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Welcome to Advice from the Booth Mom editorial series, each article you will gain insight on how to set up your company trade show schedule, planning logistics and marketing efforts strategically at industry events. This week from the Booth Mom, she shares her insight on writing your RFIP’s and RFP’s for your exhibit.

Of all the questions I get from exhibit managers, the one that I get most often is “How do I write a request for proposal (RFP) for a new exhibit build?”  This isn’t a topic where I can just jot off a quick answer and hit “send”. There are way too many variables, and way too many questions in my mind that are specific to a company ’s marketing plan and industry nuances to take a question about exhibit RFPs lightly.

So why do I think RFPs are so critical to trade show success? Well, there are a couple of reasons.  First, you and your company are going to have to live with the exhibit that is the end product of your RFP for multiple years – good or bad. Next, exhibits aren’t inexpensive, and making a mistake in branding your company and products can be even more expensive in lost sales and marketing opportunities.  

After having been through the exhibit RFP process for both exhibit builds and rentals dozens of times in my career, there are some important lessons I’ve learned. If I had to write an axiom on RFPs, to sum up, the process in one sentence, here’s what it would say: “The exhibit RFP process will take twice as long as you think, be at least twice as complex with internal approvals (and disapprovals) from Accounting, Procurement, and Legal departments and your stakeholder team, and cost you at least one-third more than you planned to get the perfect exhibit built.”  It’s not exactly Murphy’s Law, but it’s not far from it, either. We exhibit managers tend to be optimists and underestimate the time commitment, processes, and costs involved in a new exhibit build.

So, with 20/20 hindsight, here’s my best advice that I wish someone would have shared with me before I compiled my first exhibit RFP:

  1. Form follows function.  What does your exhibit need to do to support your exhibit marketing goals and objectives?  The design of a new exhibit should never be discussed until you’ve completed an internal review with your stakeholders to decide what functions your exhibit needs to perform. This always reminds me of the saying about premature execution syndrome: “Ready… Fire… Aim!”  We get so excited about the prospect of a shiny new exhibit that the mundane strategic planning aspect of it is overlooked by the more exciting and creative design process.

So, take one giant step back and look at what you’re trying to achieve with your new build. What are the functional requirements of your soon-to-be-built exhibit? Determining a future exhibit’s functionality isn’t a project to take on alone. Talk with the stakeholders in both sales and marketing teams to get a feel for both current – and future – exhibit requirements. Ask their opinion on what worked well – and what didn’t – in your past exhibit(s). Determine what flexibility needs to be built into your plans and what type of exhibit properties might best accommodate both your current functional needs and anticipated future plans.         

  1.  Know what’s important to meet your goals.  Determine what products and services are essential to you and your company when it comes to the exhibit house you’ll ultimately work with.  This is where the term “deal-breaker” often comes into play. You have to decide what you have to have vs. what it would be nice to have.  Ask yourself, “What is it about my relationship with my exhibit house that is most critical to our program’s success?”  

Examples of some of my clients’ deal-breakers are being geographically close enough to the exhibit house for ongoing meetings and exhibit previews, having a large rental inventory to supplement existing exhibit properties, offering extraordinary design capabilities or hourly-based project management and having a very reasonable pricing structure for both exhibit properties and ongoing services.  Only you can decide what issues would cause negotiations to fail, and ultimately weigh, as part of your RFP evaluation, the importance of these services to the success of your exhibit program.

  1.  Know what roles Procurement, Finance, and Legal play.  Before moving forward with an RFP, know what your internal policies and procedures are for major purchases.  Does your company’s Finance Department consider anything over $10,000 to be a capital asset purchase rather than just handling it as a marketing expense?  Who has to approve the purchase of capital assets and what’s the procedure and timeframe? How will Purchasing/Procurement, Finance and Legal be involved in the front end of the process – writing and distribution of the RFP – and on the back end – the final evaluation, selection, negotiating and contracting process?  Is it Procurement’s policy to automatically select the least-expensive proposal, regardless of design or the cost of ongoing services required to support the exhibit program? How can you change this mindset of “cheapest is best”?

Too often exhibit managers skip the critical step in the RFP process of educating internal departments they’re working with about why a new exhibit build is not just a commodity purchase.  We need to help all the players involved in the decision-making process understand that designing, producing and maintaining an exhibit is a dynamic process based on ever-changing marketing requirements and takes much more strategic forethought and creativity than, say, just buying furniture out of a catalog or equipment for an office.       

  1. Don’t skip the RFI.  The RFI (Request for Information) is a pre-RFP survey to vet the exhibit houses by asking basic questions about the services they offer their clients before issuing an RFP.  It can be compared to a dating site where you fill out a compatibility survey before deciding if you even want to meet a prospective date.

