Suitcasing is the practice of marketing yourself in the exhibit hall without actually paying for booth space.
According to EXHIBITOR's 2018 Economic Outlook Survey, the vast majority of marketers have maintained or increased their trade show budgets this year compared to last. One reason for the increase is that several exhibiting companies plan to attend slightly more regional, national, and international events in 2018 than they did in 2017. This bodes well for the industry as a whole, and its an optimistic indicator that trade shows continue to deliver a return that's robust enough to warrant additional investment. But not every exhibitor is anteing up in 2018, as 23 percent of marketers report that their current budgets are lower than last year's, ranging from almost insignificant snips to more noticeable hack jobs. Among that 23 percent is one marketer who recently told me his company decided to forego a year of trade shows and pursue a new business-development strategy: suitcasing and outboarding.
In case you have not heard the term, suitcasing is the practice of marketing yourself in the exhibit hall without actually paying for booth space. Instead of exhibiting, you simply walk the show floor hoping to connect with attendees, speak with them about your services, and pass along your business card. It sounds harmless enough, but suitcasers are like parasites on the exhibition industry.
Upon further examination, it became apparent said marketer also planned on reaching out to event attendees in an effort to arrange off-floor meetings. This practice, known as outboarding, is just as unethical as suitcasing – and equally damaging to the industry. I like to think of suitcasing as the trade show equivalent of a Mary Kay rep walking into Sephora and trying to close deals with customers. Outboarding, on the other hand, is like that same Mary Kay rep setting up a folding table outside Sephora to catch shoppers as they come or go.
The problem with these practices is that whichever way you slice it, both represent the blatant theft of a marketing opportunity. As exhibitors, that is precisely what you purchase – the opportunity to rightfully market your company's products and services to the event's registered attendees. Show management undertakes the significant financial risk of building temporary cities inside concrete halls, investing in pre-show promotions to attract buyers, and supporting the infrastructure required to manage and oversee those makeshift marketplaces. And in exchange for booth-space fees, exhibitors receive the opportunity to set up shop. But suitcasers and outboarders are like citizens who don't pay taxes, in that they feed off of the system while simultaneously depriving rightful exhibitors their due.
Start-up companies are notorious for such tactics, as they often lack the capital to launch legitimate exhibit-marketing campaigns. And while that still sticks in my craw, I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt, as they often don't realize what they're doing is wrong. But believe it or not, the company planning to deploy these tactics in lieu of traditional trade show marketing practices serves the exhibit-marketing industry, which makes the offense even more offensive. It's a little like a used-car salesman extolling the virtues of a Mercedes while driving a Tesla. Or, perhaps more accurately, it's like a doctor lecturing you on the dangers of cigarettes while chain smoking in your face. It's insulting, hypocritical, and illogical.
So the next time you see a company suitcasing or hear of someone outboarding – whether it's at a show you attend or one at which you exhibit – inform show management and demand that action be taken. The only way to drive these practices out of the industry is to keep offenders off the show floor. After all, if we don't take suitcasers and outboarders to task, they'll continue to take advantage of the trade show system.