Trust Me - 2002-11-01

Last month's column dealt with antitrust laws, which are intended to protect the principles of a free market, competition, and supply and demand. Trade associations are at particular risk for antitrust violations, because they are made up of, by definition, competitors in the same trade or field. Planners should advise exhibitors at trade shows to refrain from discussing fees or prices for goods or services since such conversations may be construed as an attempt at "price fixing."

Another area where antitrust laws apply to the meetings industry is in the exclusion of exhibitors from a trade show. Here are two examples:

Situation A: Imagine that the Widget Manufacturers Association (WMA) is planning its annual convention and trade show. The WMA exhibits manager, whose responsibility it is to sell booths at the show, gets an exhibitor application from Joe Schmo, with Schmo Widgets. The WMA exhibits manager remembers Joe all too well from last year's show. Joe complained constantly, spoke too loudly, and frankly, he has bad breath. The WMA exhibits manager just can't stomach having Joe at the show again this year, so he tells him he can't be a part of this year's show, in spite of the fact that there is plenty of booth space available.

Result: If the court finds that participation in the WMA show is "an element essential to effective competition" in the widget industry, then WMA has control over an "essential facility." If WMA controls an essential facility, excluding Schmo Widgets from participating in the show may be an antitrust violation because it hinders the company from effectively competing in the marketplace. Oddly enough, if the court were to find the WMA show is not a particularly important show in the widget industry, then there may be no antitrust violation. The less significant the show, the less impact it has on competition.

Situation B: Again, assume the WMA exhibits manager gets an exhibitor application from Joe Schmo with Schmo Widgets. However, this time assume that at last year's show, Joe was suspended from participating in the WMA annual trade show for two years for unethical behavior on the show floor. The WMA exhibits manager again tells Joe he can't be a part of this year's show.

Result: As long as standards for exhibitor behavior and consequences for violation of those standards were published and distributed to exhibitors prior to the show, WMA's exclusion of Schmo Widgets for a limited period of time is probably not an antitrust violation. Of course, WMA must enforce these standards consistently with all exhibitors.

By Tyra Hilliard