Taking Legal Action
Cease-and-desist letters are a good first step in the legal process against unauthorized housing bureaus. Such letters will cite "tortuous interference," which claims the poacher is intentionally interfering with contractual relations between the group and the hotels it has contracted with. It sends a warning to room poachers that the organization is aware of their activities and sets the tone that more serious legal consequences will follow. Yet such notice might not have much bite, says Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., senior partner of Chicago-based Howe & Hutton and a contributing editor to M&C.
The reason: It's the organization that has entered into a contract with the hotels, not the individuals being solicited. "Interference is hard to prove," Howe says. "[Poachers] can easily say you can't deny them the economic opportunity to make a dollar." On the other hand, he notes, if they are infringing on intellectual property, such as using your logos in their solicitation material, then there is a clear case for legal action. (See a related M&C article by Howe, "Keeping Attendee Rustlers at Bay," bit.ly/1czxvRX.)
"What we have to do as an industry is get law enforcement agencies, like the Federal Trade Commission, and the secretaries of state in localities where these companies have set up shop involved and taking action," says Howe. "Until then, it's only going to get worse." -- C.A.S.
It was hailed as a major victory for the event-planning community. In December 2008, the American Society of Association Executives announced it had won a settlement in a lawsuit it had brought in federal court against Henderson, Nev.-based Complete Event Planning Inc., a third-party room-block marketing firm, for having misrepresented itself as ASAE's official housing agency. In a press release, ASAE's general counsel Jerald Jacobs, a partner with Washington, D.C.-based Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, said the terms of the settlement sent a clear signal that "the association community will not tolerate improprieties in this area."
Five years later, however, a clearly frustrated meetings industry finds itself on the losing end of a siege by aggressive housing bureaus actively pursuing their attendees. Sometimes called "room poachers" or "room-block pirates," these companies generally position themselves as an event's housing bureau, convincing attendees to unknowingly book outside the official room block.
While it is not illegal to operate a third-party housing company and solicit attendees to sell them discounted rooms for an upcoming event, sources argue that it is unethical, at best, to falsely claim to be a group's official housing provider.
"These people are like cockroaches. You stamp out one, and 10 more pop up," says Phelps Hope, CMP, vice president of meetings and expositions for the Atlanta-based Kellen Co., an association management firm that manages close to 300 meetings, events and trade shows globally each year. Hope notes how one client's board member fell prey to a clever caller and reserved a room for an upcoming event, only to find when he got on-site that his reservation did not exist and his credit card had been charged.
"They are intentionally being unethical, and I don't understand why the industry has not made this topic a priority and gone after them," says Hope.
How they operate
A typical room-poaching scenario plays out like this: First, the third-party housing company secures inventory by buying a block of rooms at a headquarters hotel under a fictitious group name. The firm might target an upcoming meeting or exhibition, but not necessarily, as headquarters properties in major meetings markets generally enjoy a constant flow of business. At the same time, the third party might acquire another handful of rooms at several outlying hotels in the same city, through a wholesaler.
If they haven't yet done so, they now zero in on an upcoming event and troll association websites -- repositories of often easy-to-access lists of members, executives, etc. -- to gather contacts. Exhibitors also are by nature easy prey, because they like to advertise their attendance and need accommodations as well.
Next, the third party places calls or sends emails to unsuspecting attendees, often identifying themselves as the "official" housing bureau for the event. Some even reproduce the association's logo in their correspondence to give it an air of authenticity, as in the ASAE case cited earlier. Others simply claim to be "affiliated with" or "working on behalf of" the group's housing bureau.
They might warn that the room block is close to selling out and urge attendees to book immediately to secure housing, using the lure of a room rate that is significantly less than the published group rate -- for a limited time only.
One company researched by M&C, TradeShow Housing, promises on its website, "We can get you discounts on rates up to 70 percent off the rate the hotel itself offers you." Another, Convention Housing Services, claims to work with 90,000 hotels worldwide and exhorts attendees to "Call now for prices so low, we can't even publish them!" (M&C tried to contact these and other housing companies mentioned in this article, but none responded for comment.)
Not surprisingly, attendees find such offers tempting, and many promptly hand over their credit card data, believing they have scored a great rate and their housing is a done deal. Unfortunately, this often turns out to be the start of a long, costly nightmare.
In the best of outcomes, attendees do, in fact, score room reservations at a discounted price -- but it might be at a lower-tier hotel far off the shuttle route.
