Unfortunately, at this year’s TBEX conference in Toronto, we were forced to cancel one of our speaker’s talks at the last minute due to the speaker’s continued violations of our speaker and attendee agreements. This caused a bit of controversy at the time, so I want to explain why we made the decision we did, and to help everyone understand the broader ethical responsibility that event organizers have to their attendees, sponsors, and speakers.
I am not going to use any names. The identity of the person isn’t important to the broader points I’m going to make.
This person was a speaker at TBEX in Keystone last year. Their company is the sort that could also potentially be a TBEX sponsor. They are very active with travel bloggers and part of the business is providing DMOs with content marketing created by bloggers. That is, by definition, a qualified TBEX sponsor. They chose not to sponsor the event. We do not require qualified sponsoring businesses to be a sponsor in order to speak at TBEX, but we certainly encourage them to do so.
This company decided to host an unofficial party during TBEX Keystone that conflicted with our host sponsor’s official opening night party. They did it without our knowledge or consent, yet used our name to promote the event. Many attendees were confused and thought this was an official event. Whenever we learn about something like this beforehand we try to prevent it, because having conflicting events is harmful to our sponsors and confusing to our attendees. We always assume people are acting in good faith and are competing with us and our sponsors unintentionally, so we ask them if they can reschedule their event to a non-conflicting time, support an official event instead, or possibly cancel their conflicting event.
Last year when we learned about the unofficial party, TBEX’s Conference Director, Mary Jo, approached the speaker and explained the ethical problems of their company hosting this conflicting event. They chose not to cancel their event, but did delay the start of their party a bit. It still conflicted with the opening party, although there was slightly less of an overlap. I also talked with this speaker again in March of this year, explained why the party last year was a conflict, and reiterated Mary Jo’s points regarding our responsibility to our sponsors and attendees. We requested that in the future the speaker or someone from their company notify us if they intended to host an outboarded event in order to avoid a conflict with our schedule. I also encouraged the speaker to consider becoming an official sponsor instead to work within our system and avoid potential conflicts altogether.
We thought we had resolved the issue, that everyone was operating in good faith, and decided to have this person speak again at TBEX 2013 in Toronto.
In mid-May, shortly before TBEX Toronto, we were informed by our host city that an unofficial event was being promoted using the TBEX name and that it was in direct conflict with the hosted blogger tours they had worked hard to put together. These tours were very important to our hosts, and the conflicting event put them in an awkward position. This was a company with whom they could potentially do business, but that was instead harming their business.
I emailed our speaker on May 17th, two weeks before the start of our Toronto event, and let him know they had again scheduled a conflicting event and that it was harming our sponsors and us. I let the speaker know that we felt betrayed after our previous conversations.
the response was, “I am not rescheduling, and you cannot make me.”
Of course, that statement is true. We can’t stop anyone from hosting an outboarded event during one of our conferences. I tried to schedule a phone call with him to resolve it. He said we could talk, but again told me there was nothing I could do that would change his mind and that, somehow, it was our fault that he decided to compete with our event.
At this point, we had an internal discussion about whether we should cancel his speaking appearance at the conference. It was apparent he had now decided to be a competitor and not cooperate with us. In the end, we made the decision to keep his session on the program, but knew that we would not be inviting him back to future events until we had come to a mutually beneficial understanding.
Then, on the day of the pre-BEX blogger day tours before the TBEX conference began, I received a complaint from a sponsor. Someone was handing out flyers – with the TBEX name on them – in the main lobby of the Toronto Convention Center in front of our registration desk, encouraging attendees to go to this speaker’s unofficial off-site event in direct conflict with the blogging trips. This is what’s known in the conference and trade show industry as “suitcasing.”
What is Suitcasing and Outboarding?
[stextbox id=”info” caption=”Let’s stop for a moment and define a couple of terms.”]Outboarding is when a company that should be a sponsor of an event instead decides to host their own competing event without the consent of the original event organizer. Outboarding steals from event organizers directly by costing them revenue from the potential sponsor, as well as revenue from any other sponsors of the outboarded event that might have otherwise been spent on official events. Outboarding also steals attention away from official sponsors of the official event, drawing attendees and media attention away from sponsors. Lastly, it is deceitful and harmful to attendees by confusing them into thinking they are supporting the official event when really they are not.
