How to Fend Off Room Poachers

Room Poachers pirate

Reserved mostly for untamed wilderness and the high seas, the terms "poaching" and "piracy" are cropping up with growing frequency among meeting planners. These terms refer to third-party housing bureaus posing as event firms to trick event attendees into reserving rooms through their fraudulent companies instead of through the official meeting planner.

Why is this a problem? Not only are these housing bureaus offering nonexistent rooms or false pricing that can cost attendees hundreds of dollars in cancellation fees or stolen funds, but meeting planners and their clients can incur attrition penalties for not filling hotel blocks. Relationships between meeting planners, hotels, and clients can be adversely affected, causing problems with future rate or room-block negotiations.

"We're dealing with this problem full-force with one of our major life-sciences conferences right now," says Francesca Radabaugh, operations manager of Paragon Events. "Poachers are contacting our attendees with fake rates and rooms while using our name. Fortunately we've come up with some ways to combat it, but it's frustrating for us and our clients."

The issue was thought to be resolved in 2008 when the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) won a federal lawsuit against a third-party room-block marketing company for representing itself as ASAE's official housing agency. The victory sent a clear warning to other poachers and pirates in the field. However, six years later, room-block poachers are roaming unimpeded and with growing force.

"Guests can lose faith in a hotel brand or events firm when they show up for a conference and find their pre-paid room doesn't exist," says Christine Roberts-Tascione, vice president of convention sales and services for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Poachers use slashed rates to lure in buyers, claiming they work for a trusted hotel or meeting planner, then take off with the guest's sensitive financial information. It's a major scam and something we're seeing pick up in intensity every day."

Best practices are beginning to emerge in the fight against room-block piracy. Here are some of the more effective counter measures.

1. Frequently remind clients and attendees to only reserve rooms directly through your trusted meeting planner or secure hotel link provided by the planner. Use e-blasts, social media, and information on your own website to keep clients aware.

2. Send cease-and-desist letters to known poachers. This is the first step in creating a paper trail toward legal action. Many poachers will retreat once they know they're caught.

3. Protect conference websites and exhibitor floorplans with passwords. This will make it harder for poachers to present themselves as one of your official partners.

4. Keep a list of the pirates who approach your clients and use this list to warn your clients and attendees. Though poachers frequently change their company names, sometimes they are recycled for different events.  

5. Hide proprietary information about your event behind a firewall. Broadcasting attendee information, exhibitors, speakers, and even sponsors can give poachers all the information they need to pose as a legitimate meeting planner. 

Kayla Schwenk is assistant director of meetings and events for Paragon Events, Inc.  Paragon Events is celebrating 25 years in the meetings and events industry as a multifaceted, award-winning events firm that provides complete marketing solutions, corporate brand strategy, association management, corporate incentives, destination travel coordination, and environmentally friendly eco-events, in addition to comprehensive, tried-and-true corporate event management services.

Illustration: Val Bochkov

This article appears in the October 2014 issue of Successful Meetings.