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exhibiting 101

Candy Adams,
is an independent exhibit-management
consultant, trainer, speaker, writer, and an Exhibitor conference
faculty member.

magine this: With the economy improving incrementally and that old exhibit looking a little tattered from years of use, abuse, and refurbishment, your marketing managers and bean counters have finally been persuaded to allocate a budget for building a new exhibit.

Aside from exuberant clapping, what comes next? If you guessed "write a request for proposal," you're only half right. Before an RFP can be compiled and sent to vendors, you need to get acquainted with your company's expectations, procedures, and objectives regarding the exhibit-build process. By addressing what needs to happen internally to get the wheels rolling on a new exhibit, you can avoid the bureaucratic red tape that sometimes derails - or at least delays - a project.

Determine the Parameters

While I'd love to say that all new builds follow the same timeline and process, that's just not the case. There are far too many variables that render a generic timeline useless, possibly misleading, and ultimately counterproductive. The process for building a new custom exhibit, for example, can take an entire year from the initial discussions to the final launch at a trade show. Conversely, I've had to complete the process in six weeks for a hybrid semicustom/modular exhibit.

So instead of me trying to explain how much time to allot to the various phases of the process, let's start with the scope and parameters of an exhibit build as they relate to the size and type of exhibit, number of participants and stakeholders, and the number of contracts.

 Exhibit Size - How large will the exhibit be? Are you looking to buy a prefab exhibit for a 10-by-10-foot booth space, or construct a 100-by-500-foot double-deck exhibit? I've worked on exhibits so large that they needed to be constructed in sections at multiple facilities of the same exhibit house in different cities/states. The larger the exhibit, the more time it will take to design and fabricate.

 Exhibit Type - Do you want a system exhibit, constructed of modular pieces that your exhibit house will order from its parent company/supplier? Or a custom exhibit complete with custom-dyed carpet with logo cut-ins; rotating custom-framed hanging signs; made-to-order furniture; and larger-than-life replicas of your product to use as the main tower of your exhibit? A complex design will obviously require a more involved RFP, which equals more time added to the process.

 Number of Participants - How many organizations and stakeholders from each company division or department will be involved in the design and build process? If there are stakeholders from multiple divisions providing financial resources and input for the build, plan on a longer process than if a single department makes all the design and financial decisions. With multiple inputs and processes, the likelihood of getting decisions made quickly is slim, and that can affect your quality and cost.

 Number of Contracts - Are you planning on negotiating a contract with an independent exhibit designer separately from the exhibit fabricator? Will you negotiate a contract that includes ongoing services, and if so, for what term? Will your budget be broken out into separate categories for exhibit design versus construction versus ongoing show services? Or will it all be lumped into one big bucket with some flexibility to move funds between the categories? Each type of contract - for exhibit design, fabrication, and ongoing storage and show service - might fall under different contract limitations and payment guidelines. Make sure you know what those guidelines are before writing an RFP, as they will likely dictate how each type of contract will need to be managed in regard to your firm's internal documentation.

Form and Function
Paperwork is an important part of the new-build process, and knowing the difference between two major pieces - the request for information (RFI) and the request for proposal (RFP) - will save you time and money in the long run.

Request for Information
Exhibit managers use RFIs to find out whether the exhibit houses they are interested in have the capability necessary to meet their product/service requirements. This includes everything from the exhibit's design and construction to its long-term maintenance. In essence, an RFI will help you cull those vendors that don't have the time, resources, or talent to deliver the goods you want. Generally, RFIs include questions about a company's financial status and business processes.

Request for Proposal
An RFP is used to inform vendors of your exhibit-marketing requirements and objectives. It's a list of what needs to be incorporated into the exhibit design and accompanying marketing program. RFPs are sent to exhibit houses and vendors that have met predetermined criteria for inclusion in your company's new-build process. For example, a firm may have come highly recommended from a colleague, or perhaps the information it provided in its returned RFI was impressive. The RFP process can be lengthy, time consuming, and expensive for all parties involved, so limit the number of RFPs you issue to the vendors that could realistically earn your business.

