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the rfp process

Rebecca Dop, CTSM, is the senior manager, marketing programs at MGI Pharma Inc., now Eisai Inc.
She enrolled in the Certified Trade Show Marketer program in 2003, and completed her portfolio in November of 2006, receiving her CTSM certification at Exhibitor2007.

hen "build a new booth" suddenly appears on your to-do list, it's enough to make most people duck and cover. After all, a new build means you're not only responsible for investing a big wad of your company's cash, but you also have to live with - and accept responsibility for - the resulting booth for years to come.

And newbies are pretty much out of luck, as Amazon.com doesn't carry a book called "Booth Building for Dummies." Sure, there's a decent bit of information available about how to write an RFP, and you can even find basic data about the booth-building process. But few people have ever explained exactly how the process works from beginning to end - much less what tactics have worked miracles, or failed miserably, along the way.

So in 2004, when my co-worker Marcey Culp and I were tasked with our first new booth build, something akin to panic crept into the pit of my stomach. My company, MGI Pharma Inc., a biopharmaceutical company in Bloomington, MN, (which was recently bought by Eisai Inc.), owned two booths - a 40-by-40-foot island, and a 10-by-20-foot inline. The booths were in pretty bad shape; plus, they looked completely different, providing no continuity for our brands.

We were about to launch a new product, so management wanted a fresh new face for the company at the American Society of Hematology (ASH) show in December 2005. Thus, we needed to build a booth that not only met our marketing needs, but was reconfigurable to sizes including everything from a 10-by-20-foot inline to a 50-by-50-foot island.

To further complicate matters, shortly before management ordered the new build, our exhibit house folded. Rather than trying to establish a relationship with a new exhibit house and account executive at that time, we simply followed our AE to a new firm, which then stored, maintained, and provided on-site management for our exhibits. Thus, when we entered the booth-building process, we were not only new to the process, but our company had a less-than-established relationship with our current exhibit house.

Before I could lead our team through the lengthy booth-build process, I had to educate myself - and fast. So I networked with peers, read industry publications, and attended industry shows, where I cornered anyone with a grain of RFP-related knowledge and peppered them with questions. As a result, I gathered giant handfuls of unconnected data that I later organized into the following step-by-step plan.

When I began my booth-build RFP, I would have given my right arm for this kind of step-by-step guide, which is why I'm passing it on to you. Granted, every RFP situation is different, so you'll have to put your own spin on it, but this simple guide, littered with the lessons I learned along the way, should help you complete your new booth build with much greater speed and efficiency - and with fewer panic attacks along the way. e

My first step was to establish a basic timeline for the build, including the targeted months in which we needed to: identify potential exhibit houses, send an RFI, receive their responses and narrow the field, release an RFP to the remaining firms, review their presentations, select a new exhibit house, start and finish construction, and ship the completed booth to the first show.

Next, using information I'd gathered during my research as well as industry square-foot averages and past experience, I devised a budget and submitted a capital-expense request to management, which was approved in late December 2004.

Lessons Learned:

Since this was my first time ordering a new exhibit, I didn't know how long each step would take, so I couldn't start my timeline from the beginning and work chronologically toward completion. However, I knew when the exhibit property had to be ready - the ASH show in December 2005 - so I started at that date and worked backward to the present, which was 2004. I also included plenty of cushion for unexpected delays, allowing us to complete the build on time, even given a couple of minor setbacks along the way.

With money in hand for the build, we needed to set objectives and determine the look and feel of this new exhibit property.

I quickly established an internal booth-build task force comprising my manager, vice president- and brand-manager-level reps from brand marketing, senior management from commercial, a medical-science liaison, a corporate communications/investor relations rep, and key people from sales management and finance. I made sure to include not only stakeholders but information holders, such as the medical-sciences liaison who would make sure we didn't make any terminology-related blunders in our booth graphics.

I then compiled a list of questions for the group and scheduled a series of meetings to answer them. Questions included everything from, "What do you like/dislike about the current booth?" and "What type of journey do you want our attendees to take inside our space?" to "What feelings do you want our booth to evoke?" and "What messages must we relay?" After a couple of meetings, we established a list of objectives and outcomes for the booth.