Suitcasing is when a company either registers as an attendee, or has no badge at all, when they should be registered as a sponsor of the event. They are actively trying to recruit business from attendees – by handing out flyers in hallways, leaving printed material on tables, etc. – without paying to be a sponsor. Obviously, this is directly stealing revenue from the conference, as well as stealing from the official sponsors and being deceitful and confusing to the attendees. Nothing upsets sponsors quite as much as a suitcaser. They are always reported to the event organizer by an angry sponsor.
Outboarding and suitcasing are both very common at conferences and trade shows – this is by no means a TBEX-only issue. I am sure, now that you know what they are, you can recall several times when you have either attended an outboarding event or been approached by a suitcaser. You may even be guilty of doing it yourself. Most people don’t realize how harmful these things can be, but if you take either to the extreme of “what if everyone did that?” you can see how there would no longer be an event at all – and then everyone would lose.[/stextbox]
When I heard from the TBEX Toronto sponsor about the suitcasing going on in front of our own registration desk, I was furious. I immediately approached the two young women in question – who tried to hand me a flyer. I told them that we had already told the person responsible for organizing the event they were promoting that it was in violation of our rules, and that they had to leave the building immediately. I also told them that if they were caught handing out flyers in the building again we would revoke their passes and they would not be allowed to attend TBEX.
At that point, I emailed the speaker informing him of what had just happened, and told him that because of his continued violation of our rules his speaking appearance was officially canceled. I also asked him to immediately cease and desist in using our company name to promote his competing event.
He, of course, used this as a promotional tool for his competing event. He held his talk at a venue across the street during our conference and played the victim.
He approached me at our official party later that night and asked if we could talk. I said yes. He insulted me immediately, I responded in kind, and the conversation degraded from there. I told him he was wrong for intentionally harming our business, especially after we had specifically cautioned him about this on multiple occasions and despite our repeated attempts to resolve the issue professionally. He insisted that I and TBEX were wrong, and rather than punishing him we should be grateful for all of his “promotion” and “support” of our event. He asked why I hadn’t revoked his badge completely, and I told him that, for our part, we were still trying to resolve the issue. From my standpoint, all he needed to do was apologize, admit he was wrong, and then we could repair the relationship. Instead, the insulting and name-calling continued, I lost my temper and stooped to the same level, and eventually he walked away.
Throughout this entire drama, from the behind-the-scenes conversations before the conference right up through the confrontations at the conference itself, TBEX never once publicly mentioned what was going on with this person (or his company) by name. We never called him out on social media, in our newsletter, on our blog, or in public in any way. We have still not publicly discussed this matter using his or his company’s name – even in this blog post. We tried, at every point in the process, to resolve the conflict professionally and ethically. And at every point, he refused to see our position or make any move toward compromise.
Why are Suitcasing and Outboarding Unethical?
[stextbox id=”info” caption=”Why breaking the rules harms everyone.”] Event organizers sell a product just like any other business. Our product is the event. We spend anywhere from thousands to hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars marketing our product. We bring as many qualified people as we possibly can to one place all at the same time. We set the prices for our products and we create the terms and conditions (T&Cs) around how we are willing to provide our products. We create these T&Cs for attendees, speakers and sponsors to protect ourselves as well as our exhibitors and attendees from unethical people and companies. Our goal is to create a level playing field for everyone. In our terms and conditions we ask that all companies who are trying to sell something to our attendees purchase a booth space or in TBEX case a table top exhibit. This is where they are supposed to pitch their products to customers. We have rules prohibiting them from selling their product in the aisles, in front or inside their fellow exhibitors booths. (Yeah I know its crazy you need a rule explaining that but unethical people try and do this all the time).
