Room-block pirates or poachers are becoming increasingly sophisticated and bold, Davide Veglia, founder and president of ABTS Convention Services, told Convene Associate Editor Corin Hirsch for our January 2016 cover story. He wasn’t kidding. Last week, ABTS Vice President of Marketing, Communications, and Community Relations Patricia Andrade emailed me about one especially brazen company, HICORD, which “specializes in creating full web pages with the names of meetings to dupe international groups to make group housing requests through them,” she said.
The web pages are so professionally designed that Andrade knows of at least 10 clients that have been tricked into contacting HICORD, thinking they are looking at official conference websites. Based in India, HICORD opens accounts in the UK to receive payments from clients. “Once the first payment is made,” Andrade said, “the account is closed and the money disappears. The clients do not get hotel rooms, and the meeting association has no idea what happened.” Except, of course, that their registrants have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The unscrupulous company has even been running Google AdWord campaigns outside of the U.S., using the names of all kinds of meetings and events, from medical to technology conferences, she said. Among the 60-plus HICORD-created fake sites that Andrade listed in her email are the European Association of ‘Archaeology’ (which should be Archaeologists), Consumer Electronics Unlimited, and the Offshore Northern Seas conference. It’s only when you compare their bogus web pages — eaa2016.org, ifa-2016.org, and ons2016.org — against each other that you realize they all follow the same template, albeit one that’s polished and easy to navigate.
The authorized websites for targeted meetings often warn registrants about pirate housing sites, such as Obesity Society’s message at obesity.org/meetings/obesity-week about ObesityWeek 2016, its Annual Scientific Meeting, from Oct. 31–Nov. 4 in New Orleans: “NOTE: Beware of meetings using the ObesityWeek name that are not affiliated with TOS or ASMBS. These are websites not authorized by ObesityWeek to represent our meeting or room block in New Orleans. Your reservation and subsequent required information from ObesityWeek may be in jeopardy.” Other associations, such as the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), go so far as to call out HICORD and other unauthorized companies by name on their web page.
Indeed, educating registrants can be an association’s best weapon in combating pirates, Corin heard from the meetings industry professionals she interviewed. Beyond a website warning, it’s a matter of communicating with exhibitors and attendees “again and again and again,” American Foundry Society’s Lisa Mikita, CMP, told Corin. “Remind them every time something goes out about housing that this is the only way to make the arrangement.”