During this time I also began gathering data necessary for the RFP, such as the company's mission statement, product samples, a list of nondesign-related requirements (such as staff experience levels, promotional-support capabilities, etc.), PMS logo colors and usage instructions, etc.

Lessons Learned:

While the task force was invaluable, it certainly had its problems. First, my decision makers were the company's movers and shakers, with the emphasis on "movers." They were always on the road, and assembling the task force in one place and at one time proved almost impossible. Since viewing images, examining samples, and simply talking face to face were critical to the success of the group, I always fought an uphill battle.

Next time, I'll probably set up a video conference to establish a semblance of face-to-face communication, or if all else fails, I'll use an FTP site to post images and information so people in the field can easily view key images and data.

The group's second, near-fatal flaw was its inability to talk effectively about intangibles. Getting people to explain what they liked or didn't like about the existing booth was easy, but it was much more challenging for them to answer questions such as "How do we want customers to perceive the brand?" or "What should the booth feel like?" Next time, I'll provide more photos of other booths to help people illustrate intangible concepts. This way, they can say, "I want our booth to feel like this example," or "The booth in this photo feels too cold."

Finally, I omitted field-sales reps and booth staffers from the task force. Compared to executives and managers, these people have far more contact with customers, and they're the ones working the booth - which means they possess oodles of information that would have been valuable to our task force.

Throughout January and February 2005, I researched exhibit houses extensively and compiled a list of seven firms that I thought could deliver the design, construction, and service requirements we wanted. Then I attended EXHIBITOR2005, an educational conference and exhibition for exhibit and event marketers, where I spoke with representatives and account executives at several exhibit houses and added another four to our list of potential firms.

Lessons Learned:

While I wanted to identify as many potential exhibit firms as possible - and to make sure "the perfect company" didn't slip through the cracks - I shouldn't have added the last four firms. The firms weren't lacking in any way, but their addition brought the total to 11 firms, which was too many to manage effectively.

Next time, I'll do the show research much earlier, and my initial research and verbal interviews will be much more thorough to help eliminate potential candidates early and to narrow the field to a more manageable six or seven.

Using a template from my then account executive, as well as questions developed by our task force, I created a five-page request for information, featuring nine major sections: 1) general information, 2) account team, 3) capabilities/design/technology, 4) clients/trade show experience, 5) pricing, 6) financial position, 7) pharmaceutical-industry details, 8) additional information, and 9) references. We then sent the RFI to the 11 firms selected, and provided a deadline for receipt of their proposals. Once we'd received the proposals, we analyzed each of them compared to our goals, as well as the quality and speed of their responses, and eliminated all but five of the firms.

Lessons Learned:

The strict deadline was key, as only eight of the 11 firms submitted responses on time. I certainly understand busy schedules; however, missing our first deadline was a death sentence. If an exhibit house couldn't meet my first deadline, before it had even secured my business, I could only guess how many deadlines it would miss after it had my money. Thus, my strict deadline allowed me to quickly eliminate three firms.

My RFI was also far too detailed, as it generated a mountain of information that was difficult to sift through, making it hard for the group to identify key differentiators.

During the RFI process, I simultaneously developed the RFP, using basic information I'd gleaned from my initial research along with the information and requirements developed by the task force. Here are the main components I included in my RFP.

 Company Overview. Description of our company, its products, and its main competitors, including its mission statement, core values, organizational structure, key corporate messages, and corporate PMS colors, logos, and requirements for their use.

 Product- and Brand-Marketing Strategies. Brand-marketing plan along with individual product-marketing messages, copies of key sales and marketing collateral, print advertising, promotional-campaign strategies, and competitive profiles for each product.

 Challenges/Objectives. Challenges and problems with the existing property as well as functional and design objectives for the new property.

 Services. Overview of exhibit-related services required during the next three to five years.

 Photos. Images of the existing property, including individual elements and details.

 Budget. A general budget range rather than an exact figure for the project.

