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exhibiting 101
The 10 Keys to RFPs
Building a new exhibit is a monumental challenge, but completing a request for proposal is perhaps the most daunting step. Make the process as efficient as possible with these 10 tips. By Candy Adams
One of the questions novice exhibit managers often ask me is, "How do I write a request for proposal for a new exhibit build?" It's a difficult question to answer, as there are too many variables to formulate a one-size-fits-all response. That being said, after completing dozens of RFPs for both new builds and rentals, I've learned some lessons that I'm happy to share. So here are the 10 keys to crafting effective RFPs.

1. Include your stakeholders.
Before you begin the RFP process, assemble everyone who has a stake in the success of your upcoming exhibit and ask them to share their expectations, wants, and needs. Start with staff from your marketing, sales, and corporate communications teams. These stakeholders' input should generally include the historic successes (or failures) of your current exhibit properties, the strategic vision for your future exhibit-marketing program, and your requirements regarding integration into the existing strategic marketing plan. Your stakeholders should also weigh in on the function and aesthetics of the exhibit, overall project budget, and time lines. Identify and resolve disagreements at this stage of the game, and make sure everyone is on the same page – or at least reading the same book.

2. Understand your company's internal processes.
Too often exhibit managers forget to learn what roles their company's procurement, finance, and legal departments play when it comes to major purchases like trade show exhibits. Does the finance department consider anything more than $10,000 to be a capital asset purchase rather than a marketing expense? Who has to budget for and approve the purchase of capital assets, and what's the established procedure and time frame?

If, for example, procurement has the final say, and its policy is to automatically select the least expensive proposal – regardless of the design or the cost of ongoing services required to support the exhibit – you can avoid wasting time evaluating any proposals that come in over budget. Similarly, if it's likely to take several weeks to obtain the approval necessary to move forward with a new build, you will need to factor that into your time lines to ensure the property is ready to make its debut at the intended show. In addition to understanding the players and processes you'll be dealing with, be ready to share the strategic explanation of your show program. Knowing what is important to your program – and why – will give these departments a clearer understanding of the project's scope and hopefully secure their support and eventual buy-in.

3. Consider all of your options.
Exhibiting companies can break the new-build process into three separate parts: the design process, exhibit construction, and ongoing service of the resulting properties. In other words, the firm that designs your exhibit may be different from the companies selected to build and maintain it. For example, you may choose to issue an RFP to independent designers, select a concept, and issue a second RFP to multiple exhibit houses for bidding on the actual construction of the exhibit. You can then compare the building costs on an apples-to-apples basis, as they'll be quoting you prices on the same design.

On the other hand, you may issue a design/build RFP to a variety of exhibit houses and select a single firm to complete both the concept and fabrication of your new booth. This can be trickier because now you'll be comparing apples to oranges as you consider varying costs for completely different design proposals. Finally, if the companies responding to your RFP are not full-service exhibit houses or do not offer maintenance and storage services, you may need to issue an additional RFP to select a firm to complete those tasks.

In addition to deciding whether you will issue a design-only RFP, a design/build RFP, or a soup-to-nuts RFP, you'll want to find out whether your new-build budget needs to cover all three of those services or if the approved allotment is intended to cover the concept and construction of a new exhibit, but additional funds are available for ongoing upkeep and storage of the property.

4. Know what services you need and want.
Before writing your RFP, consider what services you are looking for in an exhibit house. Full-service exhibit houses generally offer design, construction, in-house graphic production, on-site supervision by your account executive or construction supervisor, material handling while in their warehouse, rental of ancillary furnishings, and exhibit property inventory control and storage. Exhibit houses offering turnkey services may also order and pay for show services on the exhibitor's behalf, usually for a predetermined percentage markup. To avoid any last-minute sticker shock and ensure the firm offers the services that are most important to you, request a rate sheet to determine which services are billed at a flat rate, hourly rate, percentage markup, or by your exhibit's weight or volume.

5. Do not forget to issue an RFI.
A request for information is a pre-RFP survey to vet potential exhibit houses by asking basic questions about their companies and the services they offer. It should also provide the exhibit house with your project name, exhibit size, debut date, contact info, deadlines, and any necessary disclaimers, such as a nondisclosure agreement. At minimum, ask for a financial-stability summary, a description of the company's organizational structures, a list of current clients, and a summary of account services and project management capabilities. All of these details will help you decide if the exhibit house is deserving of your official RFP.

