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A Contrarian View: Is Outboarding Really the Problem?

Like the turning of the leaves in autumn, event organizers ring the alarm every so often about the practice of outboarding; that is, where a supplier sets up an attraction concurrent with an event but not within the organizer’s venue or control.

To be perfectly clear, I share completely their distaste for outboarders. The persistent complaint that it removes attendees from the official event is inarguable. However, once you get past the outrage, the threat seems overstated and the attention misplaced.

I came to this conclusion after considering an article about Comic-Con in the Wall Street Journal (July 21, 2017). The story looked at the growth of outboarding at the annual San Diego fan-fest and concluded that “nearly all the most buzzed-about and popular experiences during Comic-Con aren't technically part of Comic-Con.” 

According to the article, neither suppliers nor attendees need ever step inside the convention center— and spend money with the organizers—to have a memorable experience. Certainly, fewer attendees inside the hall can weaken an event. From there, outboarding’s harshest critics see a slippery slope leading to an eventual tipping point that will destroy an event. 
Or so the logic goes. Except the tipping point has never been reached, and I doubt that it will ever happen.

What about Comic-Con? It makes a tempting cautionary tale, but like most consumer events, it differs from the B-to-B model in significant ways. For B-to-B events, the efficiency of the exhibit hall and the quality of the professional education is a huge advantage that should never be matched by an outboarded attraction.

If your event generates enough enthusiasm to spawn outboarding, the solution is not to stand by and watch more exhibitors walk out the door. Smart organizers will work creatively with outboarders and nearby properties to limit the defections, reduce outboarding opportunities, and mitigate the damage.

Outboarding is the organic by-product of successful events—events that often wield immense market power. If we create demand, we must fill it or someone else will. 

Lippman's take-away: Outboarding will not kill an event but a slow, unimaginative response to changing business realities will do it every time.

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