A few practices keep chipping away at the integrity of professional events. Chief among them are outboarding, when companies bypass exhibiting or sponsoring and set up shop on the fringe of your event, and suitcasing, which refers to non-exhibiting sellers who work the aisles or hallways. Lobby rats — non-registered folks who hang out in public spaces, hosting a series of meet-ups with your badged attendees — is also a growing problem.
Left unchecked, these scammers pose a major threat to your business model, and with the rise in free-agent attendees (consultants, contractors, entrepreneurs), I suspect the problem will only grow.
Time to Update Our Terminology
While we may recognize and use these terms, they’re foreign to those outside of trade show and conference circles. It would help if we start to use more widely understood terminology to describe when companies (or individuals) conduct sales, marketing, or networking in conjunction with our events without paying for the privilege. Let’s call it ambush marketing.
At the London Olympics in 2012, Beats by Dr. Dre pulled off one of the most effective ambush plays ever. The company created custom headphones in national colors and then strategically provided athletes with samples. Olympic participants wore Beats headphones throughout the games. yet Beats was not an official Olympic sponsor. Perhaps this tactic helped their recent valuation and interest from Apple?
Diffuse, But Don’t Overreach
Companies and individuals will always be conjuring up new ways to ambush your event. You want to police this to some degree, but be careful. While you can prohibit unauthorized use of branding, you can’t prevent people from meeting up at places beyond your control. Overstep these boundaries and you’ll come across like Big Brother.
Here are four ways to diffuse the ambushers and even convince some to take the high road:
1. Change things up.
Ambushers thrive on predictability. If you’re trotting out the same schedule each year, you’re making it too easy for them. Returning to the same city or venue makes you even more vulnerable. Change up your agenda enough to give ambushers a few sleepless nights. Create more networking spaces and value in areas you do control.
2. Lure ambushers in.
If there’s a sizeable group of ambushers, consider offering a more affordable option, like a Limited Access Pass, which includes opportunities to attend some of your major networking functions. This allows you to get them in the database and develop campaigns to nurture their full participation.
3. Sweeten the pot.
Your event is the main attraction. Without you, there’s nothing to ambush. So make it even better. Consider offering an assortment of concierge-like services for sponsors and exhibitors who want to entertain clients and prospects. Help them secure the best venues, entertainment, and experience elements. Discuss who their target attendee is and help them with a plan to attract them.
4. Solicit support from industry influencers.
If you over-police, privately or publicly, your brand could take a hit. But when an industry leader with high influence (e.g., a board member) steps up and says, “Hey, don’t do this — it’s not good for our industry,” that message carries more credence. Suddenly, this ambush game doesn’t seem so cool.
Has ambush marketing been a challenge for your conference or show? What steps have you taken to curtail this behavior and protect your conference and trade show investors?
Adapted from Dave’s Forward Thinking column in PCMA’s Convene. Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. ©2014.