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A Few Words About Suitcasing


Have you ever gone to a conference and seen folks handing out brochures, flyers, and swag while standing in hallways or outside of session rooms? Do you wonder why they’re not on the Expo floor showcasing in a booth? It’s because what they’re doing is unethical. They’re suitcasing.

As the name indicates, suitcasing is when someone presents their business from a bag or suitcase so that it’s easier for them to zip up and run if they spot conference organizers. Suitcasing is also the practice of putting flyers, cards, business cards and promotional material on all available surfaces without the blessing of the conference organizers. In essence, it’s stealing. You see, there are people who pay good money to exhibit and sponsor to share with our community. People who are suitcasing are bypassing this fee to present on the sly. Our exhibitors and sponsors enable us to put on our conference, so the people who are suitcasing are also stealing from attendees. The less money we make, the less money we can spend on food, parties and bells and whistles. Moreover, the less money we make, the more we have to charge.

What happens if you’re caught suitcasing

If you’re coming to NMX as a sponsored content creator, the brand you’re representing may ask you to hand out flyers or t-shirts. Please know that this is considered suitcasing. It’s one thing to chat with others about what you do, that’s why we go to conferences, right? It’s a whole other story to walk the aisles and hallways giving out promotional items without permission. If you’re caught you’ll, at the very least, be asked to put your materials away. However, the  most likely scenario is that you’ll be booted out of the show.

If you’re planning on bringing promotional materials to NMX and you’re not sure if it’s considered suitcasing, don’t be afraid to ask us. We’d rather chat with you about what you’re doing than have to ask you to leave. We’re nice people, really, we just don’t want anyone stealing from our attendees, exhibitors, sponsors and the team that works so hard to bring you the best possible conference.

How can you represent your brand without suitcasing

If your brand isn’t into a booth (but we encourage them to get one  – there’s still time!) there are ways to represent them without suitcasing:

  • Wear branded clothing. Wearing a t-shirt with a brand logo isn’t suitcasing, and everyone does it. In fact, it’s a great conversation starter.
  • Collect business cards: As you talk to attendees, collect business cards to bring back to the brand. Please explain why you’re doing so, however, so no one receives unwanted promotional material.
  • Blog: Live blog from the event and mention your sponsor. Let folks know that they sent you to the conference so you can learn, and also let folks know what your sponsor does and why they might want to follow them.  You don’t have to be spammy about it, but most folks understand sponsors require promotional posts and tweets.
  • Tweet: Thank your sponsor on Twitter for sending you to the conference.

At NMX we want our attendees to have the best experience possible. We want them to be able to walk our hallways or hang out in the New Media Lounge without being bombarded with unwanted sales pitches. Please think before suitcasing.


  • Derek Overbey

    Well put Deb. It always rubbed me the wrong way when I was exhibiting at a trade show or conference and saw someone in the hall “attacking” people with a pitch, swag or flyers. I’m glad you addressed this and I must say you did it as nice as you are Deb. Looking forward to seeing you on Sunday.


  • Dave Taylor

    Another word for this is guerrilla marketing, and I don’t see how it’s unethical, quite frankly.

    Trade show booths are expensive and as is obvious from companies that get a “table” and have no signage, it’s not the cost of the space, it’s the cost of building something that’ll catch people’s attention. If instead you can bump into people and hand them a flier about your Web development biz, your new mobile blogging app, your photo filter software, your barely launched still not funded startup while chatting briefly with them about their current solution, that’s just savvy marketing.

    Not every business needs a Web site (think “local gas station”) and not every company that has a representative at a trade show needs a trade show booth. I mean, if I hand out AskDaveTaylor stickers to people when I bump into them, am I violating the rules because I haven’t ponied up $$$ for a booth? I sure hope not.

    Having said that, obviously the revenue stream from the exhibitors is an important part of the balance sheet for any conference, and those companies that are large enough and have enough resources to get a booth and set it up are an important part of the event and worthy of our time and attention.

    But there’s a balance. At least in my opinion…

  • Linda Sherman

    Dave Taylor, as is already public – I adore you. But let me say this. I have seen NMX staff pick up a stack of inexpensive swag left in boxes on a table in the food court. Someone could buy just an exhibit hall pass and hang out to pass out swag/flyers. That really is unfair to the exhibitors. If we are spreading our message through conversation, I would think a business card exchange could suffice. One thing that’s great about NMX is that they got the Content Creator pass all the way down to under $200 for early bird tickets. Opening the door to more attendees by keeping exhibitors happy seems like the best thing for the conference all around.

  • Dave Taylor

    First off, aww, thanks, Linda. <3

    The stack of swag left behind is definitely not cool, and that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about having a conversation with a group of people and handing them your business card. Not a problem, right? So why is it that if you instead hand them a tri-fold brochure for your company's product or service it becomes "suitcasing"? Or if I hand people stickers or a promotional mouse pad (people have mice?) or similar?

    See what I mean? Stacks of brochures and collateral piled up in the expo area or elsewhere in the conference from non-sponsors, non-exhibitors is at best a bit tacky, but exactly where are we drawing the line?

    • Deb Ng

      Thanks for your comments, Dave. There’s a big difference between handing out business cards in conversation and standing in a hallway passing out brochures and swag. If you’re sitting at a table in the New Media Lounge and you’re talking about what you do, it’s not a problem to ask someone if you can give them more information. If you walk up to the tables and throw all your Ask Dave Taylor paraphernalia on each table, it’s a problem.

