you slice it, both articles advocate the unethical theft of a
pair of recently published articles raised more than a few eyebrows among members of the exhibition industry. The first, which appeared on Inc. magazine's website in December, provided readers with four tips on "How to Commandeer a Trade Show." In it, Don Rainey of Grotech Ventures prescribed a mix of arguably outdated guerrilla tactics, most of which would likely get you kicked out of convention centers. The gist of the piece is that rather than pay to play, marketers can simply arrive at trade shows, plaster public restrooms with fliers, and bribe hotel employees to wear branded T-shirts.
Guerrilla marketing is not inherently unethical, and can be an effective way of building awareness. Sure, you walk a fine line of violating the "confines of booth" clause found in most exhibiting contracts, and your ancillary marketing efforts could be shut down. But – at least in my humble opinion – if you have paid for booth space and identified an opportunity not precluded by your agreement with show management, have at it. However, employing guerrilla tactics without exhibiting is like setting up shop inside your local mall and selling knock-off handbags next to Nordstrom.
The second article was a blog from Fast Company posted in February detailing the "Confessions of a Conference Crasher." In that piece, penned by David Zax, readers met Jerry Jao of Retention Science. Since Jao couldn't afford to exhibit at an unnamed e-commerce conference, he used LinkedIn to identify another Asian male registered for the event, then showed up on site with a lie and a dream: to scam his way onto the show floor where he would solicit sales pitches from his competitors (using someone else's identity) and pitch his own business to fellow attendees. To be fair, Zax didn't recommend corporate espionage, identity theft, and suitcasing, but the piece wasn't exactly a condemnation either. In fact, Jao is glamorized as if he were a modern-day marketer's James Bond.
The trouble with these stories isn't simply that Inc. and Fast Company seemed to celebrate enterprising villains as examples of entrepreneurs who are, as Zax put it, determined to do "whatever it takes" to make their businesses a success. It's that whichever way you slice it, both articles advocate the unethical theft of a marketing opportunity.
As exhibitors, that is precisely what you purchase – a marketing opportunity. Show management undertakes significant financial risk, building temporary cities inside concrete halls, and supporting the infrastructure required to manage and oversee those cities. Exhibiting companies essentially underwrite the related expenses. But suitcasers and outboarders are like citizens who don't pay taxes, lecherously feeding off of the system while simultaneously depriving rightful recipients of their due. And the good people of those psuedo cities will, quite literally, pay the price while mitigating and navigating the resulting misperception that such actions are justifiable alternatives to above-board exhibit marketing.
Thankfully, members of our industry have taken Zax and Rainey to task, utilizing social media to administer a public flogging that will hopefully deter would-be footstep followers. But not all of the feedback is critical. In fact, many readers' comments on Fast Company praise Jao as an inspiration. One reader shared the article with her staff as an example of how to hustle, and another posted, "Mad respect for founders who learn to hack the system. Keep it up."
There will always be Don Raineys and Jerry Jaos who feel overly entitled and attempt to justify unscrupulous activities. And, sadly, there will always be publishers willing to share their stories. Hopefully there will also always be ethical exhibitors to raise eyebrows and speak up. E