Worse, the cancellation penalties for such reservations can be harsh. Diamond Bar, Calif.-based Exhibition Housing Services states on its website that it will "impose penalties at our discretion" for amendments or cancellations that the company considers unreasonable. These include a $50 per-room fee for canceling reservations of more than three rooms. And, if more than 45 percent of a reserved block is canceled, "you will agree to pay a penalty of no less than one night per room plus any other penalty the hotel might or EHS may impose."
In the most dire cases, attendees show up to find no room reservations in their name, their credit cards have been charged and they are in the hole for thousands of dollars. "One of our exhibitors booked a block of 15 to 30 rooms over the course of the conference, through one pirating company, and when they showed up they had no housing at all and their card had been charged more than $5,000," reports Jennifer Ragan-Fore, senior director, conference and member programs, for the Washington, D.C.-based International Society for Technology in Education. "There was nothing we could do to help. They ended up finding rooms 45 minutes away and had to hire their own transportation to get to and from the event."
While it's hard to pin down just how many people fall prey to such scams, Richard Harper, executive vice president at Scottsdale, Ariz.-based HelmsBriscoe, says he recently counted about 45 third-party rooming companies actively seeking attendees under highly questionable circumstances.
Attendees aren't the only victims, sources note. Unofficial housing bureaus can undermine the relationship between meeting organizers and the hotels they contract with, not to mention the overall business reputation of an event. Not only do groups run the risk of incurring stiff attrition penalties for not meeting their block pickup, other contractual obligations, such as food-and-beverage guarantees, also can be affected. And the more successful these housing companies are, the more damage can accrue to a group's ability to negotiate future rates and room blocks.
"It is disruptive to our work flow, time consuming and costly for us to manage," says Kristin Torres, executive director, meetings and events, for the Centennial, Colo.-based National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "We are put at risk for attrition, and every time we have our attorneys get involved, we are charged." Moreover, she notes, "We have been growing steadily over the last 16 years, and we have been trying to adjust our block, which makes their scam all the more successful if we aren't on top of the right increase for our block."
Watchdogs and Scam Busters
The following resources can help determine whether a company is legitimate -- and get resolution if you or your attendees seem to have fallen victim to fraudulent business practices.
• Better Business Bureau
The 113 Better Business Bureaus across North America assign firms a grade of A to F based on information acquired, including consumer complaints.
• Business Consumer Alliance
The BCA also assigns a letter grade, ranging from AAA to F, based on an evaluation system that includes consumer reviews and complaints.
• Complaints Board
This popular online platform allows consumers to register complaints as well as post questions on how to solve issues.
• Internet Crime Complaint Center
This federal office tracks Internet- related crimes and complaints made on its site and refers them to regulatory agencies for investigation.
• Ripoff Report
A clearinghouse for business lawsuits, consumer complaints and more, ROR's listings include specialty law firms, private investigators, and medical and forensic experts. --C.A.S.
How to fight back
"Some folks don't see this as a big deal," says HelmsBriscoe's Richard Harper. "Well, it is a big deal, and it is only going to get bigger. We as an industry need to be collectively mindful of this problem and come up with best practices."
This past September, the Alexandria, Va.-based Convention Industry Council decided to do just that. Its APEX Standards Committee formed a work group to address hotel piracy as well as "piracy in all areas surrounding meetings, as we see it happening with other services, too," says MaryAnne Bobrow, president of the Citrus Heights, Calif.-based association meeting management firm Bobrow Associates, who is heading up the newly formed group. "The work group is in its infancy, but we will be looking to how we may contribute to this topic, particularly by way of best practices."
In the meantime, many show organizers, meeting planners, legitimate third-party firms and housing bureaus have ramped up their assault at thwarting rogue housing companies in a variety of ways. Here is some of their advice:
Educate your members. A number of associations have begun issuing online alerts, warning members of the financial risks they will face by booking rooms through any party other than the group's official housing bureau, and even posting the names of suspected offenders targeting events. (See "Questionable Companies.")
"You have to be preemptive and educate attendees on how to avoid the pitfalls of doing business with these people, who are scum," says Phelps Hope of the Kellen Co. "When poaching stops being profitable, they will disappear."
Those organizers who have been able to keep unauthorized third parties at bay "are constantly educating their members on the fact that staying inside the block gets them things like comp nights for staff and discounts on meeting space, all of which keeps registration fees down," says David DuBois, president and CEO of the Dallas-based International Association of Exhibitions and Events. And, he notes, they follow through in cracking down on offenders, "They will say, 'If you stay outside the block, don't even try to get on the shuttle bus to the convention center.'"