Secure the Finances

If this is your first RFP, you may not be familiar with your company's internal-documentation requirements to break loose the funds for a new-exhibit build. Should that be the case, simply consult someone in your finance and/or accounting department for a talk about your company's processes. Be ready with the strategic explanation of your exhibit program (it should be the same explanation that you used to persuade your management to approve your exhibit-build budget in the first place). That explanation will need to include your schedule, past budget, ongoing costs of maintaining the current exhibit, and future goals and requirements. These details will give the finance manager a clear understanding of your spending needs.

Savvy finance managers will also ask about the total bottom-line cost of your exhibit, including all the services required to support it. So factor in the real costs of exhibiting, such as crating, storing, shipping, material handling, installing and dismantling, rigging, refurbishing, etc. They will most likely want to know how all of these costs impact your return on investment (ROI).

In addition to presenting the above information, the meeting is an excellent opportunity for you to get answers for the following:

 Budget - Does the process of purchasing an exhibit property differ depending on the price of the purchase? I've worked with firms whose rules changed when the amount budgeted exceeded a predetermined limit of $50,000 or $100,000.

 Classification - At what budgetary point is an exhibit considered a capital asset? If it's a capital asset, it will need to be depreciated and the funding will be budgeted differently than an exhibit that is expensed and not put on a depreciation schedule.

 Spending - How much autonomy and flexibility is there in spending the funds if they're already allocated to your department's budget? Will it matter if the funds are spent during one fiscal year, or can you stage the build to meet your needs over more than one fiscal year?

 Ownership - Is there a preference for how the exhibit is owned? I've worked for small companies and companies that are up for sale that don't want to own capital assets. I've also worked for regulated government educational institutions that can't own their exhibits. Based on tax advantages and other business decisions, some clients have preferred to lease exhibits and walk away from them at the end of the lease period.

Negotiate the Particulars

After learning your company's financial policies and procedures, your next step is to visit the department that negotiates and manages contracts, usually called procurement.

Your company's procurement department most likely has a written boilerplate policy outlining its process based on the amount being spent or other criteria, such as the type of purchase. The question you need answered is relatively straightforward: "Is the procurement policy written in concrete or Jell-O?"

If you're trying to negotiate with procurement to secure its buy-in for variances to its standard policies, your challenge will be to share how the exhibit design and construction can affect other marketing decisions and costs. Explain design services, the process of procuring system exhibit components or building a custom exhibit, and the ongoing services required to maintain the exhibit after it's built, such as documentation and inventory control, installation-and-dismantle labor requirements, and specialized transportation.

You'll also need to understand procurement's process of vetting the vendors who will be able to bid on your new build. Find out whether the standard process is to identify appropriate vendors through industry research or through a request for information (RFI). Some procurement departments use separate RFIs and RFPs, while others combine the RFI and RFP into one document.

Another gotcha in the process can happen if procurement has a "low bid wins" policy. If so, you'll need to explain that more than the cost of building the exhibit needs to be taken into consideration when selecting the winner. While the exhibit is only purchased once, there are ongoing costs of exhibiting at each show based on variables like the exhibit's weight, graphics, construction materials, shipping cases, and computer equipment. The purpose of the exhibit is to introduce your company and make it memorable to your prospects, and in this scenario, the low bid doesn't always produce the best memorability or the highest ROI.

It can also be helpful to outline the RFI and/or RFP processes you'll use to determine which vendors have the ability to meet your design, construction, and ongoing service needs. Include a proposed timeline for researching the companies that you want to include in your RFI. The timeline should also include composing and distributing the RFI as well as the process for determining which vendors to include in your RFP. Finally, outline your requirements for exhibit design, construction, project management, show services, and ongoing storage and refurbishment.

The new-build process can be a daunting one, especially if you're unsure of your company's procedures for such a purchase. By taking the time to learn the internal requirements, you'll be better able to craft a well-informed RFP - and ultimately get the exhibit you really want.e

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