Unauthorized group housing companies are the latest threat to successful meetings. These “poachers” contact meeting attendees directly before a large event by phone, email or letters. They offer attendees hotel rooms for less than the nightly rate extended in the official room block. Often the poaching company misleads attendees into believing that it is an authorized housing company as part of its sales pitch.
Room block poaching brings unfortunate consequences for nearly everyone involved: The group books fewer attendees into its “official” room block and may become liable for attrition damages. The hotels with “official” room blocks see fewer bookings than anticipated, and earn less revenue from empty rooms (even with attrition damages).
Even meeting attendees lose out when they book with a poaching company. The group has no control over the room quality, the hotel location, or the reliability of the reservation itself. The attendee may also miss out on discounted meeting registration fees and other benefits offered only to those booking within the official group block. Further, the group missing its guest room commitment this year can lead to higher costs at future events for rooms, meeting space and other amenities, all of which may be reflected in higher fees for attendees.
Technology is making it easier for unauthorized housing companies to reach attendees and poach room blocks. Attendee lists are frequently available on the Internet, and poachers entice guests to book on official-looking-but-unauthorized housing websites. Meeting planners need to stay ahead of the curve on room block poaching; they need to take precautions to prevent it from occurring, and aggressively stop poaching when it happens. Otherwise the problem will only grow and cause problems for attendees, as well as financial losses for the group and hotel.
Here are some steps to consider:
• Educate Attendees. Make certain that your prospective meeting attendees know that you have an “official” room block. Publicize the ways that attendees can reserve guest rooms within that official block. Some groups even warn attendees to look out for phone calls and emails from unauthorized outside parties offering cheaper rooms, and warn them of the problems that can arise if attendees book with them.
• Incentivize Attendees to Book Within Official Block. Give attendees reasons to book within the group’s official room block. This is particularly important if room block poaching is likely; but it is also prudent even without poaching, if other lodging properties with cheaper rates are located near the official hotels. Some groups offer lower meeting registration fees to attendees booking within the room block. Others require participating exhibitors and vendors to book within the block. Particularly with the rise of AirBnB and other non-traditional but cheaper rooming options, it is essential for a group to consider how it will keep its attendees staying in official housing.
• Be Vigilant! Take notice of unusual email messages, phone calls, and letters directed at your attendees from housing bureaus and hotels outside of your official room block. Don’t ignore any sign that the attendee list was poached. Perform web searches using your group’s name to see if unauthorized companies created deceptive housing registration webpages.
• Keep Control of Attendee Lists. Some groups post “Who’s Coming” attendee lists on the Internet so that suppliers, sponsors and others can see who’s registered and judge the value of their own attendance. These online attendee lists frequently include guests’ names and places of business. This practice may help drive meeting attendance, but it is also a gift for room block poachers looking to contact attendees; those poachers now need only phone numbers or email addresses to reach guests with their offers. The best way to combat this is to not post attendee lists online. If a group needs to do it, then just list the organizations that guests represent, and not their names, addresses or email addresses.
• Sensitize Sponsors to Protect Attendee Lists. Some organizations provide meeting sponsors with registration lists as a sponsorship perk, so that sponsors may contact guests with marketing materials. This is a recognized practice, but sponsors do not always appreciate that the group’s registration lists include confidential and propriety information about guests that should be protected like other valuable information. Groups need to include a provision in the sponsorship agreement requiring the sponsor to use the list only for specified purposes, and prohibiting the sponsor from sharing the list with others without the group’s permission. The sponsor should also agree to protect the list from unauthorized disclosure the same as other valuable documents.
• Cease & Desist Letters. Once a group learns that a room block poacher is contacting its attendees, it’s important to act promptly and firmly. Send a “cease and desist” letter to the offending party. This letter should inform the poacher that their practices are unauthorized and inappropriate, and it should direct them to stop immediately or face legal consequences. Should the letter come from an attorney? That’s not mandatory, but it can help demonstrate the group’s resolve to take on the offending poacher. A letter from a group staff member may not carry the same weight and deterrence effect.
• Legal Action. Litigation must also be considered to stop room block poaching if other efforts fail. Yes, it can be expensive; but a group’s failure to stop room poachers can also be costly in the long run. Consult with competent counsel to consider the options and likelihood of successfully stopping unauthorized companies that continue to contact attendees despite demands that their activities should stop.
Final Note: This blog is not “legal advice”; rather, it’s a discussion intended to make you think and draw your own conclusions. Legal advice can only be rendered after a discussion of your particular circumstances with an attorney competent in meetings law.
Posted by Joshua L. Grimes