With exhibit and sponsor revenue becoming increasingly important in the age of the hosted-buyer program, there’s a cautionary tale making the rounds in the online gaming community that makes for an over-the-top, cringe-worthy read.

Grainger Games was the headline sponsor for the annual Games Media Awards hosted by Intent Media. Grainger was apparently a relatively unknown retailer on its way into the award night, and saw sponsorship an opportunity to raise its profile with journalists who cover the computer game industry. Grainger’s takeaway: Be careful what you wish for.

Blogger Bulent Yusef told the story of an on-site presence that was a monumental portrait in tastelessness, complete with scantily clad models and dwarves (I’m not making this up) and branded condoms distributed at a banquet. During the ceremony, a reportedly inebriated Grainger team heckled the entertainment and prize winners, and “invaded the stage to do a silly ‘dance’” during the presentations, according to Yusef.

By night’s end, “what they had left behind was an absolute shambles. They’d sabotaged months of planning by the event organizers, they’d pissed off the entire games media community, and they’d wasted their own sponsorship money,” Yusef wrote. “Well done, Grainger Games. We didn’t know who you were before, but we do now.”

The fiasco left Intent Media with an obvious but tough choice, and they didn’t shirk their responsibility. “Grainger will not be welcome back in any capacity to the GMAs, or any Intent Media events,” wrote Publisher Stuart Dinsey less than 24 hours after the incident. But “as event organizer, we take ultimate responsibility.”

Dinsey resisted the temptation to duck blame for a commercial decision that became a defining feature of his event. With a forceful apology, he extended a hand to the community he serves, while visibly severing any remaining link to a lucrative sponsor.

Clearly, anyone would cut Grainger loose given the extreme circumstances. But would every event organizer follow Intent Media’s lead if the offense were less obvious?

Trade shows and conferences often face conflicting loyalties between high-paying sponsors and lower-paying attendees. Participants are looking for content and networking. Sponsors are there for the captive audience. Organizers are caught in the middle, with a financial imperative to satisfy both.

I wonder whether the rise of hosted-buyer programs shifts the balance. The model still depends on satisfied participants for its long-term sustainability. But with no revenues coming from attendee registrations, organizers’ immediate financial obligation is tilted much more toward the exhibitors who pay the freight (literally and figuratively). Everyone wants happy customers but, barring an on-site meltdown as blatant as Grainger’s, unhappy hosted buyers are easier to replace than the vendor who invited them.

If you had to make that kind of choice for your event, what would you do?

Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog and tweets as @mitchellbeer.