When I first heard the terms "Suitcasing" and "Outboarding" many years ago at an industry seminar, I thought, " how could these obvious travel terms refer to the Exhibition Industry"? No doubt I had entered the wrong seminar room. I'm glad I stayed around to be sure my thoughts were correct. They weren't! I was in the right room! Within a few short minutes I was in sync with the presenter who was bashing these two terms that up until now had conjured up only positive images in my mind of travel to exotic destinations — white sandy beaches, golden sun and azure blue skies. Not true!
I soon leaned that Suitcasing and Outboarding are the bane of the exhibition industry for both exhibitors and attendees. Suitcasing refers to those companies or persons who go to shows as attendees but "work the aisles" from their suitcase (briefcase) — soliciting business from other attendees and exhibitors. Outboarding refers to companies who set up exhibits at off-site locations — hotel hospitality suites or nearby restaurants and encourages attendees to leave the show floor and spend time with them.
It should not be surprising that these practices draw the ire of show management because in neither case do these renegade companies buy exhibit space, cheating them out of revenue, but often they can have a draining effect on the atmosphere of the show.
Legitimate exhibitors boil when they see such parasites trying to benefit from an event that they have paid dearly to attend in order to reach a select market, while the "suitcaser" gets exposure with little or no expense and the "outboarder" is actively trying to steal the audience.
Show visitors are not immune to the overbearing tactics used by our mooching friends. More often than not they will be stopped several times during a day by someone passing out literature in the aisle or inviting them to come to an off-site presentation where they can "get away and relax for a few minutes".
It is easy to spot these folks. They usually hang out in an aisle near a competitor's exhibit and try to latch (leech) on to visitors as they leave. Some are very sophisticated and have honed their craft to a keen edge. Many have targeted specific visitors and have special messages for them. All they have to do is wait for the exhibitor to bring visitors to them.
Should we be alarmed by these practices and can we expect to see an increase in such activity? The answer to both is a resounding yes!
A recent survey of 200 exhibitors (conducted by Show $ Sell, LLC, Ann Arbor Michigan) provided some very interesting if not contradicting information. When asked if they felt Outboarding and Suitcasing had a negative effect on a show 73% said yes. When the same exhibitors were asked if they had considered resorting to such practice, 21% admitted they had. 31% of the respondents said they have considered downsizing exhibit space while maintaining staff levels to also "work the aisles". As one exhibitor put it "we get the best of both worlds". Most indicated that they believe the use of such tactics was on the increase and would continue, especially during times of economic contraction.
I've heard many excuses from the offenders trying to justify their actions. Some will say "I'm just a little business and can't afford to attend a show" To them I say — we have banks that will lend any credit worthy company money to finance a small business. If the banks don't work, raise some investment capital from other sources. Most of those exhibitors that you see at shows had nothing at one time and they managed to grow without resorting to unethical tactics. My favorite comment is " we're going to the show and work the aisles to determine if we want to exhibit". This is not market research — this is thievery. It is fine to go look at a show for future consideration. Just don't try to take a piece of the rock back home!
Show managers have a duty to be concerned and an obligation to discourage such antics if they want to continue to produce quality events that bring qualified buyers and sellers together. After all that's what our business is all about.
Show management has several tools available to discourage Suitcasing and Outboarding. Contract only with hotels that will follow your wishes and provide Hospitality Suites only to those exhibitors you approve. Make all hospitality suites maintain a strict schedule of operation dictated by show management. Let local restaurants, either directly or through local CVBs, know that you frown on "unapproved" activities. After all, in many cases you are bringing them a source of new business, which you can easily pull back by locating in another city. Encourage your exhibitors and attendees to report any incidents of Suitcasing and Outboarding and after verifying such activity promptly ask the offender to leave. Strictly enforce rules against conducting business outside exhibitors' designated exhibit space. I know of one show where offending companies and their staff are blacklisted from attending future shows.
A simple sign at each entrance putting the "bad guys" on notice that you won't tolerate their actions is often sufficient warning for many offenders. Knowing who your attendees are and questioning those who appear not to belong is another way of getting a handle on potential abusers.
The purpose of any show is to create an atmosphere conducive to bringing qualified buyers and sellers together to complete a transaction that benefits both parties. This can only be done successfully when both buyer and seller are functioning in a win-win mindset. Show management has a vested interest in keeping the aisles clear of trash. Throw the Mooches out! Send them on vacation where they belong!