Some call them poachers; others call them pirates. David DuBois, CMP, CAE, CTA, FASAE, has come up with another name for the shady companies that prey on attendees and exhibitors looking for accommodations during a conference.
“I call them red ants,” DuBois, president and CEO of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, told PCMA. “When they come out with bogus websites and start calling the names on exhibitor lists, organizers send cease and desist letters on their attorney’s stationery, but they rarely listen to the letters. Just like stomping out red ants in the backyard, they show up somewhere else. With these companies, they simply operate under a different 800 number or a different website.”
One swarm of red ants has just been sent underground, thanks to a decision in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in favor of USPOULTRY, the organization behind the International Production & Processing Expo. In late January, the court ordered Tarzango, a travel agent unaffiliated with the annual conference and exhibition, to pay USPOULTRY nearly $750,000 and attorney’s fees for deceptive advertising practices and trademark infringement. Tarzango did the usual poaching routine of sending emails that claimed the company could help attendees and exhibitors find accommodations. For unsuspecting recipients who simply want to find affordable hotel rooms, these messages seem credible. For event organizers, of course, these messages lead to lost revenue and angry attendees with reservations that may not even be valid.
“We, with the full support of our partners AFIA (American Feed Industry Association) and NAMI (North American Meat Institute), asserted our rights and have protected attendees and exhibitors from Tarzango’s unfair and deceptive practices,” John Starkey, president of USPOULTRY, said in a statement. “This decision should serve as a strong warning to those service providers who seek to trade off of the strong goodwill developed in IPPE.”
The news for USPOULTRY is a win that should echo across the business events industry. “This is the only case that we are familiar with that has been litigated and won in the favor of the organization who sued the poacher,” DuBois said. “It’s a big deal that everyone in the industry should get behind.” [See note at end of story.]
Legislation to Boost Anti-Poaching Power
DuBois and other leaders in events and exhibitions are hoping that lawmakers will also get behind the case. The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate are considering H.R. 2495 and S.1164, respectively. The two pieces of legislation are part of the Stop Online Booking Scams Act, which is designed to protect consumers from deceptive practices in online hotel booking. The American Hotel & Lodging Association has lobbied to find co-sponsors for the legislation, and DuBois is working to rally more support in advance of Exhibitions Day on June 6. “We need to get this legislation passed this year,” DuBois said. “It will give state and federal prosecutors more teeth when they try to shut these poachers down.”
Roger Rickard, founder of Voices in Advocacy and advocacy consultant for IAEE and the Exhibitions Mean Business Coalition, told PCMA that the legislation’s success depends on individual voices. “As recent events have shown us, the results of speaking out can be very powerful,” Rickard said. “This industry is extremely important to the success of commerce and education alike, and with that, this issue is the perfect opportunity for Congress to hear our voice.”
What You Can Do
Rickard encouraged PCMA members and all supporters of the meetings and events industry to contact their Congressional representatives and request that they co-sponsor the Stop Online Booking Scams Act. The message is simple: The bills can help protect their constituents from losing money. Rickard noted that poaching scams are responsible for more than 15 million fraudulent bookings and $1.3 billion in lost revenue for hotels and consumers.
Here’s how you can act:
- Go to Congress.gov and enter H.R. 2495. Click on the Cosponsors tab to see if your representative has already cosponsored this legislation. If they have already cosponsored, send a short hand-written note thanking your representative for cosponsoring. Include the name and number of the appropriate bill.
- If they have not cosponsored, call your representative’s Washington, D.C. office, and ask to speak with the staff person who handles commerce If they are not available, get their name and email address. Email the specific staffer asking them to support this legislation.
- Include the following message, or use your own language to spell out your organization’s challenges with poachers: “As the rate of consumers booking travel accommodations online continues to surge, so will the rate of booking scams. There needs to be stronger policy in place to protect consumers from these scams.”
- Repeat for the identical Senate bill, S. 1164.
If you do not know who your representative is, visit House.gov and Senate.gov, and enter your home zip code in the Find Your Representative box. Their Washington, D.C. office phone number will be listed.
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Editor’s note: After reading this story, Joshua Grimes, Esq., emailed Convene with a few comments. While he agreed that this represents a moral victory, he cautioned against the idea that this “win” will put Tarzango out of business. Here is what he said:
I salute US Poultry’s decision to litigate against Tarzango, but the story is not really accurate. The court entered a “default” judgment, because Tarzango never entered an appearance in the litigation, never hired a lawyer, and never defended itself in any way. There was no adjudication of the poaching claims on the merits.
Further, since the judgment was entered the court has been unable to serve a copy of the decision on Tarzango. The mailed decision was returned for “insufficient address.”
In my speaking presentations, I have long encouraged meeting professionals to be aggressive against poachers. However, this case is a better illustration of the difficulties with stopping them, rather than a “win” that will put poachers out of business. Tarzango apparently has no physical address and most likely no traceable assets, so it is very unlikely that that US Poultry will ever recover any money. This case’s value will likely be as a moral victory that hopefully pushes Congress and the industry to remain vigilant and implement truly effective measures to put poachers out of business.