How Suitcasing and Outboarding Can Hurt Your Trade Show

Photo by congerdesign / 2737 images // Pixabay

by Jena Tesse Fox

Recently, we came across a blog post from Rick Calvert, CEO & Co-Founder at New Media Expo that piqued our interest and taught us two new industry terms. While not naming names, Calvert shared an incident at last year's TBEX conference that could sound very familiar to event organizers everywhere. 

A speaker for the event worked with a company (Calvert does not name names in his post) that opted not to sponsor the show, but instead to host "unofficial parties" at the same time that official functions were being held. "They did it without our knowledge or consent, yet used our name to promote the event," Calvert wrote. "Many attendees were confused and thought this was an official event." This year, at TBEX Toronto, the company did the same thing, and even had representatives handing out flyers in the Toronto Convention Center for their unofficial event—with the TBEX name on them, making it seem as though the function was part of the show. 

"This," Calvert continued, "is what’s known in the conference and trade show industry as 'suitcasing.'" He then went on to explain what "suitcasing" is, and also noted the similar "outboarding."

"Outboarding is when a company that should be a sponsor of an event instead decides to host their own competing event without the consent of the original event organizer. Outboarding steals from event organizers directly by costing them revenue from the potential sponsor, as well as revenue from any other sponsors of the outboarded event that might have otherwise been spent on official events. Outboarding also steals attention away from official sponsors of the official event, drawing attendees and media attention away from sponsors. Lastly, it is deceitful and harmful to attendees by confusing them into thinking they are supporting the official event when really they are not.

"Suitcasing is when a company either registers as an attendee, or has no badge at all, when they should be registered as a sponsor of the event. They are actively trying to recruit business from attendees – by handing out flyers in hallways, leaving printed material on tables, etc. – without paying to be a sponsor. Obviously, this is directly stealing revenue from the conference, as well as stealing from the official sponsors and being deceitful and confusing to the attendees. Nothing upsets sponsors quite as much as a suitcaser. They are always reported to the event organizer by an angry sponsor." scheduled event, he continued, is a product that people travel to "purchase" through their attendance. "Our job is to deliver buyers, sellers, speakers and attendees to that place at that time. If someone tries to capitalize on that effort without compensating us for it, it’s wrong. A more direct comparison would be selling candy bars in front of someone’s grocery store. The girl scouts and lots of other non-profits do this, but they only do it with the store’s permission and they don’t use the store’s name when they do."

We asked Calvert what planners could do to prevent suitcasing and outboarding. The answer, surprisingly, seems to be "not much," although Calvert did note that the TBEX team can confiscate suitcaser/outboarder their badges and ask them to leave the building. Some shows, he added, post signage warning about non-affiliated activity in the convention center, and that partner hotels can evict outboarders. 

So the question remains—how can planners protect their events from illegal activity and maintain the integrity of the trade show floor? Is signage enough? Hired security at the gates? Can event technology warn attendees to beware outboarders and suitcasers? Sound off below or on Facebook—and be sure to read Calvert's full story and see how he resolved the issue. It's a fascinating look at a side of the industry many attendees never know about.