Pirates on the Block

They don't sport eye patches, but a new crew of pirates, as critics call them, is making planners cry, "Avast!" These third-party housing providers lure exhibitors and attendees away from official room blocks by offering cheaper rates, plus services like meet-and-greets or off-site cocktail parties. Further, detractors say, they often imply they're officially sanctioned by the event organizer.

Dale Shuter, CMP, meetings and expositions manager with St. Louis-based Electrical Apparatus Service Association, says that her exhibitors recently received faxes from Las Vegas-based Events Plus Travel advertising room rates of $89 a night when the official rate for her San Francisco show was $169. "We were having pickup problems to begin with; the last thing I needed was this fax," says Shuter. But when she confronted Events Plus president Bruce Peterson, she got no satisfaction. "He wouldn't explain how he obtained my database and insisted that what he was doing was completely legal."

Peterson has a point. Companies like Events Plus Travel avoid using organizations' or events' official names, since doing so could violate trademark laws, and they include disclaimers disassociating themselves from the official organizing body. "These groups are skating on the right side of the law," admits Steven Hacker, president of Dallas-based International Association of Exhibition Management, whose annual show, Expo! Expo!, was targeted by Events Plus Travel when it met in Las Vegas in December. "But it's still deceptive advertising -- people's eyes aren't drawn to the disclaimer at the bottom of the page."

Peterson, however, denies this depiction. "Our faxes state in big, bold print that we're not affiliated with show organizers," he says, adding that accusations that his company filches others' databases are "lies." He also rejects Hacker's claim that Events Plus Travel backed down once IAEM's lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter claiming "tortious interference" in IAEM's contractual relationship with its official hotels. "We laughed at that letter," says Peterson. "We're allowed to do business with whoever wants to do business with us."

The true culprits in the attrition wars, Peterson declares, are Internet wholesalers, which have "broken" the traditional housing model. "I'm a small operation -- ninety percent of what gets booked outside room blocks doesn't go through me," he notes. Companies from American Express to Microsoft, he claims, have used Event Plus Travel's services because "we're a one-stop shop. We offer services exhibitors want and show managers don't provide."