The nitty gritty of RFPs: The devil is in the details

Specificity is paramount when it comes to making the most of the request for proposals (RFP) process.
Specificity is paramount when it comes to making the most of the request for proposals (RFP) process.

Request for proposals (RFPs) are a necessary and effective tool for bringing together the best options for an event, although many meeting planners find they have a love-hate relationship with the process. While RFPs provide a strategic way of identifying suppliers and establishing relationships, they can also be a significant source of frustration and headache if not thoughtfully designed and distributed.

Amy Ledoux, CAE, CMP, senior vice president of meetings, expositions and special events with ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership, noted many factors can disrupt the RFP process and produce limited insights for meeting planners. She pointed to lack of communication about the specific needs of an event as a primary area when the process can break down, noting that “just using an existing RFP without reviewing it for what has changed, what is needed and any new expectations” is a recipe for poor decision-making.

Lack of detailed communication is also a common pitfall on the supplier side, according to Kowana Raglan, CMP, senior director of meetings for Meeting Expectations. “[Suppliers] may use a standard proposal format and standard information for all RFPs. So, they may not pay close attention to the RFP to see if there is any specific or special information that is required,” she noted. “The result is the meeting planner does not receive complete information.”

Ledoux added “incomplete information and an unorganized response can be a glimpse into the lack of attention paid to the response – therefore, a red flag for the organization when doing an initial review.”

Planners agree specificity is paramount on both sides of the equation – whether planner or supplier – when it comes to making the most of the RFP process. That means the process must start with thoughtful planning and end with depth of response, Raglan said, noting all parties involved must be willing to dig deep and not cut corners when engaging with an RFP.

“For me, it’s understanding what is most important from the client’s perspective: Are they concerned more about pricing and cost or customer service? Or is it flexibility?” she said. “The most important thing is thinking through the details of what it is that you need…so you can put it in a format to get the information back in a way that helps you make an informed decision.”

RFP basics

Simply defined, an RFP is a call to third-party vendors to submit a business proposal for procurement of services such as accommodations, event space, food and beverage, audiovisual and entertainment. Ledoux suggested that the foundations of any RFP should include:

  • Type of service solicited
  • Event description (name of organization, event/s covered, date, time, location)
  • Scope of work
  • Discounts an organization is seeking
  • Criteria used to review and evaluate an RFP
  • Contact and a timeline for deadlines and decision-making
  • Specific requirements related to the event and past locations
  • A detailed outline of exactly what is needed in the response, how it should be presented and the format for delivery

Moving past RFP basics

Keeping the concept of detail and specificity at the forefront, industry professionals share their thoughts on optimal RFP practices that lead to the best decisions.

Include others in the RFP design and evaluation process

All members of the event team should be involved in the creation of any RFPs to ensure no stone is left unturned, Ledoux said. While this process may take more time on the front-end, she emphasized organizers will be more pleased with the results as there is less of a chance for important requirements and elements to be overlooked.

Warren Isenhour, president of Isenhour International, also noted he appreciates input from the supplier side as they help broaden the perspective of the process.

“I also regularly share my RFP’s, especially when creating a new one, with trusted supplier friends in the industry to get their feedback on quality and effectiveness,” he said.

Collaboration should also extend into the RFP review process, Ledoux said, pointing out that references are one of a planner’s best resources.

“Although most references are going to speak positively to the vendor you are considering, you can learn a lot from a simple conversation with an industry colleague about how a vendor resolves issues and works with groups,” she said.

Don’t let RFP length be a stumbling block

Raglan noted planners sometimes limit the opportunity to garner valuable insights because they do not want to make an RFP to long and cumbersome. While it is important to eliminate unnecessary elements, she cautioned an RFP that is to general and succinct can result in missed opportunities for cost savings. For example, she pointed to details such as expectations for set-up and tear-down of audiovisual equipment as these factors can impact labor costs.

Isenhour agreed, emphasizing that alongside the basics, planners should not shy away from crafting specific questions within each element that speak to individual event needs.

“When creating or initiating an RFP, I focus on getting as much usable and accurate information as possible for the hotels and meeting venues we are sourcing,” he said. “The more detailed and accurate information you can give; the more likely you will get complete responses that fit your needs.”

Prioritize communication

Communicating via detailed questions and answers is one part of the successful equation. Opening communication channels is another. Ledoux suggested the more interaction planners and suppliers can have via phone or in person, the better.

“Offer to have a call for any questions about the RFP,” she said. “Also be sure to send reminders on due dates of the RFP and communicate if any dates you have outlined have changes.”

Isenhour noted better communication with vendors receiving an RFP will improve relationships and ensure higher return rates.

Ledoux added that including frequently asked questions (FAQ) in an RFP can go a long way towards eliminating confusion.

“Don’t make people ask questions again; instead include that information in your RFP to be clear about your needs and expectations,” she said.

Make apples to apples comparisons

When crafting an RFP, Raglan suggested planners consider the vendor audience. While the need to request consistent data in the RFP from each vendor would seem a given, she also noted the importance of receiving proposals from like-kind vendors. For example, she pointed to the abundance of audiovisual companies in the marketplace, all varying in size, expertise and areas of focus. When sending out an RFP, it is important planners are comparing similar companies to each other.

Be reasonable and fair

Ledoux pointed to the importance of maintaining the integrity of the RFP process. That starts with detailing review criteria and timelines in the RFP, and more important, sticking to those parameters.

Also, Raglan noted planners should consider whether timeframes and deadlines are appropriate and reasonable.

“If it’s something you need right away – like in less than a week – you should probably be sure to include that information in your email and to give [vendors] a heads up,” she said. “This way, they have an opportunity to say they may not be able to bid on it in such a short timeframe.”

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