6. Consider the long-term cost of exhibit ownership.
If you look at the one-time expense of purchasing a new exhibit, it pales in comparison to the ongoing and ever-growing costs you'll be required to pay over its three- to five-year lifespan. These direct expenses include show services (shipping, material handling, installation and dismantle labor, and other ancillary products and services), ongoing maintenance and refurbishment, storage fees, and insurance. As such, your RFP should request a breakdown of each exhibit house's best estimates of all expenses that will be incurred should its proposal be accepted.

7. Determine how open you want to be about your budget.
There are multiple schools of thought on how best to provide exhibit houses with your budget parameters. Some exhibitors believe you should quote the top-dollar amount you've been given to spend, as the partner you choose will need all the information available to do a good job. Other exhibitors think that disclosing your entire budget gives the exhibit house free reign to go hog wild up to this budget figure, even if spending less meets the project's objectives and leaves funds for other line items, such as giveaways and other promotions.

I lean more toward full disclosure of budget information – or at least revealing 90 percent of my total budget so I still have a few bucks for last-minute changes and upgrades. In return, I ask for a line-item budget on everything from design and construction to computer equipment and furnishings to make comparing proposals easier, more accurate, and more comprehensive.

8. State your priorities very clearly.
Meet with your stakeholders and establish if they are more concerned with the exhibit's cost, aesthetic design, or functionality, as opposed to the exhibit house's project management capabilities and breadth of services. Or are each of these equally important to your exhibit program? Make sure your RFP is crystal clear on what elements will take precedence in your final decision, and proactively plan your proposal-evaluation process.

Consider reviewing every proposal using a point system that will allow for statistically weighing the strength of each response with regard to your concerns, and share your evaluation criteria with your colleagues. I say this because too often I see the final decision on an exhibit build turn into a beauty pageant when the stakeholders' committee votes for what it believes is the most attractive design and not the one that is the best fit for achieving the company's exhibiting objectives. Proactively identifying the criteria you'll use to make a selection will help you to objectively review each proposal and enable you to be upfront with potential partners regarding what is most important to you and your stakeholders.

9. Explain your market, brand, and target market.
An RFP should tell an exhibit house about your company and its "feel." To that end, include your latest annual report, marketing and sales literature, press kit, and current advertising campaigns so any exhibit- design proposals integrate with the rest of your marketing plan.

If your company has a style manual that calls out rules for logos, taglines, type fonts, and color use, include it as well. Take the time to explain where your company is positioned in the market, its sales cycle, and what differentiates it from its competitors, as this information is critical to devising a solution custom suited to your exhibit-marketing program's unique needs.

Lastly, since exhibiting is really about connecting with your current and future customers, state exactly who your target audience is, what its demographics and psychographics are, and why your customers choose to buy from you. If your company considers any of this information confidential, remember that you can always require exhibit houses to sign nondisclosure agreements.

10. Share your exhibiting objectives and past trade show failures.
It should go without saying that an exhibit devoted to generating immediate sales and gathering scores of quality leads will – in theory, at least – look and function very differently from an exhibit designed to communicate brand messaging, boost awareness, and gain media coverage. If your objective is sales-driven, for instance, exhibit space and resources should probably be devoted to product displays, demonstration areas, and meeting rooms where staffers can convince prospects to sign on the dotted line. If brand building has top billing among your exhibit-marketing objectives, the focus should likely shift toward an information center, live presentations, and attention-getting graphics and signage. Bottom line: If your RFP doesn't disclose your objectives, you can't expect an exhibit house to deliver a proposal that will help you reach those goals.

Finally, be willing to discuss any shortcomings in your exhibiting program. Hand in hand with your hopes for the future go your disappointments from the past. So include your opinion of what did and didn't work in previous exhibits. Because while history may be doomed to repeat itself, the last thing you want from a brand new exhibit is the same old problems. E

Candy Adams
"The Booth Mom," is an independent exhibit project manager, trainer, speaker, consultant, and an Exhibitor Conference faculty member. CandyAdams@BoothMom.com

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