Solving Suitcasing

How to keep unofficial exhibitors from spoiling the show

Solving Suitcasing opener

The Air Force Association's Suitcasing Policy
The following is the Air Force Association's official policy regarding suitcasing, as spelled out in relation to its annual Air Warfare Symposium on the association's website ( It was written by the AFA's Dennis Sharland, CEM.

AFA is making preparations for its upcoming Annual Air Warfare Symposium and Technology Exposition and doing its best to help all exhibitors to have a successful show. As such, we are mandating increased measures to protect exhibitors from suitcasing/outboarding at the show. This is AFA's Suitcasing Policy, which will be posted using signage around the exhibit hall and included in the on-site guide for all attendees.

What is Suitcasing?

Suitcasing is a parasitic business practice in which unethical companies will gain access to an event by obtaining some type of event credential (attendee badge, expo-only badge, etc.) and then solicit business in the aisles or other public spaces used for the conference. This practice skirts the support of the organizer and the industry. This does not pertain solely to soliciting the attendees of an event. As we all know, some of your biggest customers/vendors can be other exhibiting companies. So, when a salesperson for "Joe's Manufacturing" (who is not exhibiting) shows up in your booth in an attempt to earn your business as a sub on your next big contract, they are suitcasing.

AFA has a zero-tolerance policy regarding suitcasing. Please note that while all meeting attendees are invited to the exhibit floor, any attendee who is observed to be soliciting business in the aisles or other public spaces, or in another company's booth, will be asked to leave immediately.

AFA recognizes that suitcasing may also take the form of commercial activity conducted from a hotel guest room or hospitality suite, a restaurant, or any other public place in proximity to our event. For the purposes of this policy, suitcasing violations may occur at venues other than the exhibition floor and at other events. It is for this reason AFA must be informed of any hospitality suites, and expressed consent must be given prior to the event.

The Suitcasing Prevention Team

AFA has created a Suitcasing Prevention Team that will be in place for the duration of the conference. The team will consist of AFA staff, conference security and the most important member of the team, YOU! Exhibitors will be our greatest asset in preventing suitcasing since there are so many of you, and you are everywhere.

What to Look For
Identifying potential "suitcasers" is fairly simple, given the nature of our event. First, those in uniform, who comprise a significant portion of attendees, are probably not suitcasing. Second, look for those non-exhibitor attendees who appear to be initiating contact in the aisles or in booths. Lastly, any attendee who appears to be handing anything out in the aisles is suspect, because as we all know, distribution of anything is restricted to one's booth space unless otherwise approved by AFA.

What Can You Do?

Please report any violations you observe to the exhibit manager, other AFA staff or conference security. The exhibit manager will investigate all complaints of suitcasing.

Upon receipt of a complaint from an exhibitor, AFA will review the complaint with the reporting party and, if possible, observe the suspected suitcaser. AFA will then address the issued directly with the subject of the complaint. If found to be valid, the complaint will be resolved by offering the suitcasing company the option of immediately purchasing booth space on the floor (if available) or surrendering the conference credentials and leaving the premises at once.

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 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 ( 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."

IAEE's Sample Suitcasing Policy
Suitcasing does more than create lost revenue for managers; it compromises a show's integrity, says Cathy Breden, chief operating officer for the Dallas-based International Association of Exhibitions and Events. "Exhibitors have invested a great deal of time and money in order to have an effective presence at a show. For someone to come in and try and get on the show floor without having purchased a booth, or even walking the show floor and handing out their materials, erodes the overall quality of the show." Casey was instrumental in developing a sample suitcasing policy and an online suitcasing toolkit, available free to show organizers (

Doling out penalties
Another group that recently adjusted its policy is the nonprofit Association of Film Commissioners International, which hosts an annual three-day event in Los Angeles, where the average cost of an exhibit booth is $3,000. The event draws about 3,000 attendees from 45 countries. "Our previous suitcasing policy was very ambiguous, so we made the new one very specific for two reasons," says Kevin Clark, executive director of the Beverly Hills, Calif.-based association. "One, it is easily understood, and two, it leaves nothing up to assumption. The last thing I want is someone flying halfway around the world to attend our show, and then say, 'What do you mean I can't do this. It's standard practice in my country.'''

The AFCI's new policy, which was rolled out last year after the group's annual show, held at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza in Los Angeles, included several new rules and spelled out specific financial penalties for breaking the policy. For example, any attendee observed to be suitcasing will immediately be required to register and purchase a $500-per-day marketing badge. Likewise, any booth worker observed selling products or services other than those of the official booth registrant will be required to purchase a $100-per-day booth-worker badge. In addition, membership in the AFCI will not be considered when determining whether the individual had been engaged in suitcasing, and second-time offenders will receive an immediate 24-month ban from future shows.