  • Dave Taylor

    So what’s the demarcation, Deb? Having other people involved and/or producing your material based on someone requesting it? If so, that’s not always how a business conversation goes, is it?

    I do think that it’s important for conferences like New Media Expo — a conference tied to a nascent business segment with much startup and service provider activity — to have some level of support and empathy for people who cannot afford a booth or don’t see it as a strategic spend for their business. If I’m a consultant and picking up one new client would be a huge win for me, that certainly doesn’t justify me spending the entire conference standing at a table with $500 worth of collateral and signage. But handing out fliers to 20 people I meet, hoping one fish lands? That’s spot on.

    While I can totally appreciate the vendor / exhibitor perspective (been there, done that) and the conference organizer perspective (been there, done that too), I would encourage everyone to also be sympathetic to the smaller businesses for which handing out some swag might be the top end of their marketing budget for the year. And if that’s not acceptable, what path do they have for gaining visibility and perhaps a new customer or two from their attendance at the show?

    • Deb Ng

      I liken it to a television commercial. Businesses that can afford to advertise on TV certainly do so. However if you can’t afford to, you probably wouldn’t hack into a another brand’s paid for commercial space to share your message, right? It’s not a perfect analogy but I think it makes the point. The exhibits, conference bags, signage,etc. is all paid for advertising space. The rest of it – hallways, new media lounge, sessions,etc. that’s sacred space where attendees should have the right to walk and network unaccosted. Now, this isn’t to say you can’t have a business conversation and said conversation can’t lead to the passing out of your promotional material, but if you want to walk to the floors and hand out brochures to our attendees you have to pay for that right – and make sure it’s happening in the designated areas. Otherwise no one would want to attend conferences because everyone would be there pimping out their stuff.

      It’s not just NMX, either. Check with every, single conference and you’ll see they have suitcasing and outboarding (hosting swag parties or unauthorized events without the conference blessings) policies.

      You hit on something that’s something important for us to explore, Dave. What can we do to help the small business owners who want to promote their business to gain visibility while not doing something that’s frowned upon by every single conference? We hope the speed dating is helping with some of that, but you can be sure we’re looking for other ways for you to have a voice without crossing the line.

      • Peter P

        Using the event’s name without paying a ‘license fee’ is definitely a no-no.

        Holding a swag party ‘for NMX attendees’ would be out-of-line, in my opinion.

        however, If I happen to know a lot of tech freaks and social media nuts are going to be in town and I just happen to host a party in the same neighborhood at the same time….. the lines get very blurry!

        If I owned a relevant business which was based in Vegas, I’d definitely hold an ‘open house’ during NMX / CES simply because I’d know many of my clients or potential clients would be in town at that time.

  • Peter P

    Great discussion going on in the comments here.

    The Olympics was a good example of many of the issues surrounding this whole subject. They went a little crazy about it, but, at the same time, I can see how protecting your brand and the sponsors (who pay for the majority of the conference costs) is important.

    I like the word suitcasing because it bring a particular picture to mind of a guy in a tacky suit opening up his suitcase in a hallway and legs extending from it, giving him an instant table, with the case fully decked out to sell his products.

    I think anyone can agree that that is wrong… but then you pare it down to something less obvious and the lines get blurred.

    I had two instances last year, both of which I asked about in advance.

    1) I went to a conference and did a little guerrilla marketing in that I gave away free branded t-shirts and gave $10 to charity for every person who wore one on a particular day. I asked the organizers in advance and they decided they were fine with it, especially since they didn’t have a charity represented there and they liked what I was raising money for.

    2) Another conference I went to, I asked how far it is acceptable to go in ‘selling’ at the conference. I was selling blog hosting at the time and so I asked, if I’m talking to someone about hosting and they want to sign up there and then, is it OK for me to accept cash on the spot or even pull out my Square credit card reader and take a card? The answer was that was probably a little too far, so I refrained from doing it… but at the same time, it’s just a business deal between two attendees of a conference who met there and discovered a mutually beneficial arrangement could be met.

    I love Dave’s stickers and think they are great little ‘business cards’. Likewise, i have no problem with someone giving me a tri-fold in lieu of a business card. Finding the line though between casual interactions which result in an exchange of business information and suitcasing is very hard.

    It’s all pre-meditated, after all, one just requires more of an outgoing personality!

  • Sara M.

    I’m really glad to see this discussion – I’ve always been uncomfortably unclear with the definition of “suitcasing” and where organizers draw the line! I attend NMX as a representative of a US government entity that produces social media content as a portion of its outreach. I always bring bookmarks and stickers for these outreach efforts (which are taxpayer-funded) in case I make some good networking connections and want to share what we do. I never leave items on a table or accost people with them – it’s just something to give them besides a business card. Last year, I think I gave away a couple dozen, maybe less, during the course of NMX. But I was scared that I’d be accused of “suitcasing” because I gave those couple dozen people some bookmarks and stickers, and didn’t pay for a booth. I get the extreme that this is trying to prevent, but it’s not clear if the things I saw as simple networking tools were also considered unethical.

    • Dave Taylor

      Sounds very interesting, Sara. We should talk about what you’re doing. No suitcase required. 🙂 Just hit me up when we’re in Vegas, or email me on Gmail as “d1taylor”. 🙂

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