Event organizers have been battling hotel room poachers for more than a decade, and the problem persists. Meeting participants continue to be duped by third-party housing bureaus posing as official partners that lure them into reserving rooms outside of the organizers' room blocks — rooms that in some cases aren't available or don't even exist.
In 2013, Meetings & Conventions investigated the room-poaching conundrum, detailing industry struggles and naming many of the worst offenders. In 2014, Successful Meetings followed that up with tips for fending off scammers, offering key steps towards mitigating the damage such pirates can cause.
Along the way, many organizations have taken steps to help. In 2015, the Events Industry Council (then called the Convention Industry Council) released a poaching white paper for planners, hoteliers, third-party providers and legal experts. In 2018, EIC conducted a follow-up poaching survey to provide new insight. The results were reported in an updated version of the white paper and further analyzed here.
The research revealed signs of hope. From 2014 to 2018, the number of respondents affected by scams had dropped from 73 percent to 63 percent. Of those touched by scammers, 43 percent were affected by fictitious reservations and credit card fraud. Ten percent were able to trace fraud and identity theft back to poaching. Sixty percent of the time, however, planners were not able to identify how poachers acquired data. The bottom line is that despite improvements, a majority of events were -- and still are -- being targeted.
Room poaching and piracy come in a variety of forms, most of which have been defined by the International Association of Exhibitions and Events and the EIC APEX Standards Committee. Broadly speaking, the poachers and pirates may be guilty of the following:
• Fictitious reservation sales: Registrants are led to believe they have made a reservation, yet they arrive at the event to find no reservation was made and their credit cards might have been charged.
• Misrepresentation: Poachers often misrepresent their connection to the organizers to entice registrants to book through them. They might employ "bait and switch" tactics to book something other than what they promise, and they often claim the official room block as being full when it isn't.
• Trademark infringement: Scammers use trademarked/service-marked material to appear as an official event agent (see "Pad On Protection," below, for more information).
• Unauthorized data use: Pirates might obtain attendee lists through a variety of means including unauthorized use of websites, databases or via illegal retailers (see "Monitor and Protect Attendee Data," below, for more information).
• Inventory hacking: In many cases, pirates and poachers obtain room inventory by deceiving the hotel or the hotel's wholesalers through misrepresentation or failure to disclose intent.
Poaching practices also stretch beyond hotel room blocks. IAEE/EIC research shows 13 percent of 2018 respondents were affected by poaching with respect to exhibitor services, 9 percent with A/V and production, 7 percent with shipping and transportation, 6 percent with event advertising services and 6 percent with fraudulent décor providers.
Following are cautionary practices planners can put into immediate action to better mitigate the damage caused by poachers or pirates.
Provide Exclusive Resources
"Provide attendees, exhibitors and all relevant parties with official room block and booking information across the event websites and other marketing materials. List all official vendors and logos/logotypes. Take it a step further by providing potential room-poaching risk literature," says Michael Owen, managing partner, EventGenuity, LLC, an event and entertainment management company. "Organizations might choose to provide a clear list of known poaching entities to their audience. Oftentimes, the more information clearly laid out, the better."
Many convention organizers have taken steps to increase attendee awareness. The American Academy of Audiology, for example, has included a hotel poaching/pirate alert within its resources for the AAA 2020 HearTech Expo. Within the alert, the organization warns registrants that "Experient, Inc. is the only registration and housing company for the academy and they will never contact [attendees] to make a hotel reservation." The Shape America 2020 National Convention & Expo has also published a similar note of awareness for its participants.
"Warn meeting attendees, including vendors, sponsors and media, about the risks and remind them to be wary of URLs they are responding to," advises Gregg Talley, president and CEO, Talley Management Group, Inc. "Ensure that all official event links are easy to find across all outlets and warn attendees that any URL claiming to be the right one but appearing skeptical is likely fraud."
Setting up Google Adwords is advised, too. "Target your event name and keywords in paid ads," suggests Brad Langley, vice president, channel and partner management, Aventri. "Doing so will help ensure official event booking links will appear among the first results on Google searches, ahead of any scam attempts."