Lessons Learned:

You'll note that we included a budget range, as opposed to an exact figure. Initially, I wanted to withhold all budget information for two reasons: 1) I didn't want our budget to limit the design team's creative process, and 2) I was afraid an exhibit house would slap a price tag equivalent to our budget on its design, regardless of the booth's value.

I also understood the designers needed a guideline, so shortly before we sent out the RFP, I included a ballpark budget, giving designers a flexible box within which to create their designs. Yet I also stressed that designers should include all of the wow-factor elements they could muster regardless of cost, as we would consider going above our budget constraints if their creative capabilities warranted.

Going forward, I will continue to use this ballpark strategy, as it provides a framework for designers, but it also provides them some room to stretch their creative muscles.

We then sent the RFP to five exhibit houses along with a confidentiality agreement, (basically stating that we wouldn't share their intellectual property and they couldn't share ours) and a Form of Acceptance. Since the RFP process requires a considerable commitment from all parties, a completed Form of Acceptance indicated to me that the exhibit house was entering the RFP process and intended to follow through to completion.

Additional instructions and more information also accompanied the RFP. For example, the cover letter listed all of the competing firms responding to the RFP and provided a deadline by which they had to submit additional questions and requests for clarification. It then explained that I would answer each question by a certain date and copy all firms on each question and answer.

The RFP also contained instructions about how firms should respond. It explained what we expected to see at the presentation, the required length of each presentation, what we wanted to see in writing, how many copies were needed and in what format they should be provided, a list of people attending, the audiovisual equipment available, etc. Plus, we asked that all concepts be presented prior to and separate from cost information. We also included an optional "RFP fee" that we would award the winning firm as compensation for the time and money it invested in the RFP process.

Lessons Learned:

The Form of Acceptance may not have been legally binding, but I wanted more than a handshake to ensure each firm's commitment to this process.

Since people in the trade show industry are so closely connected, I knew that the minute the firms received the RFPs, phone lines would be buzzing as reps tried to find out who they were competing against. Rather than fostering the mystery, I listed all of the companies on the cover letter. This strategy allowed firms to play up their strengths in relation to the competing firms - which in turn allowed us to more easily compare them.

Keeping the Q&A process transparent helped level the playing field, as I wanted all companies to have the same information from which to create their designs. Thus, I copied everyone on each question and answer. Interestingly, this open communication made exhibitors think twice about the questions they asked and how they asked them, as nobody wanted to ask a stupid question, nor did they somehow want to give away any clues about what they were working on.

The Q&A process was also a time saver for me, as it kept me from answering the same questions over and over. However, it might have prevented some firms from establishing a competitive edge. Minus my information-sharing process, perhaps one firm would have asked several critical questions, allowing it to develop a better design than its competitors - and allowing me to witness its analytic capabilities. Thus, I am not certain if I would use this same equal-information Q&A process again.

Separating the creative ideas from their costs was also key. The minute you mention a dollar figure in front of management, they seem to hear almost nothing afterward. By focusing on the creative concepts first and dollar figures second, we could better evaluate the entire project, rather than being struck deaf by sticker shock.

The $25,000 "RFP fee" offered to the winning firm became more of a symbolic gesture than anything of real value to the exhibit houses. While the money showed firms we fully understood and appreciated their contribution and commitment to the RFP process, I later learned most companies write off these costs anyway, and the firm we chose refused the cash and told us these costs were already absorbed throughout the company.

While the firms worked on their proposals, our accounting firm performed a financial check on each company and found all of them to be in good standing. Meanwhile, we started checking references. Prior to the RFP process, we asked each firm for five references along with two references from the pharmaceutical industry. My colleague and I called all 35 references and asked them the same questions.

Lessons Learned:

The reference check was tedious, and merely connecting with uber-busy exhibit managers was a challenge, but it was a major eye opener. Not only did we learn about the strengths and weaknesses of each firm, we were able to completely eliminate one firm. Apparently that firm didn't take the time to check its own references, as exhibitors reported feeling like small, insignificant fish left to fend for themselves in a big pond filled with sharks - which was exactly the type of situation we hoped to avoid.