Enlist the housing bureau. When Atlanta-based Randi Benner, vice president of sales, and Lu Ann Schratter, senior contracts manager for the Plano, Texas-based housing bureau Wyndham Jade, realized other housing companies were systematically targeting their client, the International Production & Processing Expo, which draws more than 25,000 attendees each year, they devised a strategic campaign to route them out.
First, Benner and Schratter made room reservations for the Atlanta show through several booking agencies that had been calling and emailing their exhibitors. They deliberately requested different hotels in the group's block. When they received confirmation of reservations, they would call each hotel to verify. "There would be no record of the reservation," notes Schratter.
Alerted to the scam, the hotels' salespeople in turn began making reservations through the same bureaus for rooms at their own properties. When they, too, received confirmation, but their reservations systems showed none, their legal teams began firing off cease-and-desist letters. "When we got the hotels to fight them on their end, they backed off," says Benner.
Jennifer Ragan-Fore of ISTE, whose annual four-day citywide convention draws up to 19,000 attendees and has multiple room blocks in more than a dozen hotels, says she could not have kept up her fight against so-called pirate firms without her housing bureau. "They constantly troll and audit our hotel rooming lists to ensure we get credit for those who show up outside the block," she says. "Without them advising us, I would have had no idea how widespread the problem is."
Protect your data. "Room poachers go on association websites, see who is attending an event, and then hire people to scrub those names and devise emails to reach them," says Harper. "I would think twice about publishing who is attending your conference on your site."
Seconding this notion is Marc Lesnick, president of New York City-based Ticonderoga Ventures and conference organizer for the annual Online Dating Conference, which draws thousands of software designers, venture capitalists and marketers to Las Vegas. He has fought his own battles with poachers and even bought the web domain of one persistent offender, Convention Expo Travel, which racked up 49 complaints with the Better Business Bureau before closing its doors and renaming itself Convention Housing Services. When CET shut and did not renew its old online name, Lesnick, a search-engine expert, immediately bought it so he could track its past promotions, links and email threads, and report them to the conferences being targeted by the newly formed company.
The more information meeting planners push online -- exhibitors names, speaker bios, sponsors, entertainment venues -- the easier a room poacher's task, Lesnick warns. "We as an industry keep rolling out online apps allowing people to network before they've even gotten to an event," he says. "But once you've dumped all that information online, you've essentially done [the poachers'] homework for them."QUESTIONABLE COMPANIES
Dozens of third-party housing companies compete with official convention housing bureaus for attendee room nights -- sometimes under false pretenses. In researching this story, M&C found many firms whose names appeared multiple times on association websites warning attendees not to book rooms via these providers.
We called many of these companies to discuss their business practices; all were either unreachable, out of business or unwilling to talk to the press.
The following associations' websites (and many others) list companies that reportedly have solicited their attendees for event housing without being authorized to do so by the host organization.
Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (bit.ly/184KdEJ)
Controlled Release Society (bit.ly/1gBtpv7)
Medical Library Association (bit.ly/GPoV3Y)
National Association for College Admissions Counseling (bit.ly/19EHXR1)
Shot Show (bit.ly/19EQfrZ)
M&C researched several firms that these associations have cautioned members about to determine if they have active business licenses. Among our findings:
Status: active, per Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller (nvsos.gov)
Convention Expo Travel
No website available
Status: active, per nvsos.gov
Convention Housing Services
Status: not found to be a legitimate business in state records, per nvsos.gov
Exhibition Housing Services
Diamond Bar, Calif.
Status: active; business license listed on company's website found to be inaccurate, per sos.ca.gov
Status: not found to be a legitimate business in state records, per nvsos.gov
Global Housing Management
Status: active, per nvsos.gov
Status: active, per nvsos.gov
Hotel Angels LLC
Status: active, according to sos.ca.gov
Stay Right Travel
Status: found to be a dissolved entity in state records, per Wisconsin Secretary of State Doug La Follette (sos.state.wi.us)
Status: not found to be a legitimate business, per the Pennsylvania Department of State (corporations.state.pa.us)
Trade Show Housing Inc.
Status: active, according to nvsos.gov
Trade Show Reservations LLC
No website available
Status: license revoked, according to nvsos.gov - C.A.S.