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Trade Show Outboarding

February 22nd, 2010 · 5 Comments · Trade Show Marketing

Just when you think you know everything there is to know about something, you find out there’s something you didn’t know.

I, your friendly neighborhood trade show guru, thought I knew everything there was to know about trade shows… well, at least I thought I was familiar with everything about trade shows. After all, I even know about trade show zombies! But last week I came across a trade show term I’d never heard of before, trade show outboarding.

Trade show outboarding does not mean strapping an outboard motor to your trade show boat, er… booth, nor does the phrase have anything at all to do with outboard motors or engines. Rather, trade show outboarding is done by trade show outboarders (also referred to as trade show parasites and not to be confused with the previously mentioned trade show zombies) and refers to companies that don’t pay for a trade show exhibit booth space, but instead rent a room in a nearby hotel and set up their “offsite” or “outboard” trade show booth in their hotel room or suite. I’m not sure how they manage to get traffic to their hotel room (do they wander around the trade show and hand out trade show giveaway pens with their hotel room number on the pens?), but apparently the “problem” (at least it is a problem to the trade show promoters that aren’t collecting the trade show exhibit space fees) is growing, and trade show organizers are asking the hotels to crack down on these trade show outboards.

As I said, I just don’t understand how the trade show outboarders would get much traffic to their hotel rooms, but apparently they do, or I don’t see why this would be an issue. I’m not sure where I stand on whether or not this tactic is “legitimate”… I support “guerilla marketing” but I also believe in “playing by the rules”. I’ve included a portion of the New York Times article below in which I first read about the practice of trade show outboarding. So what do you think? Would it work? Is it legitimate?

Convention industry insiders disdainfully call them “outboarders” — those vendors who set up shop in a hotel suite near a trade show site to promote their products. Unsanctioned exhibitors were an issue last month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a large trade show.

The industry sees the vendors as parasites who latch onto the host convention and reap the advantages of the often-considerable resources spent on organizing the show and drawing a crowd — without paying their share of the costs.

The vendors, on the other hand, argue that they are suffering in the weak economy and that the rock-bottom rates offered by some hotels help them stretch their marketing budgets.

Caught in the middle of this tug of war are the hotels, which are increasingly being asked to keep out the interlopers.

While unsanctioned exhibits are not new, they appear to be on the rise. They became an issue at the annual Consumer Electronics Show last month in Las Vegas, one of the largest trade shows in the United States. According to technology bloggers and others attending the show, hotel security people forced some vendors to vacate suites in which they were demonstrating products.

“Outboarding is wrong,” said Jason Oxman, the senior vice president of industry affairs for the Consumer Electronics Association, which produces the Consumer Electronics Show each January. “An outboarder takes advantage of the significant investment a trade show makes.”

But Mr. Oxman denied that the association had stepped up enforcement against the vendors, suggesting that the crackdown was instituted by the hotels themselves. “Our antennas are raised for people that try and circumvent the show process,” said Ron Reese, vice president of communications for Las Vegas Sands, the parent company of two official show hotels, the Palazzo Las Vegas and the Venetian Las Vegas. He said the association spent tens of millions each year promoting and producing the show, which draws 120,000 participants. Professional exhibit managers who play by the rules and pay to exhibit also resent vendors who come to town but do not exhibit on the trade show floor, he said.

Nor is the electronics association alone in its sentiments about the outside vendors. “This instance with the C.E.S. is going to raise some awareness,” said John Foster, a convention industry lawyer. Although the show took place only last month, Mr. Foster said he had already been approached by several organizers of smaller events eager to learn how they could thwart the outside exhibitors. “Whenever you get a big show that goes through an incident like this, that publicity generates a lot of interest in how to stop the problem,” he added.

The electronics association pointed to a long-standing policy prohibiting any type of consumer electronics-related events taking place in Las Vegas over the show dates. Mr. Oxman acknowledged, though, that this rule was almost impossible to enforce if vendors choose from among the many hotels in Las Vegas that do not have a contract with the association.

“Everybody does it,” said one hardware vendor who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid speaking out publicly against the electronics association, which retaliates against vendors who run unsanctioned events by stripping them of the points a vendor can earn by exhibiting legitimately. More points translate to a better selection of show floor space for future shows. Those with no points to forfeit can be kicked out of the association.

The vendor said her company chose the Palazzo because it was inexpensive, and received a verbal assurance that its exhibit would be permitted.

What happened instead, she said, was that hotel security forced the company to dismantle its demonstrations and remove all product-marketing materials. The vendor referred to the eviction as the result of a “miscommunication.” Mr. Reese of the Sands said all guests were presented with criteria for their stay upon check-in; a prohibition on in-room exhibiting is among the rules.