My co-worker and I visited four of the five exhibit firms while they worked on their RFPs, excluding our current exhibit house.

Lessons Learned:

A warehouse is a warehouse all over the world, so for us, the visit was an opportunity to spend more face time with company reps, to pick up on the general attitude of its employees, and to get a feel for the quality, service, and efficiency of the firm.

Surprisingly, one company completely blew us away during our site visit. Not only did we meet everyone from the night janitor to the CEO, but our entire visit was molded into an integrated program of sorts and organized around a summer-picnic theme. Next time, I'll include our existing firm in the site visits to ensure it has the same opportunity to impress us.

When it finally came time for the firms to present their designs, the task force used a score card to evaluate each proposal. The score card used a point system, with one being "acceptable" and five being "very good," and included the following criteria, among others.

 Flexibility. Will the booth adapt to different spaces?

 Overall Design. Will the overall booth design help MGI communicate its image, messages, and brands?

 Account Team. Is the team's personality a good fit with MGI, and does it have sufficient experience?

 Total Program. Does the firm provide measurement tools; pre-, at-, and post-show promotion programs; program management; etc.?

 Financing. Do the payment, lease, and/or rental terms match our needs?

 Cost. Is the cost warranted and within our range?

 Financial Stability. Is the firm stable for the long haul?

Lessons Learned:

The score card helped us organize our thoughts and reinforce general feelings. In fact, it allowed us to completely eliminate one firm based on its low point total. However, task-force members' point totals varied so much and members held such varying opinions about the importance of each criteria that the score card wasn't a prominent factor in our decision making.

Within 24 hours of the last presentation, the task force submitted their scores, and we tabulated the results. Within that first week we evaluated our scores and opinions and settled on a firm that best met our needs.

I immediately notified the winning firm; however, I also sent the remaining firms a letter explaining they had not won our business, and specifically stating why we had chosen another firm over theirs. I then followed up with a personal phone call to each unselected firm, reiterating the details of the letter and thanking reps for their time.

Shortly after notifying the winning firm, I invited its reps to our offices to meet the entire MGI team.

Lessons Learned:

While these calls and letters might seem like a waste of time, they were a critical part of the process for me personally. Obviously, I don't like breaking bad news to people, but given the time, money, and emotional involvement they'd committed to the process, I didn't want these firms to get the equivalent of a "Dear John" letter. In fact, I felt I owed them, and I thought I could even the score with a little constructive criticism that they could use to improve and hopefully to win their next bid. The firms were pleasantly surprised by my follow-up and were extremely appreciative.

Once our team selected a firm, we created a one-page executive report for management, explaining the entire booth-building process at a glance - including what we used to have, what we needed, what was presented, our recommendation for action, and our reasoning. I then sent the executive summary to our vice president of commercial development and our CEO, who quickly approved the purchase.

Lessons Learned:

While this summary took me only about an hour to complete and deliver, it saved us weeks or perhaps months of time. Rather than having to explain every detail of the RFP process to multiple people on the chain of command, I went straight to the top with a document that was easy to digest in one brief sitting. Within two weeks of receiving my summary, management signed off on the new build, and we were on our way.

Beyond the Build

Even the most well thought-out process is prone to a problem or two. For me, my main boo-boo involved Uncle Sam.

While determining my first annual budget for the new booth, my new exhibit house asked me how I planned to pay sales taxes on the booth. Oops. I'd forgotten to include sales tax in my budget, and nobody had mentioned it along the way. However, after a bit of investigation, my accounting department determined that we'd pay taxes the first two times the booth was prepped for a show, and we reallocated funds from multiple areas in my budget to account for the oversight.

I was also unprepared for the cost and hassle of destroying our old properties. While I tried to sell the exhibit through a brokerage firm, we ended up paying our previous exhibit house to destroy the booth. Next time, I'll get an estimate from the exhibit house and even shop around for alternative options long before I build a new booth.

Despite a few challenges and several lessons learned, this RFP process has served me well. But keep in mind, building a booth is a lot like childbirth - there's usually a lot of hard work and pain involved, but a few weeks later, you forget the pain and focus all of your energy on your new baby booth.

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