the time, people are willing to work with us to resolve it.”

Arlene from the Trade Show News Network suggested handing out cards with a list of do’s and don’ts, or at least etiquette guides for attendees. “Education [is the] best weapon against it.”

Browne, working on her theory of price being a determining factor, suggested a lower cost of entry for some suppliers, or perhaps creating a “new product pavilion” where first-timers could get some exposure at a reduced rate. “Maybe you only get to be there for one day or a couple of hours,” she mused, looking for ways to keep other exhibitors happy.

“What about having low cost sponsorships as well for newbies/first timers?” Selesnick asked. “The problem with sponsorship is most shows suck at creating meaningful ones...just yet another logo stuck somewhere,” Browne replied. Selesnick asked what the participants thought about offering a booth or a lounge for a discount, and Arnold suggested making it “some kind of spotlight of ‘What's New’ or ‘Startups to Watch’ so it creates some buzz.”

Many suitcasers, Calvert noted, will apologize and stop when caught, and Selesnick wondered if a planner would need to take further action at that point. “You do have options. You can revoke passes, ban from future events, etc.” he answered. Arnold also advised some measure of leniency depending on the circumstances: “Established companies who can afford booths should be punished, but have options for those who would love to exhibit but can't.” 

“Why not charge a fee for suitcasing and allow it?” Doody asked, noting that organizers could charge less if potential sellers bring in their own booth materials. 

Chris Dolnack, ‎Senior Vice President & Chief Marketing Officer at the National Shooting Sports Foundation, disagreed: “Selling sponsorship to non-exhibitors devalues the exhibitor's investment, unless they are a non-endemic company,” he said. “Better to offer a smaller package--10x5 with a table, chairs, trash can, pipe & drape, directory ad, etc.--to get them in.” Dolnack noted that his company has a suitcasing/outboarding hotline on the back of event badges as well as a text hotline. “Most [suitcasers] are turned in by exhibitors.” He also offers an incentive to housekeepers at hotels in the event block to turn in outboarders.

Scott Lum, a Social, Events and Content Marketer for Microsoft, noted that as marketers get creative, they will find low-cost ways to engage with an audience even if it's piggybacking on existing events. 

When suitcasing and outboarding become issues at events, Browne suggests looking internally at the show and questioning what one might do differently. “Sometimes it's because your show is so great...but maybe it could be because you're not offering something people need.”  

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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