Provide incentives to attendees and exhibitors who book and stay within the official blocks, including registration discounts or access to services such as free shuttle service throughout the entirety of the event. "Some organizations incentivize in-block booking by charging a registration rate that is discounted when the attendee books a hotel as part of the registration process," points out EventGenuity's Owen, an increasingly popular practice that attempts to make booking and registration as seamless as possible.
American Society of Association Executives provides daily amenities and hand-delivered communications, free shuttle transportation to off-site events and nightly room-drop gifts, sweetening the deal for registrants of their annual meeting who book within the official hotel block, says Amy Ledoux, CMP, CAE, senior vice president of meetings and expositions at ASAE.
Following are additional room-block incentive ideas from the Experient, Inc. Room Piracy Tool Kit by Kathy Rasmussen, CMP, director of housing, and Pam Nutting, director of contract management.
• Group offers: For every x number of people attending, provide one complimentary registration or a substantial discount (50 percent or more).
• VIP exclusives: Who wouldn't want to connect with an event's VIPs (professional speakers, authors, celebrities, senior executives, etc.)? Consider launching a series of campaigns where those who book within the block by a certain date get a chance to attend a special VIP reception, behind-the-scenes tour, golf outing or some other fun activity.
• House like-minded guests together: Many events are targeting several audience segments. Consider housing like-minded segments that book through the official block at a specific hotel (engineers at one, sales executives at another and so on) so they can more easily make connections outside of the sessions.
• Grant remote access: Add a benefit that provides access to a limited number of sessions via live stream, but only to those booking in the block — that way, some colleagues who are holding down the fort at the office can join in.
• Extend learning: Consider offering a learning bundle after your live event (webinars, access to white papers, 30-day trial membership, 30-day free access to session recordings, etc.).
• Pack on perks: Advertise and award extra perks randomly to those who book within the block.
Additional ideas from Experient include offering priority seating for in-block bookers at general sessions, "fast passes" to avoid lines for sessions and meals, pedi-cab passes, 15-minute consultations with an expert and discounts on private meeting rooms and hotel spa services.
Monitor and Protect Attendee Data
Integrate and compare registration and housing bookings. "Data tracking is vital. A seamless event management software should automatically compute registration data for the planner," says London-based event specialist Dan McCarthy. "It also takes into account changes, such as an influx of new registrations and those who elect to not book rooms through the platform after registering."
Protecting registrant data is absolutely essential. "Remove or restrict access -- such as with the use of a firewall or password protection -- to online lists of past, current and prospective members, attendees, exhibitors and sponsors," EventGenutiy's Owen urges. Many organizations provide public access to member or attendee lists, a practice that has traditionally made the scammers' jobs much easier.
ASAE's Ledoux explains, "The only reason we list our exhibitor information and contact info [within our event app] is so that attendees can reach out to those exhibitors post-event." She adds, "Resources like exhibitor lists are only made available to pre-registered attendees who have been given event-exclusive and password-protected login credentials. We take active steps to monitor which information is available in front of a firewall as opposed to behind it."
Another option is to include false names of internal employees on the
attendee and exhibitor lists, Aventri's Langley suggests. "That way,
if fake requests start making their rounds, your internal team will be
among the first to know, and will be able to immediately start 'fishing
out' poachers," he points out.
Knowing your exhibitors is nearly as important. "Poachers sometimes buy small booths to gain access to attendee lists," Langley continues. "Then they will cancel after collecting sensitive data that's provided once they get on the list." He stresses the importance of ensuring due diligence on who is exhibiting during the event, as well as who is registering.
Work With Your Hotels
Keep communication open with partner hotels. "Ask hotels to inform you if they receive blocks that overlap event dates," says Langley. "Planners can include clauses in their agreements that prohibit negotiations with competitor companies or specific organizations over specific event dates."
Amanda Cox, MBA, director of sales and marketing for the 809-room JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort, agrees that conversation is key. "Start during the RFP process, if not during site selection. Talk to your hotel provider about addressing housing and inventory. Develop a series of contract provisions, including cut-off rates, advanced deposits and lowest-rate room assurance." Keeping in control of the room inventory from the get-go is an essential step in warding off potential poachers, she says.
Including a lowest-rate guarantee within the hotel contract is a must, agrees Langley. "This will deter poachers even more because they won't get the chance to undercut your rates."
