Ambush Marketing: 4 Ways to Diffuse Conference Scammers

2014.07.24_Selling jewelry, Cabarete (Dominican Republic) by Remon Rijper, on Flickr

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.

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  1. Joan Eisenstodt says:

    I concur to some degree about suitcasers & out boarders; not sure about lobby rats since I have considered being one. Why? Because it is very expensive to attend a conference, I rarely attend sessions when I do*, never attend receptions b/c they are not accessible, and often don’t go to meals for the same reason and b/c it’s always too noisy and the program too over-packed to have a conversation.

    So why pay a reg fee, high, commissionable/rebatable hotel room rates just to see ppl with whom one wants to interact? Don’t orgs have a responsibility – as you noted, Jeff, for exhibitors – to the rest of us who pay dues, are active & really want hallway education?

  2. Like Joan, I was a little surprised to see “lobby rats” lumped in with suitcasers and outboarders. I understand that they are gaining a benefit from the conference without paying for it, but where do you draw the line? If you live in the meeting’s locale and want to invite a few friends out to dinner, is that encroaching on the event? Yes, but hello Big Bro.

    I like your second and third points a lot, especially when it comes to those who are looking for educational, rather than financial, benefits. Though, as Joan points out, the “networking functions” may not be the best thing to provide limited access to if what they want is in-depth conversation. Maybe offer some kind of a “hall pass,” and some dedicated quiet space where they could meet? I’d try to find out why they don’t think it’s worth the price to register, and what they would value, then offer them that at a reduced cost.

    It’s always better to entice these folks in than build a bigger wall to keep them out, IMHO.

  3. Dave Lutz says:

    Joan and Sue, thanks for your comments! For several conferences we’ve analyzed over the past 12 months, the lobby rat issue was huge. In these cases, the offenders used to pay to attend, still see tremendous benefit in having business discussions with the paying registrants, but don’t believe they should pay for that privilege.

    While it’s perfectly acceptable to pre-schedule a meet up outside of the confines of the conference (i.e. for a meal), cherry picking badged attendees in the conference venue is a questionable practice. Many of the examples that we’ve seen are companies who are sending 10+ people, but only officially registering half of them.

    Sue, I like your concept of the “hall pass” and developing strategies to be official.

    Conference registration fees include education and networking experiences. When one participates in those (including hallway conversations) without following the credentialing requirements, we do believe it is a questionable practice. So, OK to pre-schedule a meet-up with a registrant, but not OK to target badges in the conference hotel or set up an office in the lobby to leverage serendipity. Make sense?

  4. So it sounds like the “lobby rats”you’re talking about are really another variation on the suitcasing/outboarding genre, looking more to generate business for free, and not so much someone who is looking to have peer-to-peer conversations on topics of mutual interest, which are the types of people I was thinking of. Kind of analogous to people who follow your Twitter event hashtag and join in the conversations, even though they aren’t physically there, which most event organizers seem to want even though they are out of the revenue stream. I think it would be hard to tell where the line is in some cases at on-site events, but the badge-targeting and office-in-the-hallway scenarios you outline in your comment are clearly far over it.

    Another thought that occurred to me reading your post was the virtual versions of all of the above–vendors who don’t pay to exhibit but flood your hashtag with marketing messages, for example, or who scrape your event’s LinkedIn or Facebook pages for potential customers. They may be easier to catch, but harder to control in some ways, depending on which social medium they use. Are you seeing a lot of that too?

  5. Joan Eisenstodt says:

    Sue – Thanks for adding to this and like Dave, I like the ‘hall pass’ idea if it doesn’t cost an arm & leg.

    Dave your last sentence, are you saying it IS ok to pre-schedule meetings but not to “target” badges in the hallways? And is it about selling or is it about conversation? How is it different if one is not physically present and instead attends all the open virtual sessions and tweets with all who are there? Why is that ok and the physical presence, unregistered, is not?

    Like you, I’ve dealt with this with clients and tho’ we came up with some good ideas, it didn’t stop the suitcasing and outboarding. Networks are broad and social media makes it easy to let people know where one is located and invite them to an event.

    Ah.. so if we’re talking about ethics .. almost all the ethics policies of clients and our industry are so broad and are aspirational v. enforceable that one would be hard-pressed to do much to say the behavior was unethical and bring a case against someone.

    So let’s take a step back: is it finances that keeps exhibitors away? Is it finances that keeps participants (like me and many I know) away? If a conference is designed to include as many as possible or as diverse as possible an audience, why not make it easier to attend and participate in a way that makes sense to them? Why make it all or nothing .. all even being the one-day registration for participants?

    I think we need to look in different ways at what groups want and what participants and potential participants want. “Free Agent Learners” are not gonna go to conferences if they are not welcome in a way that is good for them.

    1. Dave Lutz says:

      Love this dialogue, Joan and Sue…where to draw the line is definitely the key! Here’s a few more thoughts:

      1) Properly credentialed registrants are the boss of their own experience. If they have a relationship with a non-credentialed party and agree to the conversation, it’s their prerogative to engage but it should take place outside of the conference zone. For those who play by the rules and purchase the experience, I do believe it’s the hosts obligation to protect them from those who chose not too. Whether it’s a business development or peer-to-peer conversation, a non-credentialed person is not respecting others in their industry who have invested in the conference for that privilege. It’s kind of like using your neighbors internet, when you should have your own subscription. It may be OK with your neighbor, but it’s not being fare to the provider or other paying subscribers. .

      2) Social channels and open streaming options are totally different birds. Every conference organizer has alternatives to make these channels private and exclusive to participants. Instead, many choose amplification over gating. Sales people who are trolling in the lobby or in the social stream, look just as ugly in person as they do online.

