Forward Thinking

Exterminating ‘Lobby Rats’

Outboarding, suitcasing, and lobby rats continue to plague event organizers. Here are some ways to address these pesky challenges.

A few practices keep chipping away at the integrity of professional events: outboarding, when companies bypass exhibiting or sponsoring and set up shop on the fringe of your event; and suitcasing, which refers to non-exhibiting sellers who work the aisles or hallways. Lobby rats — non-registered folks who hang out in public spaces and host meetups with your badged attendees — are also a growing problem. Left unchecked, these scammers pose a major threat to your business model, and with the rise of free-agent attendees — consultants, contractors, and entrepreneurs — I suspect the problem will only grow.

While we may recognize and use these terms, they’re foreign to those outside of trade-show circles. It would help if we start to use more widely understood terminology to describe the practices of companies (or individuals) who conduct sales, marketing, or networking in conjunction with our events without paying for the privilege. Let’s call it ambush marketing.

At the London Olympics in 2012, Beats by Dr. Dre pulled off one of the most effective ambush plays ever. The company created custom headphones in national colors and then strategically provided athletes with samples. Olympic participants wore Beats headphones throughout the games, yet Beats was not an official Olympic sponsor.
Companies and individuals will always conjure up new ways to ambush your event. You want to police this to some degree, but be careful. While you can prohibit unauthorized use of branding, you can’t prevent people from meeting up at places beyond your control. Overstep these boundaries and you might come across like Big Brother.

Here are four ways to defuse the ambushers and even convince some to take the high road.

Change things up

Ambushers thrive on predictability. If you’re trotting out the same schedule each year, you’re making it too easy for them. Returning to the same city or venue makes you even more vulnerable. Change up your agenda and create more networking spaces and value in areas you do control.

Lure ambushers in

If there’s a sizeable group of ambushers, consider offering a more affordable option, like a Limited Access Pass, which includes opportunities to attend some of your major networking functions. This allows you to get them in the database and develop campaigns to nurture their full participation.

Sweeten the pot

Make your event better. Consider offering an assortment of concierge-like services for sponsors and exhibitors who want to entertain clients and prospects. Help them secure the best venues and entertainment.

Solicit support from industry influencers

If you over-police, privately or publicly, your brand could take a hit. But when an industry leader with high influence (e.g., a board member) steps up and says, “Hey, don’t do this — it’s not good for our industry,” that message carries more credence.

Secure Your Flanks

On the battlefield, when an army secures its flanks, soldiers strengthen weak points susceptible to attack. For event anti-ambushing, work especially hard to deepen the relationships and value for top sponsors and exhibitors. Go the extra mile to help them be more successful. Coach them on the best ways to activate their investment and follow up with proof of performance. Help them achieve high ROI and you’ll be less vulnerable to an ambush.

Dave Lutz, CMP

Dave Lutz, CMP, is managing director of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting.