When it comes to RFPs, what you do—and don’t do—makes all the difference.

A Few Do's and Dont's for Running a Better RFP

As an exhibit company in demand, we’ve definitely seen a lot of trade show exhibit RFPs come our way. And frankly, we can tell you that some are run a lot better than others. In fact, the best ones are far more likely to help you achieve the holy grail of every exhibit manager: finding the kind of partner you’d be thrilled to work with for the rest of your career

In this spirit, allow us to propose seven do’s and don’ts to increase your chances of doing just that:

#1. DO contact a range of candidates. You need to be absolutely sure you’re working with the best available set of players, so go ahead and cast a wide net. But remember, this is best done in the RFI stage when you can more easily screen the responses and before you ask candidates to commit to answering a full-fledged Request For Proposal. (See "A better way to do an RFI - Skip It"  for a time-saving way to handle RFIs).

But DON’T invite more than five to the RFP. Really good exhibit houses often won’t respond to RFPs that have 10 or—even more absurdly—20 invitees. Bringing in that many players signals an indecisiveness that doesn’t bode well for the future relationship. And it also greatly diminishes each company’s odds of winning. So you’ll likely be left with a group of second-string candidates trying desperately to woo you.

#2. DO invite the incumbent to participate. It’s the decent thing to do unless your relationship has reached some sort of final impasse. And what they come up with under the pressure of an RFP just might surprise you.

But DON’T issue an Request For Proposal just to shake the incumbent up. Given the huge amount of time candidates need to invest in answering an RFP—far more than companies often realize—it’s unethical to issue one if you aren’t dead serious about finding a new partner.

#3. DO provide focused direction. Tell us what you want. Be precise, especially when it comes to helping design understand what you expect to happen in your exhibit, who it should happen to and for what reason. And be sure to tell us what worked in the past and what didn’t.

But DON’T look for only one solution. Keep an open mind. The best work will be something you never saw coming. In other words, tell the participants exactly what you want to happen, then let them figure out exactly how to do it.

#4. DO ask for design. Believe it or not, we sometimes see RFPs that don’t request design at all. We think these companies are doing themselves an incredible disservice by not seeing how their candidates think creatively. The way we see it, an RFP without creative is more like a pricing exercise better suited to buying office supplies than starting a key strategic partnership.

But DON’T judge too much on accuracy. It’s impossible in the RFP process for anyone but the incumbent to have a firm enough grasp on your business, strategy and brand to provide a ready-to-produce solution. Instead, judge the creative more on boldness and originality—and of course on it’s practical, clear-headed business sense. There will be time enough after you award the business to educate your new partner about your business and brand.

#5. DO ask for pricing. Probably no encouragement is needed here. Just make sure you provide the candidates the kind of information that will allow you to make apples-to-apples comparisons.

But DON’T automatically award to the lowest bidder. Yes, we’ve seen this too. Even bidding wars that pit candidates against each other. It should go without saying that cost isn’t the only factor in this business. What you really need is a great partner you can rely on through thick and thin. Besides, no accountant ever produced a great design.

#6. DO ask for references. And do contact them. On a decision this big, you really need the validation of third-party endorsements.

But DON’T stop there. Every exhibit house has a reputation. Talk to your peers at other companies. Check with your labor company. Scan the trades. Dig until you discover what the reputation truly is—warts and all—for each of your finalists.

#7. DO invite finalists to present in person. It’s a great chemistry check. And chemistry is really, really important to the success of your relationship.

But DON’T skip paying them a visit. You’ll learn far more walking their halls, seeing their employees’ faces and feeling the level of their hospitality than you’ll ever get in a presentation.

Here is a link to an Exhibitor Online article that offers a lot more advice for making your next RFP the success you want it to be: http://www.exhibitoronline.com/topics/article.asp?ID=860&catID=91

Happy hunting! And please be sure to share back any tips and lessons you’ve learned along the way.


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