When I started at Evia a little over two years ago, most of my experience with trade shows had been small, regional Chamber of Commerce or Economic Development shows around the state of Washington. There was little fanfare when we signed up to exhibit or sponsor. We'd usually get some materials from the event organizer and book rooms for our group. Easy peasy.
At Evia, the shows we were planning to attend were a little bigger, but I certainly knew all the ins and outs and challenges. Or so I thought.
I signed our team up to exhibit that November at an event technology show in Las Vegas, booked our team's hotel rooms through the event site, and started making arrangements for our booth design and build. A few days later, I got a phone call from a very friendly gentleman calling from the event, letting me know that he was able to save me some money on the rooms I had booked. I thought, this is fantastic! I pulled up the confirmation emails for each of us and began giving him confirmation numbers and check in/check out dates so he could get us that discount. I'm feeling great! Then he says, "Now I just need your credit card number to make these changes."
Alarm bells started going off in my head. I asked, "Don't you already have the credit card number I used to book the reservation? Shouldn't that be in your system?" Before he even spoke again, I felt a pit in my stomach, wondering if I had already given out too much information. He answered, "I need the card for you to get the discount." Now I know I'm being played, and I have to figure out how to a) make sure I protect my original reservation before this guy cancels it or something, and b) how to let him know I'm onto him.
I told him that, no, I wasn't giving him the card number. He informed me that my reservations would be canceled entirely, and I let him know that I now knew he was a fraud. He tried to argue for a minute or two, but then abruptly hung up on me. I immediately called the hotel to have them place a note on my reservation that it was not to be canceled by anyone but me.
I then went online to see if what happened was a common type of fraud, and I was stunned to see my Google search return a full page of articles and warnings.
So what is a room block poacher? According to an article from Orchid Event Solutions, "housing 'pirates' and 'poachers' are third party companies that misrepresent themselves by claiming to be the housing provider for a given convention or trade show." They research conferences online and find lists of exhibitors or attendees, often made public on a conference website to attract other attendees and exhibitors. They then contact these people claiming several things including: offers of hotel rooms at a lower rate, misrepresenting that the hotel is sold out, and even identifying themselves as official agents of the event.
Since room poachers rarely deliver on their promises, the consequences can be expensive for those that fall for the scams of these poachers. The worst of these could be arriving at the event to find out that no room reservations exist, but because you paid the poachers, you've already been charged. If rooms are even still available, you are now paying a second time for your room, and probably at a higher rate.
Here's the other thing I learned. These people are relentless. To this day, I still receive no fewer than two calls a week, identifying themselves as being from that event and calling to help me book my rooms (even though I am not even attending this year). I have become somewhat famous in our open office space as my co-workers listen in as I engage them, in a very friendly manner at first, inform them that I know they are trying to scam me and then waiting for the uncomfortable response. It's usually them hanging up, but sometimes I'll get the persistent agent who tries to convince me I'm going to be without a room if I don't work with them. I even told the last one that I wasn't attending the event, and she called me a liar, saying she could see my name on their website and that she would report me if I continued to lie to her. (I'm not sure who she was planning to report me to. I don't think she thought that through.)
While I've tried to battle event room poachers in my own way, there are serious things you can do to keep from being scammed by a room block poacher. First, always book your room through the official conference website, or if you want to find a better deal, use a reputable hotel site such as Expedia.com or Booking.com. And make sure to inform the event organizer that you have been solicited by an event room poacher so that they can take preventive action.
If you are organizing an event, there are several ways you can help. Keeping your exhibitor list private is becoming more and more necessary as these poachers get more aggressive. Warn attendees through various outreach methods about room poachers. And finally, send a cease and desist letter to these companies as you learn about them.