FIRST THERE WERE the Knights Templar, whose message of “surrender or die” made them one of the best-known — and feared — groups in the medieval world. Then the pirates pirated their crossbones logo and hoisted the Jolly Roger, riding on the coattails of the Templars' reputation to shiver the timbers of many a sea captain. Nowadays, Jimmy Buffet sings “The cannons don't thunder, there's nothing to plunder” anymore in his song “A Pirate Looks at 40.” Sorry, Jimmy. You're wrong. Today's Blackbeards may have left the high seas, but they're alive and swashbuckling on the high-speed Internet.

As I found out while researching the story on page 30, they're out on the Net scooping up your exhibitors' (and sometimes attendees') contact information and using your brand — possibly even your logo — to sell their room blocks to your people. Planners watch in horror as the attrition boom sweeps across their decks, knocking down profits and sometimes leaving financial ruin in its wake.

But accused buccaneer Bruce Peterson, president of Las Vegas — based Events Plus Travel, sounded more like a smart businessman than the bandit I had expected. Despite ethically iffy tactics, he's got a point: As much as we all hate to admit it, exhibitors are free to spend their money where they will — and Peterson's there, eager and willing to give them a reason to defect from your official room block.

While some organizations are battling back by browbeating exhibitors into the block, I don't think that's the answer. Exhibitors have long complained that their room blocks regularly get moved to a different, more-distant hotel just before a show, and that they generally are treated as second-class citizens. I know no one reading this magazine is guilty of exhibitor abuse and/or neglect, but there has to be a reason why they're willing and eager to buy their rooms from someone else — and we can't lay all the blame on their being able to get rooms cheaper elsewhere. According to Peterson, sometimes they'll pay a premium price to go outside the block, if the rooms come with a little TLC.

By all means, load up the cannons and fire away at those pirating your housing block. But I think it's even more important to look at why people are so willing to jump ship in the first place. Is your housing registration process cold, impersonal, unwieldy, and time-consuming? I've experienced more than a few of those in recent years, and I'm not alone. That erodes brand loyalty and leaves your attendees and exhibitors ripe for the plundering, whether it be by a third-party DMC, Travel-ocity, or even a competitor's show.

Fix what's broken, of course. But don't stop there. Why not pirate the pirates? Take a long look at your show to try to find its weak spots — then look for ways to take advantage of the pirates' strategies to boost your own brand. The world may be changing, but one thing stays the same: To the victor go the spoils.

Sue Pelletier, (978) 448-0377, spelletier@primediabusiness.com