Information to provide to – and request from – exhibit houses can include any or all of the following that will help you decide if the exhibit house is an excellent fit to complete the full RFP at a future date:

– RFI SUMMARY: This section provides information to the exhibit house on your project name, contact information and a brief summary of the future RFP opportunity.  It may also include disclaimers re. no fee being paid for completing either the RFI or RFP, confidentiality clause and NDA, and any deadline dates.

– EXHIBIT HOUSE PROFILE: Requests company name, primary RFI contact/phone numbers/email address(es), address of company location completing the RFI, address of company location(s) where exhibit would be built and reside, Website URL.  

FINANCIAL STABILITY AND RESOURCES: Requests information required to qualify vendors by your Procurement/Finance departments, i.e. Dunn & Bradstreet (D & B number); annual report; annual sales revenues for the last 3 years; plans for new acquisitions, divestitures or sales of the company; financial and banking references; three vendor financial references; and detail of any outstanding litigation or insurance actions.  

– ORGANIZATION STRUCTURE AND CAPABILITIES: Requests information on company ownership (public or private); subsidiary or parent companies; number of years in business; organization’s management structure and key management team bios; locations and types of all facilities; detail of products and services offered at each location; the number of employees at each location; union status and affiliations and current business partnerships or affiliations used to provide exhibitor services/products.

BUSINESS MODEL AND APPROACH: Requests corporate mission statement, vision or business philosophy; description of company’s values and examples of how they are shown in their company’s performance with clients; service approach with clients whose programs are similar in size and scope to yours and the skills and capabilities that set their company apart from competitors.

– CURRENT CLIENT REFERENCE LIST: Requests a list of clients with contact information, noting that these references may be contacted within a specified timeframe.

– ACCOUNT SERVICES/PROJECT MANAGEMENT: Explanation of account team structure and accountability, org charts, key staff roles/responsibilities, special talents, and industry experience.  

– USE OF INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY:  A description of the computer- and web-based systems and tools used to service exhibit and trade show service requirements.

– CAPABILITIES AND ACCOUNT SERVICES SUPPORT:  A full description of the services provided to exhibitors with associated fee structures, including information on whether the services are provided in-house or subcontracted and to whom.

Some exhibitors who are already familiar with the exhibit houses they want to distribute their RFP to may skip the RFI step and include the request for this information at the beginning of their RFP.  

  1. Garbage in; garbage out.  The key to a successful outcome from the RFP process is communicating clearly the results you want from your exhibit program to exhibit houses who will hopefully become long-term partners.  

I’ve seen exhibitors very disappointed with the RFP responses they’ve received, and the culprit is often a very poorly written RFP that doesn’t clearly convey the exhibitor’s needs and wants, nor the budget they have to get there. The RFP didn’t share critical information on the target audience’s demographics and psychographics, nor express the company’s brand proposition.  Since this is company-specific information that is almost ingrained in us, I think we often fail to share the specifics that will make an exhibit truly represent our brand to our target audience. The critical areas of an RFP include:

– AN EXPLANATION OF RFP’s goals and objectives, an overview of the RFP process, key criteria being evaluated, notification of intent to participate.

– EXHIBITOR’S CORPORATE PROFILE which may include much of the same basic company, financial and contact information requested in the RFI, if an RFI was done.

– THE EXHIBITOR’S CORPORATE MARKETING PROFILE including company background and personality, market position/volume/share, brand positioning and promise, exhibiting’s role in the marketing mix, show goals and objectives, ROI/ROO measurement criteria, promotion, marketing materials, and style manual.

 CORPORATE EXHIBIT PROGRAM: Show schedule with show dates, locations, booth sizes, and the new exhibit debut date.

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: The strengths and weaknesses of past exhibits and how past history should dictate future direction.  

– YOUR EXHIBIT NEEDS SUMMARY: List any exceptional physical requirements or limitations, style requirements, open vs. closed environment, product display requirements, AV, alternate uses and Green materials requirements.

–  EXHIBIT REQUIREMENTS DETAIL including audio/visual (AV), computer kiosks, conference or closing rooms, demonstration areas, flooring, furnishings, graphics and corporate identity, hanging sign, hospitality/food preparation, information/reception center, lead retrieval, lighting, literature distribution, presentations, presentations, product displays, shipping containers, storage, traffic patterns, utilities, wire and cable management.

EXHIBIT HOUSE SERVICE: Request a full description of the services provided to exhibitors along with information on whether the services are provided in-house or subcontracted and to whom and fee structure for each.

MANAGING ONGOING SHOW SERVICES AND COSTS: Request information on exhibit house policies and costs for providing turnkey services, account management, and exhibit inventory.