The cost to exhibit at an event is usually significantly higher than to attend. So when a Suitcaser decides to buy an attendee badge and sell their products in the aisles instead of purchasing a booth; they have just decided to steal from the event organizer. They have decided that they will find customers there but they are unwilling to pay the price the event organizer is asking. They have decided to unfairly compete with the other exhibitors, and they have decided to approach attendees outside the marketplace where they expect to be sold to. Ever been in a session when someone stands up to ask a question but instead tells you all about their product and why people should buy it?
That is a Suitcaser and that is unethical. It is also angers everyone in the room. Have you ever had someone walk up to you in the aisle or the lobby or at a party of an event who handed you a flyer or a free sample while trying to sell you their awesome product?
That is Suitcasing and if that person doesn’t have an exhibitor badge they are definitely a Suitcaser. There are some exceptions to that rule where an attendee may ask directly about someones product, but most of the time it’s unethical and rude.
Outboarding is similar and even more damaging. Again this company has recognized that the event organizer has done a good job at marketing their event and delivered customers to one place at one time. The Outboarder make a conscious decision to steal from the event organizer and host an event off-site without the consent of the organizer. Many times they even use the event organizers brand to confuse attendees into thinking this is a sanctioned event. When an Outboarder does this during show hours, they have just stolen customers from other exhibitors, sponsors and speakers. When they do this in conflict with official after hours events they have just stolen customers from the sponsors of those events.
There are exceptions to this rule. Some “unofficial events” are held with the blessing of the show organizer. We cooperate with stakeholders all the time. For example, Travel Massive has hosted events at the last three TBEX conferences. All of them were done in cooperation with us. We have done it ourselves. Last year we moved our New Media Expo event to January in Las Vegas. Our dates overlapped the Consumer Electronics show and were close to Affiliate Summit which were both also being held in Las Vegas. We called both event organizers to tell them about our potential date conflict and received their approval before we contracted with our venue. We have done the same thing with BlogHer and other conferences in the past. [/stextbox]
Now, let’s discuss the ethics of a responsible event organizer.
First, our business is to produce an event that brings various stakeholders together – including buyers, sellers, media, and industry thought leaders. We create a marketplace where transactions can occur, educational settings for attendees, and networking opportunities between peers, customers, and vendors. We work for an entire year (and invest a significant amount of money) marketing this event to attendees and sponsors in order to encourage them to attend an event that takes place over a few short days.
We are ethically bound to provide a level playing field to all parties. We have to remain neutral – we have to be Switzerland. We are also bound to protect our sponsors and our attendees. Without them there would be no event and we would be out of business.
As I said earlier, suitcasing and outboarding are common at events like ours. (see this post by BlogHer co-founder Elisa Camahort Page on the same issue at BlogHer.) Throughout my career I have approached at least a hundred outboarders and suitcasers, most of whom apologize and start following the rules. Some try to avoid you and keep doing what they’re doing even after being cautioned. I have taken badges from and ejected a dozen or so suitcasers over the years who refused to quit after being warned.
But this was a first for me. In this case, our speaker was knowingly both suitcasing and outboarding, and then when we took action in removing him from the program, he insisted he and his company were victims who were actually doing us a favor by harming us, our sponsors, and our attendees. When he was caught and confronted he tried to continue to use it to his advantage in publicly promoting himself, his event, and his now-canceled talk. Incredible.
At one point this speaker told me, “You don’t own Toronto. You can’t stop me.” He is absolutely right. While every show organizer has the right to remove anyone’s badge and ask him or her to leave the event for any reason, no one can legally stop an outboarder from stealing your marketing and hard work or from harming your sponsors and attendees. Event organizers can and do have signed contracts with hotels and convention centers that prevent competing events from taking place at the same time.
But there is no doubt than when outboarders and suitcasers decide to do this they have changed from cooperating participants in an event to competitors. More than that, they have made the decision to be unethical competitors – otherwise they would hold their events in another city or on another date that was not in direct competition with yours. It is clearly an unethical practice. You can – and we did – deny them the opportunity to steal our business and harm our speakers and sponsors right in front of our face.
Author Rick Calvert is the CEO of TBEX and CEO & Co-founder of BlogWorld & New Media Expo