The SNEWS View: Photos, espionage and more at our industry trade shows

For goodness sakes, folks, in both the comparatively small outdoor and fitness industries, forms of industrial espionage at trade shows is getting out of hand. People are on edge, and unless we collectively focus on this challenge, things could go from bad to worse in a hurry…to the point of someone even getting physically hurt.
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It is perfectly normal for anyone doing business in today’s competitive environment to want to know what competitors are doing. At the very least, knowing or trying to find out reflects natural curiosity. More than likely, though, obtaining knowledge about a competitor is a result of trying to gain an edge in business. In corporate America, tales of industrial espionage are legendary. But for goodness sakes, folks, in both the comparatively small outdoor and fitness industries, it is getting out of hand. People are on edge, and unless we collectively focus on this challenge, things could go from bad to worse in a hurry…to the point of someone even getting physically hurt.

On the morning of Jan. 22, 2010, Bill Hearn of Waldies was waiting for his appointment at Hubbles / Hoka One One (Outdoor Retailer Winter Market booth 38137), a French running shoe company, when, he told SNEWS®, he observed “an Asian gentleman taking lots of pictures in a surreptitious manner at the booth, not wearing a working media badge and, therefore, not allowed to be taking pictures, unless he was part of (the) booth -- which he was not.”

"So, I confronted him, and immediately took a picture of him with his badge (see photo to the right) and asked him to delete the photos,” Hearn told us. “I observed him pretending to delete the photos -- I can read Chinese enough to understand ‘cancel’ on a camera. So, I asked him three or four more times, and he kept pretending to delete. At that point, I then I took his camera from him, pulled the memory card out, and confiscated the memory card, giving him back his camera.

“He was a little upset, but I was a lot bigger than he was (editor's note: Bill’s 6’4”), and I had the power of right on my side. I asked him to go to the show office with me, and he didn’t want to, so I went to the show office instead, turned in the memory card, and e-mailed the photo of him to the Outdoor Retailer staff.”

Hearn told us that that according to the individual’s exhibitor badge, he was working for Fushida (Fujian) Shoes & Plastics Co., Ltd. (booth BR534).

Hearn is not alone in getting upset and starting to confront people. Tommy Knoll, president of C.A.M.P. USA, told SNEWS that he was having to deal with competitors and people he didn’t even know regularly trying to sneak photos in his booth increasingly at every show, and more than ever at the most recent Outdoor Retailer Winter Market. One individual, a senior design manager working for Hanesbrands (we know this because Knoll got a business card from the alleged perpetrator and gave it to us), was taking photos of all the apparel in the C.A.M.P. booth at the 2010 Outdoor Retailer Winter Market before Knoll saw him, grabbed him by the arm and forcibly requested he delete any photos.

There is little doubt that the taking of surreptitious photos on the way out of a hall or during a booth fly-by with cell phone or camera in hand is on the rise. Perhaps, sometimes innocently, but more often than not, with ulterior motives of using the images to gain some kind of market knowledge and competitive advantage as a result.

At Outdoor Retailer and Health & Fitness Business shows, among others, competitors have been caught red-faced in booths, some even with video cameras and notebooks in hand, crouching before the show opens behind drawn curtains in a booth. We have caught company executives in the booths of competitors after show hours at Health & Fitness Business, literally on the ground looking under equipment. The excuse is always the same: "Gee, I didn't know it would be a problem." Riiiiight. So, a drawn curtain and barrier around a booth says, "Hey, come on in and photograph me or crawl around on the floor for a better peek?" Believe it or not, there was actually a security camera installed at Winter Market directly over an exhibitor’s booth as a result of such shenanigans.

Thing is, if asked politely, many companies would welcome another exhibitor into their booth for a casual look or chat about a new product, and even an exchange of workbooks -- no deep prying, no photos, no video, just a professional sharing of information. It's not as if the industry won't see the product soon anyway.

But is industrial espionage really what any of us want our trade shows to devolve to?

We risk returning trade show booths to veritable fortresses, open only to those with an invitation…and where is the fun and energy and open networking a trade show, and frankly thriving industry, needs in such a cloistered environment?

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So, what are the solutions? We’re putting this one out to the industry. Some ideas we’ve already heard include:

  1. We could effectively create mini private empires at all trade show booths, each with their own security and the right to confiscate any photography equipment as long as the confiscation is done in the exhibit booth. But, there is a danger here of creating a vigilante-style state at trade shows, with a very likely outcome that at some point, someone is going to get violent, either in retaliation, or in the initial confrontation.
  2. We could establish security cameras over every booth, with images that can be reviewed by exhibitors on demand, but who has the time to do that? And what about the expense?
  3. Exhibitors could be more proactively educated about the no-photo and courtesy policy, and told that at any time, if they are in a competitor’s booth without permission, they may be photographed and those photographs displayed like a rogue’s gallery on Outdoor Retailer's website, or on SNEWS. Of course, attendees are already told of the no-photo policy and a no-photo reminder exists on every attendee badge.
  4. Booth designs could start to incorporate both an open and closed environment, with highly confidential and in-development product able to be seen only by going behind doors (not curtains) that can be locked and effectively secured.
  5. Those who are most worried about industrial espionage and product copying could stop attending trade shows and only show product to retailers who are existing or potentially good new accounts through showrooms and with a rep force. Yes, that works to insulate a product from prying eyes, but also it insulates that company from discovery by new accounts, as well as media, retailers and other important contacts the company might not encounter any other way than at a trade show.

And, what should the consequences be if someone is caught taking photographs in a booth? We’ve heard it argued that not only the offending person be stripped of his or her show credentials and banned from ever attending another trade show, but that the company he or she works for also be removed from the show. Harsh? Maybe, but unless the consequences of actions are severe, they really won’t get anyone’s attention, or inspire behavioral changes.

What do you think?

--Michael Hodgson & Therese Iknoian

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