      Quick story. I was in Vegas in March with my two sons. I had a pre-scheduled meeting with the President of the hotel that was hosting an industry event, SISO. I showed up a tad early for the meeting and decided to go to the foyer of the ballroom where breakfast was being served. I probably new 100+ people in the room and just wanted to say hi to a few. Too my surprise, I got busted and kicked out. I was guilty as charged. There’s nothing SISO could have done if I hung in the lobby. But if I was there for an extended period of time, the volunteer leadership should call me on the carpet. It’s just not fair to others who have invested.

  6. Fresh on the heels of BlogHer ’14, the largest social media conference for women bloggers, I can speak to the effectiveness of their long-offered “Networking & Expo Only” pass option. This is my 3rd time using it and for my business development and blogger networking objectives, it affords me all the access i need while still keeping my “part of the party.”

    And while I didn’t get certain meals and couldn’t soak in the content (not a priority for me), I was allowed to attend the sponsored evening parties and re-connect with those I met during the day.

    I’m also seeing a trend in conferences creating more “free time” for lunches or dinner on your own, so those are great windows for rallying some like-minded souls for food and fun (karaoke?!?) — these are where the best relationships are formed, I think. When people are allowed to relax and let themselves be known aside from their professional affiliation.

    I wish more marketing industry conferences would offer a similar structure – keep some really great experiences (and concierge services, yes!) for the full-pass holders, and allow more interested people (and junior professionals) to experience benefit too. I agree this can nurture future participation and, in the case of associations, membership development.

    Thanks again for the thought-provocation.

  7. Joshua Grimes says:

    Unfortunately the meeting industry has unwittingly contributed to creating lobby rats and outboarding. A few years ago the major industry organizations opened up their meetings to all attendees for reasonable fees — some even charged planners and suppliers the same. Now, with the rise of “hosted buyer” programs, suppliers who don’t choose to pay extra to make the events free for planners are either prohibited from attending the meetings themselves, or the registration cost for those suppliers is often prohibitively expensive. And those of us who attend the larger industry meetings are no doubt familiar with meeting industry suppliers crowding hotel lobbies with their salespeople, even if many of those people aren’t paying attendees at the industry event.

    Given that these problems are pervasive at meeting industry events, perhaps we should start by taking on the challenge of solving them at our own events. Doing so would only help us tackle the these same problems at meetings organized for other industries.

  8. Dave Lutz says:

    ‘@Krista, thanks for adding your experience with a limited access pass for BlogHer. I just looked at their pricing – $149 for Networking Pass (sounds reasonable)! I also love that they offer a Self-Sponsored rate for their full conference. This appears to allow participants to opt-out of exhibitor/sponsor promotion. Another progressive concept. They’re doing a very good job of allowing participants to customize their experience based on the value they perceive with each offering…nice!

    @Joshua, love your idea of cleaning up our own house first. Perhaps our industry associations can take a page from BlogHer for qualified attendees. More options for participation and associated fees does make sense. On the supplier side of things, it’s a bit more difficult with the business priority to develop new opportunities, progress deals and relationships. In my view, suppliers should be charged more than their buyer/practitioner counterparts.In our industry, IAEE does this by having a non-exhibiting supplier registration category. PCMA charges a higher fee for suppliers than planners.

    What recommendations do you have for addressing this on the supplier side?

  9. From the supplier’s side: I think Josh’s point on supplier pricing driving ambush marketing is a solid one. It is a basic calculation: is my investment proportional to the value I receive? If companies are investing in travel, lodging, and per diem — just to solicit in public areas — why aren’t they adding one more line item that allows them a WAY more effective platform? The answer, I think, is that they feel gouged by the price gap (which can be in excess of 50-100% of the planner rate). Hard to imagine that isn’t a driver of “lobby rats”

    My biggest issue with the higher supplier rates is that it contributes to the meat market culture. It is “the ladies night” model. Just as the bar lets women drink free in order to draw men out to spend more money chasing them; the industry associations use their planner members as bait to draw suppliers at higher rates.

    This is unhealthy in several ways:

    – it communicates the attitude that the planners are the “real” attendees. Yes, we suppliers want to lay the groundwork for partnering with planners to help them create outstanding meetings; but the best suppliers I know attend for the reasons planners do: we need to constantly stay informed, we want to understand the challenges our clients face. The industry as a whole gets better when the industry as a whole gets better; and that means seeing the importance of supplier education and not setting the expectation that suppliers are there to sell and planners are there to learn. Creating two castes of attendees, and charging one group significantly more for the same content, creates just such an atmosphere

    -I’ve yet to meet a planner who enjoyed the meat market dynamic. I know many who want to be informed about their options and create relationships with potential partners; I’ve never met one who liked being solicited to…two-tiered attendance that sets the expectation that one group is there just to sell makes the latter kind of interaction more likely than the former

  10. Eris says:

    I have to confess that I had never heard of “ambush marketing”…but that after reading this newsletter and watching Kim Skildum-Reid’s video I almost want to try it! :-O (Interesting that she plays both sides, helping some clients ENGAGE in ambushing while helping others COUNTERACT it!)

    Here is my challenge, as a sole proprietor: most conference sponsorship and exhibitor packages target large companies. I can’t afford them. The only legitimate/ethical ways for me to put my business in front of people’s eyeballs at a conference are one-on-one networking and presenting educational sessions (both of which I do). Some conferences have limitations on how frequently one can present…but I don’t know of any that limit how frequently one can sponsor or exhibit!

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