Take Legal Action
The following resources can help determine a company's legitimacy -- and get resolution if you or your attendees have fallen victim to fraud.Better Business Bureau
Assigns firms a grade of A to F based on acquired information, including consumer complaintsFederal Trade Commission
Features a complaint assistant for reporting fraudulent activity under several complaint categoriesComplaints Board
Allows consumers to register complaints as well as post questions about how to solve issuesEconsumer
A partnership of more than 35 global consumer protection agencies to help spot trends and combat fraudInternet Crime Complaint Center
Tracks Internet-related crimes and complaints and refers them to regulatory agencies for investigation Ripoff Report
A clearinghouse for business lawsuits, consumer complaints and more
Legal action in these cases can be more complicated than one would think, but there are options. "Cease-and-desist letters are a good first step in the legal process against unauthorized housing bureaus," says Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., senior partner of Chicago-based Howe & Hutton Ltd. and contributing legal expert for Meetings & Conventions. "Such letters will cite 'tortuous interference,' which claims the poacher is intentionally interfering with contractual relations between the group and the hotels it has contracted with." Howe says the measure sends room poachers an immediate warning that the organization is aware of their activities and sets the tone that more serious legal consequences will follow.
Still, "Interference is hard to prove," Howe adds. "[Poachers] can easily say you can't deny them the economic opportunity to make a dollar." And cease-and-desist letters often come to no fruition.
"We've shared many cease-and-desist letters that unfortunately fell flat," says ASAE's Ledoux. "Sometimes, the only thing accomplished through them is assuring your registrants that you've taken steps to mitigate the scamming attempt. What we've learned is that seasoned scamming companies often have multiple extensions. We've reported poaching opportunities stemming from '[email protected]' only to find that the address no longer exists. A day later, we see the same fraudulent email originating from '[email protected]'. Poachers are ready and waiting with the next opportunity to blindside planners."
But if pirates are infringing on intellectual property, Howe notes that there is a clear case for legal action, and that good can come from reporting it.
For example, in a 2018 judgement, the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association was awarded $749,797.50 against Tarzango, LLC for poaching rooms from its International Production and Processing Expo. However, the judgement did not directly take action against poaching as an action. Instead, it focused on "deceptive advertising practices used in an effort to steal lodging services."
According to USPoultry, last year Tarzango sent unsolicited emails to IPPE exhibitors and attendees, saying that the solicitation was on behalf of IPPE, despite the fact that Tarzango was not affiliated with IPPE or its authorized housing partner, Experient.
Bonus advocacy tip: There are currently bills in both houses of congress titled, 'Stop Online Booking Scams Act of 2019.' The bills are H.R. 3956 in the House of Representatives and S.B. 2229 in the Senate. "I always suggest that planners review and get familiar with these laws," says EventGenuity's Owen. "If the planner supports such efforts, I urge them to contact their respective U.S. representative and senators to show support."
Pad on Protection
"Tech innovations have made personal information easier to obtain. Automated e-mails, convincing branding and even professional websites can all fool even the most seasoned meeting-goer," says Frank Waechter, founder and CEO, FMWaechter.com, a digital marketing firm for the MICE industry. "It is not entirely uncommon for mock Twitter feeds and Facebook pages to pop up in relation to an event -- sporting official logos and verbiage -- thus lending further credence to the supposed 'affiliate.' After poachers have done their work, these very same portals likely disappear."
EventGenuity's Owen suggests making logos and logotypes more difficult to duplicate. "Disable right-click copying on official event page images, shrink wrap logos by overlaying them with a transparent image or slice and dice the official logo into several components. The extra leg work might be tedious, but the effort might prove to be well worth it in the end."
Event owners might also choose to copyright or trademark branded imagery. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, if a trademark owner is able to prove infringement, available remedies might include the following:
- An injunction that the defendant stop using the accused mark
- The destruction or forfeiture of infringing articles
- Monetary relief, including damages sustained as a result of the infringement
Additionally, social media outlets like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter provide their own relief policies and procedures for the unauthorized use of such images. Event owners can file complaints (via the hyperlinked forms) to report brand/event impersonation and infringement issues.