Meeting Mentor Magazine

December 2018

Cover Story

Bipartisan Bill May Help Combat
Room Block Poaching

While room block “pirates” continue to wear down meeting professionals by poaching their attendees and exhibitors, some sunshine may be breaking through the clouds. A bill introduced in Congress aims to protect consumers from deceptive practices in hotel bookings through online third-parties.

HR 4526 Stop Online Booking Scams Act of 2016, introduced in February by Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL) and referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, now has 16 bipartisan cosponsors. The bill, which aims to amend the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act, will help consumers in two ways, explained Maryam Cope, vice president, government affairs, for the American Hotel & Lodging Association:

1. It makes transparent who consumers are dealing with online. Web sites will have to disclose that they are not the hotel and “can’t scam people into thinking that,” Cope said. This disclaimer is especially “huge,” she noted, as more consumers book hotels on their mobile phones with much smaller screens.
2. It also introduces penalties — civil fines — that don’t exist in the original legislation. It empowers state attorneys general not only to go after scam web sites, but fine them and return money to consumers who reported being scammed.

What does this mean for meeting planners who fight third parties that misrepresent themselves to attendees and exhibitors as the “official housing provider”? “I think this bill would help that scenario,” said Cope, who has herself received such e-mails for industry events she attends. These deceptive sites “would be required by the bill to say they are not the hotel.”

The two issues — consumer scamming and room block poaching — are certainly related, added Michael Owen, managing partner at EventGenuity. “There are three buckets: competition, deception that is unethical but not illegal, and clearly illegal actions,” he said. “A lot of what is happening with poaching is similar to consumers seeing what looks like a real web site, but isn’t.”

AH&LA pegs the number of scams by fraudulent web sites and call centers posing as hotel web sites at 15 million bookings a year, which equates to $1.3 billion in bad bookings. This will be a signature issue at its Legislative Action Summit in Washington, D.C., in May, when 400-plus attendees descend on Capitol Hill. AH&LA also is rolling out member communication, for state associations to share with front desk and other hotel staff, on how to report the scams, Cope added.

To date, “going after poachers legally has been very unsuccessful,” said Thomas Bohn, CAE, CEO of North American Veterinary Community. The most success NAVC has had comes from over-communicating to attendees and exhibitors the message that they should book their hotel rooms through the proper links. “While we still experience the problem, we’ve seen a precipitous drop as our vendor community has become a lot smarter about booking within the block,” he said. “It’s all about communicate, communicate, communicate.” As for the proposed bill, Bohn noted that “a law is only as powerful as its enforcement, and with the Internet, it’s hard to fine or cut off these people.”

The seller’s market, though, appears to be tamping down poaching, said Adam Briggs, vice president of housing, registration and mobile apps for ConferenceDirect. That’s because “hotels are less likely to sell inventory into the wholesale market when they can get a higher rate through other channels.” Still, meeting professionals have to get in front of poaching, especially if it has happened before. “It’s important to be proactive,” he added, “since repeat attendees and exhibitors are likely to be targeted by poachers even before housing is opened.”

For additional help, Briggs directs meeting professionals to an extensive toolkit and resources, developed by the Room Block Poaching Workgroup of the Accepted Practices Exchange, an initiative of the Convention Industry Council. The workgroup’s efforts in fighting poaching are ongoing, through educational sessions at industry meetings (next one is at IMEX Frankfurt) and identification of “next practices” to address, said Owen, a member of the workgroup. — Maxine Golding

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About ConferenceDirect
ConferenceDirect is a global meetings solutions company offering site selection/contract negotiation, conference management, housing & registration services, mobile app technology and strategic meetings management solutions. It provides expertise to 2,500 corporations and associations through our 325 Associates globally. www.conferencedirect.com

About MeetingMentor
MeetingMentor, the leading publication for senior meeting planners, is circulated to the clients, prospects and sales associates of ConferenceDirect, which books more than 3.87 million room nights. www.meetingmentormag.com

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