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Outboarding: Are Off-site Conference Parties Unethical?

This is part one of a series about blog conference ethics.

We’re in the full swing of conference season, and only a couple months out before the biggest conference of the year — BlogHer — and already the twitterverse is abuzz with PARTIES! PARTIES! PARTIES!

But they aren’t discussing the official conference parties (of which there are plenty); they are discussing off-site parties hosted by brands that are riding the coattails of our favorite blogging conferences. What you may not know is that this is called “Outboarding” and is considered an unethical business practice.

Here’s a definition:

Outboarding refers to non-exhibitors who get hotel- or meeting-room space near the convention center to hold meetings and events. These guerrilla tactics have been decried by the Trade Show Exhibitors Association (TSEA) and IAEM to protect the interests of exhibitors who do purchase space and have off-site meetings approved by show management.

This might seem like it’s not a big deal. After all, it’s not like it’s hurting the conferences, right?

WRONG. I’ve spoken with several organizers of the most popular conferences, and they are worried about how this will impact their ability to throw a great conference.

If you’ve attended conferences that are unrelated to women and mom blogging, you might not know the difference about what is offered. For instance, conferences such as South by Southwest Interactive and BlogWorldExpo offer ticket prices that range from $1000 on up — and that does NOT include meals. Other professional conferences that do include food generally cost $1500 or more to attend. But conferences for women that blog generally cost less that $500 a ticket, and do include an extensive amount of both food and drink. So why is that?

Sponsors.

Sponsors significantly set off the costs of conferences such as Type-A Parent and BlogHer and Mom 2.0 Summit so that we can have a more pampered experience while we attend them. Elisa Camahort Page from BlogHer states this clearly:

I think most women’s blogging conferences, not just BlogHer, try to keep prices affordable for attendees. In BlogHer’s case, our early bird price hasn’t changed since the first conference in 2005. But one blogger rate ticket covers less than a third of the cost to host that attendee. Our production values and the scope of what we offer has skyrocketed. Sponsorship has always subsidized BlogHer’s ability to keep prices that low, while growing the event in size and scope.

So, why does outboarding hurt conferences? Because if brands choose to host events off-site during conferences, they are less likely to sponsor the conferences. Which means that you’ll have to potentially pay thousands to attend the conferences you love.

Kelby Carr from Type-A Parent discusses it.

The main impact is that it ultimately discourages companies from being official sponsors and supporting the attendees in an ethical manner through the proper channels. The long-term impact is that blog conferences, which rely heavily on the financial support of official sponsors, will eventually have to charge attendees an unsubsidized registration fee. That means paying what many others pay for industry conferences, which starts at $1,000. It also dramatically impacts the experience for attendees. At Type-A we limit the number of sponsors and work hard to naturally integrate sponsors into the conference conversation so that it doesn’t feel like a big commercial. This allows brands and bloggers to get to know one another. Attendees and sponsors both leave with the start of important relationships they can build on for years to come.

A good example of what happens to a conference when the off-site parties take over the experience of the event is the South by Southwest Interactive conference. Elisa from BlogHer talks about that:

I believe you see the impact of outboard events at SXSW very quantifiably. The price to attend has doubled in the last 5 years, from $500 to $1,000 now. And they have never fed you. At all. You even have to buy a pass to use the shuttle taking you to all the different venues around town.

Laura Mayes from Mom 2.0 Summit (and several other conferences) says something similar.

Interactive has grown quite a lot since then … and today, 18 years later, I’d guess there are more unofficial events than official SxSW events. It’s part of the culture of that event. Some would say it has grown the culture. And SxSW seems to be doing okay. Although, many who’ve been there for a while would say it’s gotten pretty noisy and plastic. It’s lost some of its soul. There’s always a price.

I asked all three conference organizers what they’d like conference attendees to consider before heading off to these outboarding events.

Kelby:

Know that when you support unethical, unofficial events you are actually hurting the conference. Also be aware there can be some repercussions. For example, depending on a conference’s policies on suitcasing and outboarding, a blogger who helps organize an unofficial event can have their pass yanked, could be banned from the conference in the future, or get charged higher business rates for your pass.

Laura:

I think it comes back to honoring the event by honoring its official sponsors and brands. Because there are people behind those brands who are invested in, and are an important part of, the community. We cover this in our official Mom 2.0 sponsorship policy but here’s the gist: Official sponsors are industry leaders and smart individuals who believe in, and place value in, the online parenting movement. Please help us by respecting their sponsorship space and time. These individuals have earned the right to be represented properly, respectfully, and exclusively throughout the venue during the event. Please honor our event, our sponsors and our attendees by honoring this.

Elisa:

We think there’s a value to ultra-affordability … it allows more people to attend. It allows a much broader diversity of people to attend. It protects your event from becoming an ivory tower that’s only accessible to certain people, or only the same people over and over. We think that inclusivity is key to BlogHer events. And we have always believed it’s as valuable to sponsors and attendees as it is to BlogHer to sustain that. But, admittedly, we now look at this year by year and decide what we can sustain.

What do you think? Were you aware of the issues of Outboarding? Will it change your conference behavior?

Part two will discuss “suitcasing”, blogger sponsorships, and how to avoid having your conference pass yanked.

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