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Your Event Challenge: Pop-Up Piracy

Updated: Jan 15, 2020

Picture this:

You are walking along, chatting with a friend, when suddenly someone grabs your arm.

Hi! How are you today? You look like you could use a quick pick-me-up. I have just the thing…this new face cream that will take years off your look! You will be a new you…a better you. WAIT…don’t leave…this new face cream can also help you lose weight. WAIT! Don’t leave…this cream can also guarantee you success beyond your dreams! WAIT, Don’t go…WAIT…”

Chances are if you’ve been to a shopping mall recently, this scenario may sound familiar to you from one of the ‘beauty-counter’ pop-up vendors there. And unless you are in the market for a miracle cream, being accosted like this is irksome. However, it has become something expected when you go to a mall.

But what if you were at attending a conference for medical professionals, insurers, or lawyers. What if you are trying to focus on earning continuing education or networking with others in your profession. Being stopped like this is more than just irksome, it is downright harassment.

There is a phenomenon in the meetings and events industry...and it isn’t pretty (despite the face cream claims). More and more, at large exhibitions --- pop-up vendors are skirting the exhibit registration process and setting up shop in the middle of an expo hall.

Jennifer Rutolo and Mike Danielson, owners of C-1 Trade Show Services, have seen this scenario play out several times in recent years. “We’ve had companies selling face creams, jewelry, luggage, purses, personal massagers and even tens units at an event,” Jennifer said.

These companies have NOTHING to do with the focus of the conference or expo.

And while there is no official name for this type of action, for now we will refer to it as “Pop-Up Pirating”

Here is how it is going down:

  • The Pop-Up Pirate registers for a booth in advance of the company opting to pay later/onsite. (Note: they do neither.)

  • The Pirate ignores/avoids communication from the official exhibit service provider and ignores staff onsite setting up the conference. They may even steal items from the hotel or convention center to support their booth (table, chairs, etc…).

  • The Pirate then goes to “work” at the start of the show accosting attendees to sell their product. And despite warnings, security involvement --- they do not stop. You are left with the choice of kicking them out, potentially creating a scene and leaving a hole in your exhibit hall floor plan, or letting them continue.

  • Finally, the Pirate packs up whenever they please, ignoring show protocols and slips away.

They have paid nothing, but your event and attendee experience has paid dearly.

“The good thing is that you don’t have to deal with them (Pop-Up Pirates) often, but they really do put a damper on things when you do,” said Jennifer. “While we don’t perform any services for them, they are a liability for both the conference organizer and exhibit service companies.”

C-1 shared additional experience they faced with these types of companies:

  • They go by different company names but often are the same people exhibiting.

  • They haggle over the price of the booths with show management and always come in late to try and get the best deal.

  • They don’t carry the proper insurance (usually no insurance – say they have – keep promising but never receive).

  • They bypass the show decorator and union which can cause a show to be picketed in union cities or the unions to file grievances against the decorator.

  • They harass attendees and other exhibitors.

  • They go around the decorator and order tables and chairs from the hotel and put on show managements master bill.

  • Sell the product on site and then say they just sold out and will have to send the product to them and then the attendee never receives.

  • If sales are not going well for them they are usually the first ones to pack up early and try to leave the show while it’s still going on disrupting other exhibitors and attendees.

In addition to the impact Pop-Up Pirates can have on your attendee experience, it can also pose a challenge for other exhibitors. During one recent conference, Andrea Brennan, Vice President of Kinsley Meetings, witnessed these Pirates pulling people away from other exhibitor booths – even mid-conversation – to make a sale.

While disheartening to hear another scam story in our industry, there may be hope and help.

Here are a few tips to help keep you, your attendees and your conference experience safe.

1. Payment

  • Collect payment upfront from all companies who are either unknown to you or have not exhibited before.

  • Establish a payment cut-off date with time to either revamp your floor plan or sell booth space if a company has not paid prior to the cut-off date.

2. Scrub your Exhibitor List

  • Review your exhibitor contact list to ensure the company name matches up with the contact information. Did someone register using a personal account versus a corporate account – that may be an indicator they are not legit.

  • Do a quick google search on company names you do not recognize to see if you can determine their line of work.

3. Take matters into your own hands (legally)

  • Clearly communicate exhibitor rules/regulations on your conference/expo website. For example, if an exhibitor fails to abide by conference/expo policies --- indicate what measures will be enforced (i.e. removal from the expo hall).

  • Create a regulation that exhibitors can’t “sell” outside of their booth. This will hopefully discourage pirates from selling in the aisles. While the pirate may ignore this rule, the regulation will give you some ground to remove that particular group from the Expo Hall.

4. Have a Plan B

  • If you suspect a company may not be legit, develop a game plan with your exhibit services team and security at the venue.

5. Share/learn from your fellow planners:

  • Have you experienced something like this? Share your experience with your fellow event planners on event management forums such as SPIN and MPI Forum as well as on LinkedIn and Facebook.

  • While company names may differ, the actual exhibitors may be the same from conference to conference. As a community we may be able to build a list that helps others spot these offenders.

‘Pop-up Piracy’ may be something we have to contend with for years to come, until the next challenge arises. As event planners, it is our responsibility to tackle these and other challenges as they present themselves, to keep the waters on the surface of the event running smoothly for our guests.

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