"I actually don't want anyone to purchase a marketing or booth-worker badge, because it's like having a scarlet letter on you," says Clark. "We reiterate to our members that the dollars they spend to attend and participate in the show fund their education sessions. So, when they engage in suitcasing, they are ultimately hurting their own education. That really resonates with them."

Tomorrow's exhibitors?
The way Bob Vaez sees it, however, suitcasers are potential show investors just waiting to be harvested. As president of Toronto-based EventMobi, a mobile service used to create and customize personal event apps, he remembers the lean days when he and his team of three had zero marketing dollars and resorted to guerrilla tactics to get their product in front of potential customers. And that included suitcasing at various industry shows, such as Incentive Works Toronto and ASAE's Springtime Expo, held annually in Washington, D.C.  "All we could do was buy a ticket, walk the floor and hope to meet people," Vaez says. "We just couldn't afford a booth. We could barely afford the hotel room."

That all changed in 2010 when the fledging company got wind that the U.K.-based IMEX Group was holding a competition for startup companies willing to pitch their inventions, with the winner getting to exhibit at the mammoth IMEX America show in Las Vegas for free. Vaez and his team jumped at the chance to be heard. "We got in, and we got this tiny booth. You could hardly turn around in it. But, it was incredible. We got so many leads out of that show, and we just grew from there," he says.

Today, 50 percent of EventMobi's total operating budget is dedicated to event marketing, with the company attending close to 60 events annually, and exhibiting at 20 major shows. This past October, the company was back at IMEX America, spending $50,000 for a big booth and bringing along a 14-member team to man it.

"If trade-show planners can get more people at the early stage and give them a chance to see their industry, then there is a high potential for those people to become full-fledged exhibitors and bring in a lot of money," says Vaez. "If you don't, they will never become clients, because they simply haven't been given the opportunity. When it comes to suitcasing, I see opportunity for innovation within the trade-show industry."

Miguel Neves, senior online community manager for IMEX Group, agrees. He says IMEX has long been committed to giving startups a launching platform. In past years, the organization ran a competition for emerging destinations. The winning three or four contestants received free booth space at its Frankfurt show, complimentary business consulting and a promotional package. Over the years, he says, many winners, like Japan's Fukuoka Convention & Visitors Bureau, have converted into paid exhibitors. "Some destinations have gone on to exhibit regularly on their own, while smaller ones have joined large countrywide pavilions," says Neves, who adds that these additional exhibitors have proved "very popular with our attendees."

Over the last two years, however, as more meetings technology companies began investing in IMEX, and attendee's appetite for knowledge and understanding of new tech tools grew exponentially, show management decided to shift its focus to giving nascent tech companies a foot in the door.

This year the show launched a new initiative. It joined forces with Event Manager Blog to create a competition to find and showcase the most innovative event startups in the marketplace. Thirty hopefuls threw their hats in the ring, and 10 chosen finalists were invited to give a short pitch on the show floor in Las Vegas this past October before a panel of judges and attendees, who voted via text message. At stake was free booth space at the newly created Tech Pavilion at IMEX America 2015 and tons of promotion through various IMEX publication outlets, as well as partner Event Manger Blog.

The Tech Pavilion, aimed at attracting tech companies, is just one initiative IMEX is exploring as a way to offer tiered booth space. "It's where they can exhibit in a small space for a reduced cost," notes Neves. "We also offer the option for them to take a small booth on the main floor, and then share that space with up to two other companies."

Mesa, Ariz.-based Crowd Mics, a downloadable app that turns smart phones into event microphones, was one of the startups competing in this past year's IMEX pitch challenge. While it didn't get the winning nod from the judges, the company's pitch resounded with attendees, garnering Crowd Mics the People's Choice award. According to co-founder Tim Holladay, his bootstrapped startup didn't have the $5,000 to purchase a booth, but they really wanted a chance to participate in the show.

"We saw the competition advertised on their site and thought it would definitely be worth a couple of minutes on stage, so we applied," says Holladay, who founded the company with his brother, Sean, in February of this year. "We are scrappy entrepreneurs, and we want to be able to check out a show and find out if it is the right platform for our product before we invest in exhibiting," says Holladay. "Surely there has to be a way to do that?"

Opening the door
Cathy Breden, COO of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, agrees there should be ways to lure those operating on the margins of a show and convert them into repeat exhibitors. "Perhaps they pay a lesser cost or split the costs with another exhibitor," she says. "The organizer, however, has to be careful it doesn't create a snowball effect." Many show organizers offer a one-day pass to potential exhibitors, notes Breden, so they can see what the show is like before making a financial commitment.