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ABCs of Great RFPs

When preparing your RFPs, remember: The quality of the proposals you receive is directly related to the quality of the RFP you issue. Here are questions and answers that will help you write better RFPs.

What is an RFP?

It's an acronym for “request for proposal.” Internationally, RFPs often are called ITTs — an “invitation to tender” an offer.

Why is an RFP valuable?

It gives you a low-risk way to manage what can be a very complex process of soliciting bids, evaluating vendors and finally choosing the best vendor.

What does an RFP do?

  1. It describes what you need. A good RFP also will describe the purpose and goal of the event.

  2. It defines requirements. What does your event have to have? What would you like to have? And what would be nice to have?

  3. It tells vendors how you're going to evaluate the proposals.

Why spend so much time with an RFP?

If an RFP isn't in writing, then it easily can be misinterpreted. A well-written RFP should result in accurate, complete bids, and the process should produce the best-possible solution for your event requirements. The converse also is true. If you don't tell vendors what you want and need, they can't meet your expectations.

What will you gain with a good RFP?

An RFP allows you to base your decisions on knowledge and facts, not emotion. Good rapport with a vendor is very important, of course, but your decisions need to be backed by sound reasons. Writing a good RFP also forces you to think through what you're trying to accomplish.

What should you set for a deadline?

If you spent six weeks on an RFP, then it's unfair to give vendors one week to respond. Be realistic about your deadline.

What should be included in your RFP?

Avoid generalities. In other words, give vendors a sense of your event: Is it educational, inspirational or something else? Be specific about themes, attendee demographics, the amount of transportation involved, the range of activities, the number of educational sessions, etc. If you don't provide this information, vendors might think you're not serious about considering them for your event. If you do include this information, vendors can tailor their proposals to meet your needs.

What in an RFP can alienate vendors?

Here are four things that irritate vendors:

  • RFPs with typos

  • RFPs that are disorganized

  • RFPs that ask redundant questions

  • RFPs that have contradictory requirements. Committees sometimes write RFPs, and if the RFP isn't edited carefully, confusing and contradictory RFPs can result.

What process should you use for writing a good RFP?

  1. Define why you're holding your event. What is its purpose? At the end of the event, what would you like to have accomplished? What kind of change, knowledge or inspiration do you want to take place?

  2. Based on your answers to the first questions, begin making a detailed list of requirements for achieving the event goals. Learn from past events. What has happened, both good and bad, in those events, and why did it happen? What would prevent the bad things from happening in the future? In events that went beyond expectations, what helped produce the result?

  3. Write the draft RFP.

  4. Identify and select potential suppliers. Or, you can try an open bidding process and have vendors self-select. The downside with this approach is that it can lead to inappropriate bids.

  5. Issue the RFP. All RFPs should have a release date and a response date. Be firm about your response date; this will save you from potential complaints or protests from other vendors. If your event is a large one, consider scheduling at least one vendor meeting — a conference call where all vendors are invited to ask questions. And remember: You don't have to answer all the questions that you're asked.

Do you have “gotta-haves” — things you absolutely have to have in your event?

Determine those items that are necessities and in the RFP, label these as “mandatory.” If there are items that you'd like to have, label as “desired.” If there are items that would be a bonus, label as “optional.”

Should you include budgetary information in your RFP?

If you don't give vendors a budgetary range, or a “not to exceed” number, then you will receive proposals with widely ranging budget numbers. Vendors need an idea of the budget.

What else should your RFP include?

  • Shine light on your decision-making process. Tell vendors when and how you'll be making your decision.

  • Make sure you're sending your RFP to the right person within an organization. If you don't do this, your RFP could sit on the desk of someone who doesn't know what to do with it. Remember that roles and names change — sometimes quickly and often — within vendor organizations.

Do you want vendors to be creative?

This is your choice. If you want creativity, then let the vendors know.

What should you do if you're a new event planner, or if you are having a first-time event?

New event planners and new events must overcome a lack of credibility. You lack clout because vendors generally view you as a high-risk event. Planners can clear these obstacles by providing key information, such as the goal of the event, the organization that's behind it and the budget that's supporting the event.

What does a good RFP look like?

Every RFP needs to have a cover letter or a letter of transmittal on official stationery, so recipients know the RFP is from people who have the authority to make decisions and allocate budgets. The cover letter also should give a quick definition of the event. This is done so people can respond quickly if their facilities are not appropriate.

Include an introduction and overview. This describes the intent of the event and gives administrative information. The introduction describes who you are, where you're headquartered, what kind of event you're holding, how many will attend and when the event will take place. Also, providing background on similar past events will help vendors tremendously.

The administrative information includes the deadline, to whom the RFP should be sent, and how you want the proposal received (fax, e-mail attachment, hard copy) and in what format (e.g., in Word, as a PDF document, etc.). Will you accept proposals on CDs? Also, if you plan multiple events, ask the vendors to reference the event name or number, so you can keep the proposals organized.

Ask vendors to include a compliance matrix, a chart that shows the requirements and whether the vendor meets them (cannot comply, comply or exceed). A compliance matrix is very common in government bidding at all levels, and it's easy for vendors to produce. The matrix makes it easy for you quickly to analyze the vendors that will be in the competition for your business.

Consider imposing a mandatory page limit for proposals, and tell vendors how many copies to send you.

How will you evaluate the proposals you receive?

  1. First, share with the vendors your standards and process. List in order of priority the various factors, such as cost, the facility's aesthetic appeal, dates, geographical considerations and other considerations. Tell vendors how the proposals will be scored: binary, points (if it's by points, will you divide total points by cost to determine value?), etc.

  2. Read through the proposals and reject those that don't fit your event. When doing this, evaluate how the proposal fits your event. Boilerplate text is fine in places, but the proposal should focus on your event.

  3. If 20 bids remain, cut the remaining bids to four or five. Go through these carefully, and put them through your scoring system. (If you choose two or three finalists, do not go back to these vendors and ask them for their “best offer.” The vendors already have given you their offer. Asking for a lower price at this stage is almost extortionist, and in the future, the vendors will not give you their best price in their proposal.)

What should you do with late proposals?

Mark late proposals “noncompliant,” and send them back with an explanation that the proposal was late.

What else should you consider?

Consider asking a vendor whom you trust to help write your RFP. Make it clear this does not mean the vendor is going to get the business. Savvy vendors will do this for you.

Alphabet soup

What's an RFI? An RFI is a “request for information.” This means the organization is considering an event or a purchase, but the organization hasn't yet made a final decision to go forward. Generally, properties aren't enthusiastic about spending much time with RFIs, because only a small percentage result in business.

What's an RFQ? It's a “request for quotation,” and in the marketplace it's usually considered a budgetary request — a request for cost data.

This article was adapted from a presentation by Tom Sant, CEO and founder of The Sant Corp., Cincinnati, which develops software for generating proposals, RFP responses and sales presentations. The company's Web site is

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