Bob Buskirk, who attended the electronics show and owns a Web site, ThinkComputers, that reviews hardware and software products, said he had “never been kicked out of a hotel room or even heard of companies being kicked out.” But this January, he said, two of his meetings were disrupted when the vendors were ejected by hotel security. “From what I’ve heard anecdotally, the amount of unlicensed vendors was certainly the most it’s been in recent memory,” said Mr. Reese of the Sands.

Mr. Buskirk, who has been attending the show for five years, said that the show’s exhibits seemed to take up much less space this year. A spokeswoman for the association confirmed that the show’s size dropped to 1.4 million square feet of exhibit space.

Steven Rudner, a hospitality industry lawyer who represents hotels, countered that stipulations like those from the electronics association restrict a hotel’s ability to do business. “To switch the burden of enforcing this on a hotel seems to be completely unreasonable,” Mr. Rudner said. Some groups, he said, go so far as to try and make the hotel responsible for screening all guests to insure that no competitors book suites or meeting space that could be used for private events.

Lawyers who represent trade show producers said this kind of strong language is necessary to protect the investments made by hosts and exhibitors, especially in an economy where hotels might be tempted to turn a blind eye to unsanctioned exhibits to book needed business. “They want to play both sides of it,” said Barbara Dunn, a partner at the convention industry law firm, Howe & Hutton Ltd. “There’s no question that the hotel industry is hurting.”

In some cases, she said, vendors who want to skirt a trade show’s policies will deliberately obscure their affiliation or their plans to run an exhibit in a suite, making enforcement even harder.

Some other trade shows have used less confrontational methods, which they say are just as effective. Megan Tanel, vice president of exhibitions and events for the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, said violations of exhibitor rules at her shows go to a committee made up of other industry members.

“It comes down to your peers, customers and competitors to decide your fate,” she said. This usually works, but when it does not, she says she tries to convince vendors it is in their best interests to be an official part of the show.



5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tim // Feb 22, 2010 at 8:29 pm

    Hey Steve!
    Wow. I guess it depends on what kind of products these outboarders have to show on whether they could pull it off. If it’s computer software, no problem showing that back at the room. If it’s cars or furniture or a large number of display pieces, a hotel room is pretty cramped. What do they do, ask you in and make you sit on the bed? Forget the trade show pens. If I go back to your hotel room I want beer and pizza. All of this sounds pretty unethical and sleazy to me.
    So no one has a problem following some stranger back to his room to do a little “business”? Is this where the booth babes really earn their money?
    So where do you moor your trade show boat? I’m up for a little fishing this summer…

  • 2 The Trade Show Guru // Feb 22, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    hey Tim,
    Only you would connect my current post, Trade Show Outboarding, with my last post, TradeShow Booth Babes, and then add beer and pizza in the hotel room… It’s interesting how the Canadian mind works. 🙂 ~ Steve

  • 3 Dwayne @ Name Tags // Mar 6, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    I have started to see this more and more. I guess it is legitimate because people are doing it. I am not a fan of it, nor would I encourage someone to take part in this. Hotels are great for networking, but for the most part, I view my hotel experience as a sanctuary from the “hecticness” of conferences, conventions, and Trade Shows. So for someone in the room next to me trying to generate traffic, would put me off to them and their product. If I want to hang out with people or learn more about something, I will go to the lobby or the bar to engage in networking. Thanks for the post.

  • 4 Will // Mar 9, 2010 at 12:11 am

    Well Tim already touched on the subject I was going to. Knowing nothing really about trade shows, but remembering you post on the TSB’s, I was thinking I must really be missing out.

    On the question of how people find these outboarders, I would bet that all big shows have clandestine on-line lists of vendors that set up shop in hotel rooms. Makes more sense than some greasy haired guy in a trench coat wandering the floor saying “pssst, want to come up to my room?”

  • 5 The Trade Show Guru // Mar 9, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    Hi Dwayne,
    Thanks for your well thought out comment. I agree with you. Though I will add that I have been to and enjoyed many “hospitality suites” after show hours, but they were in addition to the companies’ trade show booths, and not instead of, and not a lot of “selling” went on at the suites. ~ Steve

    Hi Will,
    Makes more sense than some greasy haired guy in a trench coat wandering the floor saying “pssst, want to come up to my room?”

    LOL. Will, you have a way with words…
    I think you are right that companies could try to promote their “outboard” hotel room online before the show, but I think it would still be a challenge to “get the word out” to people that will be attending the show (and finding out who they even are), and also to convince attendees to leave the show and come to your hotel.
    But one certainly would want to avoid the trench-coat marketing idea! ~ Steve

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