Everyone in the industry has heard the granddaddy story of trade show thefts: The 14-foot boat stolen off the show floor at a large New York convention hall. Fortunately, few companies will fall victim to a caper of that magnitude, but trade show and event theft happens.
“Electronics of any kind are the biggest targets,” says Mark Mittelstadt, a marketing executive at Exhibit Systems. “It used to be flat screen TVs because they were so valuable. Now it’s iPads and tablets.”
A similar theft recently happened to Exhibit Systems Vice President Dave Jentz, who was assisting a client with I&D for a large sales conference. The total project included nine exhibits with product displays and electronics in a convention hotel.
“We actually ended the night by talking to the head of security as he locked the ballroom door,” says Jentz. “But when we returned the next morning, six major electronic items were stolen, from monitors and laptops to critical keychain drives.”
It was a pretty typical venue – it had a service entrance for employee access and the presence of cleaning staff, breakfast servers and the hotel’s custodial team was expected during the overnight hours.
A review of the security video confirmed it was a member of the contract cleaning staff.
Ultimately, the hotel did confront the individual caught on video. Most of the larger items were returned in time for the event.
“According to the police, we were quite fortunate because usually the items stolen go right to the pawn shop,” says Jentz. “For some reason, this guy took it home and still had it.”
The typical trade show/event theft is an inside job.
“You can’t get into most trade shows without a badge, so that cuts down on people just walking in off the street,” says Mittelstadt. “In most instances, when theft occurs, it’s a member of a nighttime cleaning crew, service crew or onsite workers.”
In fact, virtually everyone in the industry has a story or two about this type of theft. It happens, it’s difficult to control and it means that exhibitors need to take all necessary steps to minimize it.
“One of the things I always recommend to our clients is to ensure that there’s some sort of lockable closet or cabinet in their exhibit,” says Mittelstadt. “One person in the booth is responsible for the key, and that’s where the purses, briefcases and even luggage is stored. It’s not unusual for staff to come straight to the exhibit or event from the airport.”
If your exhibit doesn’t have built-in lockable space, Exhibit Systems also rents lock boxes that can be shipped to shows along with a client’s existing exhibit or display.
“They’re big enough that one person cannot singlehandedly carry it around,” says Mittelstadt. “It’s the first thing on the show floor and the last to leave, and it’s kept in a conspicuous space where everyone can see it. It’s also big enough that it’s a pain in the neck for one person to carry, but not too big that it takes up valuable real estate in your exhibit.”
Mittelstadt also suggest keeping the right perspective about security efforts.
“Trade show security should be about deterring theft, not about turning your exhibit into Ft. Knox,” he explains. “The low-hanging fruit is the first to go.”
Trade show theft is often a crime of opportunity by people who know how to blend in. It’s not someone dressed like a cartoon thief in all black with a stocking cap; it’s someone that looks just like your booth staffers or an attendee.
“We actually had someone walk up to a booth, lift the curtain, take apart our cables and steal a Blu-ray player,” says Jentz. “When I noticed it was gone, I asked the exhibitors across the aisle if they saw anything. They did: A professionally dressed man who seemed confident in what he was doing there. They assumed he was a member of our booth staff.”
A certain portion of theft occurs at the end of the show. There’s an assumption that items are free for the taking.
“We definitely have to keep an eye on things,” says Jentz. “I was working a trade show for another retail client that had clothing displayed on mannequins, and a woman came by, took a hat off a mannequin and started wearing it. When I told her she couldn’t have it, she was quite surprised. I had to tell her that she couldn’t just walk off with a $200 hat.”
This type of theft may be rooted in the confusion of take down, as some exhibitors do give some display items away. But for those exhibitors who don’t, it means extra attention is required at the end of the show.
Here are some ideas to consider before leaving for your next trade show or event.
- One of the easiest things to set down and forget about is your cell phone, which is often your personal and professional lifeline. Consider investing in a holder that clips onto your belt for use at trade shows so you always know where your phone is.
- Don’t forget to secure portable items, electronics and any cords/peripherals at night. Thieves are also interested in specific cords, which can be quite costly to replace.
- If you must leave items of value unsecured in the exhibit hall, put them in boxes and intentionally mislabel them. This includes items that would be a nuisance to lose, such as desk lamps, office supplies, etc. A box labeled “spare brochures” is much less interesting than one labeled “show electronics.”
- Make sure your exhibit laptops and tablets do not contain sensitive personal or corporate information. If possible, use dedicated trade-show equipment that is loaded with limited trade show-specific media and information.
- When hiring a security guard, read the contract carefully. Most security guards are simply hired to deter theft, not stop it, and their contracts often state that they are not responsible for lost or stolen items.
- Finally, at the end of a trade show, move items away from the show aisle to discourage pilfering while you’re packing up. Designate someone in the space to monitor for possible theft, including addressing anyone who seems to be loitering around the booth that doesn’t belong there.