In theory, a Request for Proposal (RFP) is a great tool for brands who are shopping around for a new designer for their next trade show booth. The intent of the RFP is to secure concept and cost. Ideally, it acts as a test drive, so the brand can get an idea of what different designers can offer. But in practice, the standard RFP procedure doesn’t work. Here’s why:

1. Too many participants

In most cases, a brand will send out an RFP to approximately 10 companies. Those 10 companies then have to make a decision. Either they can devote resources away from their existing customers to compete for the job, or they can let the opportunity pass.

“When you let out the RFP to 10 companies, you’re asking them to direct resources for free just for the opportunity to win this business,” says Steelhead CEO, Sean Combs. “The people that deserve those resources are our customers. If you were our customer, where would you rather our focus be?”

Sending an RFP out to too many suppliers creates a lose-lose situation. A brand won’t choose a company that doesn’t respond, which means they’ll be forced to choose a company that’s willing to sacrifice client resources for a relatively small chance at new business.

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2. No relationship building

Designing the best possible exhibit rental is a process that should be shared by the supplier and the brand. All too often, brands submit RFPs but aren’t available to discuss questions a supplier might have. “The intent doesn’t meet the requirements. This is a relationship business. You need to give time to connect with the team,” says Combs.

Connecting with a potential supplier’s team gives the brand insight into what a working relationship would be like. It also gives suppliers an opportunity to create a design that’s better aligned with a brand’s marketing goals.

3. The wrong questions

When a brand sends out RFPs to nearly a dozen suppliers, comparing the responses becomes a daunting task. To digest that return of information, brands resort to asking questions that are easily comparable, but not necessarily the right questions.

“Some people will ask how many full-time employees we have. What are you trying to get at? If the answer is 50, is that better or worse than if the answer is 150?” asks Combs. In addition to being off-topic, brands should be aware that these sorts of questions can lead to easily-manipulated answers.

Arbitrary questions aimed at differentiating suppliers won’t get brands any closer to their goals of getting the best trade show booth possible.

4. Blind on budget

“We all have the capability to produce an on-target solution, but far too many RFPs don’t provide a financial target,” notes Combs. If the intent of an RFP is to secure concept and cost, then providing a budget is a critical piece of information for suppliers looking to respond.

By providing a budget, creative teams can do their best work in creating a final design that you can afford. The result is a faster, more direct RFP process that results in fewer surprises for both the supplier and the brand.

5. Wrong people in control

While having a budget is critical, that doesn’t mean that financial teams should lead the charge in managing an RFP process. Ultimately, booths are used by a brand’s marketing department to achieve their goals for the business.

RFPs that are led by procurement teams create problems further down the road because the wrong teams are talking to one another. RFPs should have input from procurement teams to establish a budget and should be directed by the marketing team who will actually use the booth.

An RFP process that benefits everyone

At Steelhead, we aim for an RFP process that results in great working relationships, not just for a single show, but for years to come. With that in mind, here are our recommendations for an ideal RFP.

Step 1: Start your research online

Choose 10 different companies and evaluate their portfolios on their website. Get an idea of the type of work they do and who they work with, then narrow that list of 10 down to just 5 companies.

Step 2: Establish a connection with those five companies

Ideally, this takes the form of an in-person visit, but a conference call can work in a pinch. The goal here is to meet the team and get an idea of what it would be like to work with them.

Step 3: Send out an RFP, but only to your favorite 2 or 3 suppliers

If suppliers are part of a smaller field of competitors, they’re far more likely to devote critical resources to producing an excellent proposal for you. Make sure the RFP includes a budget, and be prepared to answer individual supplier questions.

Step 4: Make an informed decision

When you make that decision, be sure you choose a company that you really want to work with now, and in the future.

With an RFP process that’s focused on relationships, both brands and suppliers come out ahead. This is just one way to better evaluate the right exhibit design house to partner with. Download our free guide, How To Evaluate And Choose An Exhibit House, to improve your process of narrowing down & selecting the right vendor to work with for trade show success.

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