Sunday, December 16, 2012

Asking the Right Questions for your Request for Proposal

Issuing a request for proposal (RFP) can feel a lot like online dating. Sure, you compile a list of likes and dislikes, but if you’re not speci fic enough or don’t ask the right questions, you’ll end up with a partner who isn’t exactly a perfect fit. In online dating, putting out a vague call for the strong, silent type is just as likely to get you a musclebound mute as it is a rugged gentleman who lets his actions speak for themselves. 

Similarly, when it comes to RFPs, vague requests and unfocused questions are likely to land you with a less than desirable date — err, event company. So it’s important that your RFP contains speci fic, focused questions, details, and requests if you want any hope of finding a match made in heaven. Because asking the right questions — and asking them in the right way — is vital to making sure you end up with the partner you’re looking for. Common RFP questions and requests are often misunderstood or improperly crafted, leaving the event manager and/or the sales department with insuf ficient information upon which to make an informed decision. What’s more, missing details and insufficient information in the RFP can result in a multitude of wildly varying proposals that make the process less like comparing apples to oranges and more like comparing grapes to gorillas.

Todd Simon, former vice president of business development at Chestnut Ridge, NY-based exhibit house MC² , says he’s amazed at some of the questions he’s read in RFPs. “I’ve seen RFPs where people ask, ‘If your company were a cartoon character, who would it be and why?’” 

Simon says he understands that prospective clients are just trying to force exhibit houses/event companies to show off their creativity. But no matter how fun the answer might be, its value in helping you select the right exhibiting/event partner is limited at best.

After years of wading through RFPs, Simon believes exhibit managers need to learn how to ask questions that will provide some qualitative differentiation between one vendor and another. Sure, you’ve heard that there are no stupid questions, but when it comes to RFPs, some questions are de finitely better — and more likely to get you the information you need — than others. 

So to help you navigate the RFP process without landing yourself on a blind date from hell, here are some of the most common “unhelpful requests,” which while well intended, typically don’t get you the information you’re looking for. Learn which questions and requests to avoid and how to hone your search, and you’ll undoubtedly find an event match made in heaven.


The worst mistake most clients make is issuing an RFP without one of the most important speci fications: the budget. Simon says clients omit the budget because they are afraid a dollar limit might scare an exhibit house away from showing its best possible work. Clients tend to think that they’ll get a more inspired or creative proposal if the designer isn’t constrained by budget. 

Unfortunately, what happens is some proposals come back with the-sky’s-the-limit designs while other firms try to make educated guesses about what a company is willing to spend. Bottom line, the playing field ends up anything but level.

“What you get is one proposal at $200,000, and another at $2 million,”Simon says. “If you’re willing to spend $2 million, then that’s not fair to the company that figured you wanted to keep costs down. And if you’re going to eliminate the company that submitted a $2 million design because it’s outside your budget, you’ve wasted that company’s time.”

At the very least, give vendors a ballpark estimate so you’re comparing apples to apples — even if it is Red 
Delicious to Granny Smith. Otherwise, you’ll end up looking at the coolest $2 million proposal you’ll never be able to afford. And if you have a hard cap on your project, make sure the vendors understand that. 

If you mean “Not a penny more than $200,000,” then make that clear, or you’ll be disqualifying a lot of good proposals that come in closer to $201,000. 

WRONG: “Submit a proposal for a 20-by-30-foot exhibit. Budget is negotiable.”
RIGHT: “Submit a proposal for a 20-by-30-foot exhibit that fits the basic design speci fications at a cost of no more than $200,000.”
WHY: When prospective partners return your RFP, you’re going to want to compare apples to apples. So make sure you include a budget, or budget range, to level the playing field and make sure all proposals are within your budgetary parameters.


While you probably have a particular design aesthetic in mind when you send out an RFP, chances are 
you’re not describing it very well. For example, adjectives like “sleek,” “comfortable,” “European,” 
or “conservative” can mean vastly different things to different people. 

“The more information you can give vendors the better,” Simon says. “Explain how you want clients 
and prospects to view your brand’s image in the marketplace. Because in the end, your company’s event should be a refl ection of the image you are trying to project to your clients and prospects.”

According to Simon, a picture is worth a thousand words, and a few photos can go a long way toward 

explaining your vision in a manner that designers — who are very visual people — will understand. You 
can try to define “sleek” until you’re blue in the face, but a little research and a handful of good photos can illustrate your ideas better than a list of adjectives. 

So include any photos of exhibits, retail displays, architectural inspiration, etc. that you feel are in line 
with your brand’s image. If there’s some taboo as far as colours to select or avoid, or what kind of chairs 
your CEO prefers in the conference room, provide that information up front. 

Otherwise your boss may eliminate an otherwise excellent exhibit design because the flooring in the rendering was his least-favorite color.

WRONG: “The booth should have a sleek, modern design.”
RIGHT: “Our company has a unique corporate culture, and the exhibit should re ect that. Here are photos of three exhibits that we feel represent our aesthetic.”
WHY: Adjectives like “sleek” and “modern” can conjure wildly different images in different people’s minds. So rather than getting caught up in syntax, describe your brand’s or company’s image, and include visual reference points to illustrate that aesthetic.

In addition to inquiring about potential partners’ financial status, plenty of exhibitors ask for a list of companies with whom the vendor has previously worked. Asking for a list of clients isn’t a bad idea, per se. Seeing that list of Fortune 500 clients can be impressive. Of course, each company on that reference list is also making demands on your potential vendor’s time. To understand where you stand among an exhibit house’s stable of clients, you might want to ask for a list of the companies keeping each vendor busy, or query each vendor about how its client base has changed over a period of time.

But Simon warns clients to be careful when comparing the responses. While a long list of clients or a sharp increase in business might look impressive, it could also mean your comparably smaller project will be handled by a junior designer. On the other hand, a drop in the client base might show a vendor is losing business, but it could also mean an event company has consolidated around a few big fish that are providing steady work.

Additionally, any potential vendor will have other projects it is working on. But you need to understand when its busy season is. If a vendor has several major shows going on — with several of its biggest customers — right at the same time you’ll need its help, that could be a red flag that your project will take a back seat to those big clients.

WRONG: “Provide references and a list of your 10 largest clients.”
RIGHT: “Which months are the busiest on your calendar, and which shows will you be helping clients with during those months?”
WHY: A list of big-name clients can be impressive, but it can also mean you’ll be a little fish in an ocean-sized client base full of whales. So when asking about existing clients, also ask about peak times when those clients may be most demanding of your potential vendor’s time, attention, and resources.

-Brian Todd

About the Author


Author & Editor

Based in Malaysia, Best Events specializes in Conferences, Seminars, Murder Mystery Dinners, Gala Dinners and Team Building events.


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