Writing a request for proposal can be overwhelming. Here's what you need to know before you hit "send."
The one question I receive most often from exhibit managers is "How do I write a request for proposal (RFP) for a new exhibit build?" Unfortunately, it's also one of the hardest questions to answer. There are just too many variables that are specific to each company's marketing plan and industry. However, after having been through the RFP process for exhibit builds and rentals dozens of times in my career, there are some important lessons I've learned.
The RFP process will take twice as long as you think, be twice as complex with internal approvals (and disapprovals) from various departments (e.g., accounting, procurement, and legal) and your stakeholder team, and cost you at least one-third more than you anticipated. Exhibit managers tend to be optimists and underestimate the time commitment, processes, and costs involved in a new exhibit build. So here are the tips I wish someone would have shared with me before I compiled my first exhibit RFP, as they would have made my life a lot easier.
Decide what your exhibit needs to accomplish in order to support your marketing goals and objectives. To do that, conduct an internal review with stakeholders and determine the functions your exhibit has to fill. It's easy to get excited about the prospect of a shiny new exhibit and forget about the mundane strategic planning. I call this "ready, fire, aim!" approach premature execution syndrome.
Don't get caught up in the design process until you know exactly what you need to produce a functional exhibit. Talk with stakeholders from your sales and marketing teams to get a feel for current and future exhibit requirements. Determine what flexibility needs to be built into the design and what type of exhibit properties might best accommodate current functional needs and future plans. Consider the quantity of shows you attend, the size of the booth space at those shows, the amount of time between the trade shows on your calendar (if it's a tight turnaround, you might need more than one property), the number of product lines and/or brands the exhibit has to represent, etc. Factor in all those variables when crafting your RFP.
Establish Relationship Goals
Determine what products and services are essential to your company when it comes to an exhibit house. This is where you separate your wants from your needs. Ask yourself, "What is it about my relationship with an exhibit house that is most critical to our program's success?"
Identify Department Roles
Know the roles that your firm's legal, procurement, and finance departments play in the RFP process. Before moving forward, learn the internal policies and procedures for major purchases. For example, does your company's finance department consider an acquisition more than $10,000 to be a capital-asset purchase rather than a marketing expense? Who has to approve the purchase of capital assets, and what's the procedure and time frame? How will purchasing/procurement, finance, and legal be involved in the front end (writing/distributing the RFP) and on the back end (final evaluation, selection, negotiating, and contracting)? Is it procurement's policy to select the least-expensive proposal, regardless of design or cost of ongoing services required to support the exhibit program? How can you change this mindset of "cheapest is best"?
Too often, exhibit managers skip the critical step of educating internal departments about why a new exhibit build is not a commodity purchase. For that reason, we need to help all the players involved understand that designing, producing, and maintaining an exhibit property is a dynamic process based on ever-changing marketing requirements. That means it takes much more strategic forethought and creativity than, say, just buying office furniture.
I've seen exhibitors very disappointed with the RFP responses they've received from suppliers, and the culprit is often a poorly written RFP that doesn't clearly convey the exhibitor's needs, wants, or budget. The RFP didn't share critical information on the target audience's demographics and psychographics, or express the company's brand proposition. Since this is company-specific information that is almost ingrained in us, we often fail to share the specifics that will make an exhibit truly represent our brand.
➤ An explanation of the RFP's goals, an overview of the RFP process, the key criteria being evaluated, and a notification of intent to participate.
➤ The exhibitor's corporate profile, which includes basic company, financial, and contact information.
➤ A marketing profile comprising company background information, market position/volume/share, brand positioning and promise, exhibiting's role in the overall marketing mix, show goals and objectives, return-on-investment and return-on-objective measurement criteria, marketing collateral, the corporate style manual, and/or brand guidelines.
➤ A description of the exhibit program, including the trade show schedule and dates, locations, booth sizes, and required date of the new exhibit debut.
➤ The strengths and weaknesses of past exhibits and how experiences with those switches should dictate future direction.
➤ An exhibit-needs summary, which lists any exceptional physical requirements or limitations, style mandates, product-display preferences, etc.
➤ A detailed list of the exhibit requirements. Common items include audiovisual equipment, computer kiosks, conference rooms, demo areas, flooring, furnishings, graphics and corporate identity, hanging signs, hospitality/food-service areas, information and reception center, lead retrieval, lighting, literature distribution, theaters, product displays, shipping containers, storage, utilities, and wire/cable management.
➤ Request full descriptions of the services provided to exhibitors, along with information on whether the services are provided in-house or subcontracted. If they are subcontracted, ask for the fee structure. Also request information about the exhibit house's policies for providing turnkey services, account management, and exhibit inventory.
In addition to the aforementioned items, ask for line-item costs of all the components in the proposal. This way, you can do an apples-to-apples comparison to evaluate all the proposals you receive. Also include a proposal timeline outlining project milestones.
Set and Share the Budget
My personal feeling regarding budget is to give a budgetary range, with an all-inclusive top dollar limit. I note that this figure needs to include everything provided for the exhibit to go to its inaugural show – the design, exhibit and graphic production, crating, taxes, preview, first-time setup supervision, and any other necessary services.
While I do request an estimated cost of show services, such as weight for shipping and material handling, crate dimensions for transportation and storage, and I&D labor hours, these are not part of the capital asset purchase. Therefore, I use this data to compute ongoing overall annual show budgets.
Allow Adequate Time
Depending on the size, scope, and strategic preparation required for the exhibit build, it can take a few months to a year from the initial "Gee, let's build an exhibit" idea to the "Wow, this is the greatest exhibit we've ever had!" conclusion.
Again, be realistic. Consider the time necessary to pull stakeholders together for strategic meetings. You will need to meet with the procurement, finance, and legal departments to discuss company policies and processes; research potential exhibit houses before even sending out requests for information (an optional precursor to an RFP, the RFI acts as a general information-gathering tool); compile the information for and distribute the RFP; wait for vendors to respond; evaluate the RFP responses; and meet with your stakeholders again to make a list of the exhibit houses that will present their designs. Finally, you have to allow time for negotiating and contracting, as well as exhibit production, setup and preview, and shipping.
Account for all Expenses
Consider more than just the cost of the exhibit. The one-time cost to purchase an exhibit pales in comparison to the ongoing direct costs you'll be required to pay at each show over the life of the property. These recurring expenses include shipping, material handling, I&D labor, rigging, and electrical power. Other ancillary products and services include lead-retrieval equipment rental, plant and floral rental, AV, and Internet connectivity. And don't forget to budget for ongoing maintenance and refurbishment, asset management, and storage fees between shows.
Create a Comparison and Evaluation Process
How will you compare the RFP responses? Do you have a point system for statistically weighting the importance of the various segments of responses? Will you share your evaluation system and weighting with your potential partners so they can see what's most important to you?
Too often, I've seen the final exhibit-build decision turn into a beauty pageant because the internal stakeholders' committee votes for what it perceives to be the most attractive design. The problem is, an eye-popping design doesn't necessarily take into account what the exhibit manager is going to have to deal with for the life of the property.
At the end of the day, every exhibit manager is looking for a long-term partnership with an exhibit house. Both parties need to feel good about the relationship, and if either one doesn't feel it's getting a fair shake, the relationship won't thrive. So while price is important, look at the overall value – and peace of mind – granted by a relationship with a trusted exhibit house. In my opinion, that's the most important line item of all. Fortunately, it's priceless.
CTSM, CEM, CMP, CMM
"The Booth Mom," is an independent exhibit project manager, trainer, speaker, consultant, and an Exhibitor Conference faculty member. CandyAdams@BoothMom.com