by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | January 01, 2015
Chances are you've seen or spoken with them on the trade-show floor. They stroll from booth to booth and schmooze like any attendee, but they have more in common with the exhibitors whose booths line the aisles. In fact, they are soliciting customers, only without having paid show organizers to do so. Whether on the floor, in a public space or even inside a competing company's booth, these freeloaders are engaged in a practice known as "suitcasing," named for the idea of working out of a suitcase, on the fly.

Sometimes these covert operators register as attendees, sometimes they don't even have a badge, but the game is always played out the same way. They hand out fliers and business cards, leave printed materials on tables and actively engage attendees in the hopes of recruiting business.

According to data released last March by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Exhibition Industry Research, exhibitors spend an estimated $24.5 billion annually to attend trade shows, which underscores how contentious the issue can be, and why show managers are fighting back to protect the financial investment of their members, exhibitors and sponsors.


Trying to outpace a problem
"The people who do it are scavengers, bottom-feeders," says Dennis Sharland, CEM, senior manager, expositions and advertising, for the Arlington, Va.-based Air Force Association. Suitcasers, he says, "take advantage of all the work you've done without paying for it. They are mooching off everyone else who has spent marketing dollars to be at the show."

Sharland estimates that AFA's annual Air Warfare Symposium and Technology Exposition, which draws 6,500 attendees to the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center just outside of Washington, D.C., loses some 400 square feet of exhibit space per show to suitcasers (for AFA's stated suitcase policy, go to mcmag.com/features). And this is despite the association offering initiatives such as a first-time exhibitor program, which allows potential clients to peruse the show at reduced rates (paying exhibitors typically shell out between $8,000 and $10,000 for booth space).

Another association dealing with the problem is the Washington, D.C.-based National Multifamily Housing Council. Weeks before its Student Housing Conference & Exposition event held this past September in Chicago, show management posted a one-page suitcasing policy (bit.ly/1qu6279) on its website, which spelled out that violators would forfeit their badges and be ejected from the show immediately.

"We had several suppliers jump in as exhibitors for fear of breaking the rules," says Julie Stalknecht, senior vice president, membership, marketing and meetings, for the NMHC. (Booth space at that event, which drew 700 attendees, cost $2,900 for members, $3,700 for nonmembers.) Still, some were willing to risk it. "My team caught someone going booth to booth selling a competitive show. I explained the rules, and he apologized and stopped," says Stalknecht. "You really have to have a policy."

For the NMHC's larger Optech Conference & Exhibition, being held at the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek as this issue was going to press, show management put together a group of supplier members tasked with looking for infractions on the show floor.

Holly Carson, CMP, meetings director, for the Falls Church, Va.-based Community Associations Institute, has always had a suitcasing policy. But over the years, as CAI shows have grown and exhibit space has begun selling out earlier and earlier, she has repeatedly gone back to the drawing board to expand on it, to make it as airtight as possible.

Carson says she believes in a proactive approach, rather than a reactionary one. "The suitcaser usually doesn't understand the damage they are doing to their company's own reputation, which is what I try to explain to them in advance," she says. "I tell them, 'that potential client you just approached knows what you are doing, and it's shady business. If you are doing that here, what are you doing at home?'"

The CAI offers several different types of memberships and hosts several events, including an annual two-day trade show, a legal forum and a CEO retreat. With each event, Carson sends a series of emails in the days leading up to it, advising attendees of the suitcasing policy and reminding them of a new codicil, which asks that no logo attire be worn at official hosted functions to keep them advertising-free. Sometimes, though, such efforts are just not enough, she says.

At one recent sold-out high-level event in San Diego this past October, Carson got wind that a company was trying to sneak in by partnering with one of the event's paid sponsors. She immediately contacted the guilty party and offered a compromise. "I said, 'you are killing the integrity of my event and taking advantage of the audience we brought together,'" says Carson. "I explained the only way for them to rectify the situation was to pay the $5,500 sponsorship fee, and that while we had no space to seat them, we would list them in our program." They paid up immediately. Which, she adds, "Just goes to show how important that particular audience was to them."