Attrition is the nightmare of my life,” says Stamford, Conn.-based Margaret Pederson, vice president, exhibitions division, Primedia Business, a multimedia company that produces dozens of trade shows to showcase and compliment its products (which include Corporate Meetings & Incentives). To add insult to the injury already caused by attendees and exhibitors defecting from the official room block to discount Internet sites such as Travelocity and hotels.com, Pederson now has to contend with third-parties — usually destination management companies — that market low-cost housing directly to exhibitors (and, in some cases, attendees).

“Corporations are being hit hard by this, probably harder than most people think. We're all suffering,” she says.

“It's insidious,” adds Steven Hacker, president of the International Association of Exhibition Management, explaining that these companies, which are becoming known in the industry as “poachers,” use the meeting's name on their Web sites and in their e-mail, fax, and telemarketing efforts. While they aren't outright lying, “they are skating the thin line between criminal activity and business ethics,” he says.

“Show organizers call us pirates and bandits. That's OK,” says Bruce Peterson, president of Las Vegas-based Events Plus Travel, a DMC that has come under fire for allegedly luring attendees and exhibitors away from several meetings' official room blocks by marketing to them directly with offers of cheaper room rates, plus ancillary services such as transportation and off-site cocktail parties. “They can call us whatever they want. Our clients don't see us that way, and that's all we care about.”

Peterson says his company tends to go after the big companies that bring hundreds of people and need additional services beyond rooms. “Probably 90 percent of our clients don't just get their hotel rooms through us,” he explains. “They also have our limos pick up their CEOs at the airport; we put gift baskets in their rooms; we do their cocktail parties or golf tournaments — we want to be their beck-and-call company, their personal lackey service when they're in town. We'll provide other services, and if they want, we can save them $100 a room night. If you're a business in today's economy, what are you going to do?”

The Blame Game

Planners' outrage comes largely from the poachers' tactics. “We publish the names of our exhibitors on our Web site,” says Sharon Morabito, Primedia Business' group show director. The poachers take the information off the site and market directly to her exhibitors, using the show name and its logo. While most include a disclaimer, it's usually in the small print at the end.

Infuriating? Yes. Illegal? Probably not, although the issue may end up being resolved in court one of these days. “It's in the public domain,” says Morabito. “All we can do is respectfully request that they cease and desist.”

What can companies such as hers do to solve poaching and other attrition-related issues? According to Phoenix-based David Radcliffe, who headed the Convention Industry Council's Project Attrition, “Technology is going to have to be part of the solution to this and other attrition problems. Just a few weeks ago, I was on the phone with an executive from hotels.com, who told me that their strategy is to allow the planner to go through the block-contracting process with their headquarters hotel, and then allow the intermediary — hotels.com in this case — to, on their behalf, contract for the balance of the inventory required to meet their needs.”

In other words, the Internet site would become the back-end booking engine to the meeting planning site. “Attrition then would become the intermediary's problem,” he says.

The only downside that he sees? “Getting in bed with these guys, and maybe losing some of the perks,” such as free room nights for staff.

Peterson likes the idea. His company hopes to roll out a new business model this month that involves a partnership with a major housing reservation company. “We're finalizing software that will allow us to become the official housing agent for shows of less than 15,000 people.”