Two years ago, my startup team and I were looking for events to attend to get the word out about our company. We settled on two events that charged no registration fee for attendees, thinking we’d save much of our meagre marketing budget by walking the trade show floor and handing out literature about our company. We thought we’d do after-hours networking in the bars and hotels surrounding the convention center, and we created t-shirts that advertised our fledgling brand.
None of us was a member of the event industry before creating the new company, so we had no idea how harmful our practices were to the event planners. In fact, it took another year or two before one of us happened upon an article that made us cringe. We had been suitcasing—but we had no idea that was a prohibited practice.
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Some of us had been attending trade shows and conferences for years. Some were veteran suitcasers. Not one of us had ever heard that it was prohibited or unethical. Had we missed the fine print in the registration form? Maybe we had. But can you blame us? Who reads that stuff anyway? We’d heard about events, had decided to put ourselves out there to hustle some sales and branding awareness for our startup, or our company was going to fail. We didn’t have a budget for a booth and even if we had, our company was too young and immature to do formal presentations to customers. We were still in the “market research” phase of development. The value of the booth couldn’t be calculated. And we’d never been kicked out of an event for soliciting outside a booth, so we didn’t know it was wrong.
But we are much more aware now. I suppose awareness is the first step in any behavior change, and please know that we’ve changed our behavior. We’ll affirm, though, that we had no idea how harmful our tactics were—and no exhibitors called us out on our actions. I suspect that many others are in the same position. They continue to attend shows as registered attendees because the cost of exhibiting is too expensive or the idea of standing behind a booth all day doesn’t sit well with them.
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I have a recommendation. I think organizers should consider a new kind of hybrid registration that allows non-booth-renters to engage in marketing and solicitation, but in a limited fashion. Maybe allow them in the hall to solicit only at predefined hours. Maybe restrict their access to educational sessions. don’t hire them as speakers or only let them speak at one session. Definitely restrict advertising for them on the event website and in marketing collateral, and don’t list them as exhibitors in your directory. Print their marketing material as part of the package, and maybe limit how much they can pass out. And maybe by describing this hybrid registration on your form, you’ll help to create awareness and understanding. You’ll more easily telegraph the value of your meeting, and you may even raise some additional revenue. And the end result will be a mutual understanding between you, the organizer, and the industry participants who are your future five-figure customers.
We don’t think being a bad cop will achieve the results you look for. If other hotels are willing to host hospitality events for unofficial exhibitors, I suggest you let them. If those events earn higher attendance levels than your official event, learn from them. Marketers are going to do whatever they can to make the most of their marketing spend—and they’re going to discover channels that you haven’t even considered. Market yourselves as partners, though, and you’ll win their trust and loyalty. And that means you may have many more official exhibitors in the future.