BUDGET: Provide a budget or budget range and request line-item costs of all items in the proposal so that they can be compared to other proposals received.

PROPOSAL TIMELINE: Provide a list of project milestones to be provided in a timeline of project dates.

  1.  Set – and share – a realistic budget.  How much is enough budget to build an exhibit that will positively represent your company?  Just as Consumer Reports gives products “good”, “better” or “best” ratings, we can budget for an exhibit that is bare bones to meet our most basic needs (but may not positively represent the company image we’d like to convey), one that is more expensive (and will better communicate our company’s brand) or go over-the-top with a budget that will create a real award-winning eye-popper to attract your target audience to your booth like bees to flowers.  

My personal feeling regarding sharing budget numbers in an RFP is generally to give a budgetary range, with a firm, all-inclusive top dollar limit.  I note that this figure needs to include everything they will provide for the exhibit to go to its inaugural show – the design, exhibit and graphics production, crating, taxes, preview, first-time set-up supervision and any other exhibit-house services required. But I generally give the exhibit house leeway for any items below this all-inclusive exhibit bottom line that they think would greatly enhance the exhibit’s “wow factor” above and beyond the stated top-dollar budget, with line-item pricing to not stifle their creativity.  (I will admit, though, to holding back 10% of the overall budget when I know my client has a propensity to make last-minute changes and expect money to appear to pay for these changes miraculously.)

While I do request their estimated cost of show services, like weight for shipping and material handling, crate dimensions for shipping and storage and installation and dismantle labor hours, these are not part of the capital asset purchase, and I use this information to compute ongoing overall annual show budgets.  

  1. Allow adequate time. One of the places I see more exhibitors get tripped up on a new exhibit build is by not allowing enough time between the start of the RFI/RFP process to the inaugural show.  Depending on the size, scope and strategic preparation for the exhibit build project, it can take from a few months to a year from the initial “gee-let’s-build-an-exhibit” idea to “wow-it’s-the-greatest-exhibit-we’ve-ever-had”!

Again, be realistic.  Consider the time necessary to pull your stakeholder team together for strategic meetings; to meet with Procurement, Finance and Legal departments over company policies and processes; to do research on potential exhibit houses before even sending out RFI’s; compiling the information for the RFP; distributing the RFP; providing adequate time for your vendors to compile their responses to your RFP; evaluating the RFP responses and meeting with your stakeholder team to short-list the exhibit houses who will present their designs; negotiating and contracting and allowing time for production, preview and shipping.         

  1. Consider more than just the cost of the exhibit.  As the saying goes, “Gillette didn’t get rich selling razors”; it was the ongoing cost of razor blades where the user’s cost increased exponentially.  

Comparing shaving to exhibiting may be a stretch, but if you look at the one-time cost to purchase an exhibit, it pales in comparison to the ongoing direct exhibit costs you’ll be required to pay at each and every show over the life of the exhibit. These direct expenses include show services you’ll need like shipping, material handling, installation and dismantle labor, rigging equipment, and labor, electrical power and labor, and other ancillary products and services like lead retrieval equipment rental, plant and floral rental, and Internet connectivity. And don’t forget to budget for ongoing maintenance and refurbishment, asset management and storage fees as your exhibit goes in and out of storage between shows.

Your RFP should request the best estimates of all direct show expenses that will be incurred should their exhibit proposal be accepted.   

  1.   Pre-plan your proposal comparison and evaluation. How will you fairly compare the proposal responses?  Do you go into the RFP process with a point system for statistically weighting the importance of the various segments of the RFI and RFP responses?  And will you share your evaluation system and weighting of the various aspects in your RFP to your potential partners so they can see what’s most important to you?  

Too often, I’ve seen the final decision on an exhibit build turn into just a beauty pageant by the stakeholders’ committee who vote for what they perceive as the most attractive exhibit design.  The problem is, an eye-popping design doesn’t necessarily take into account what the exhibit manager is going to have to deal with for the life of the exhibit – the best overall proposal when considering functionality, service issues, new exhibit build, and ongoing usage costs, vendor location, and company “fit”.         

  1.  Negotiations need to be win-win.  Going back to our earlier dating analogy, we’re looking for a long-term partnership with an exhibit house. Both parties need to feel good about the relationship, and if either one doesn’t feel they’re getting their “due,” the relationship won’t thrive.  

And not all negotiations boil down to lowest cost. As busy as we are, we have to look at the value – and peace of mind – the relationship with an exhibit house you can truly trust as a partner brings you.  That’s priceless!

Keep an eye out for my next article, as I will cover your secret weapon against your competition: a well-trained exhibit staff. Do you have a question or want me to go over a specific topic? Click here. 

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