Gone are the days when job quotes were written on the back of business cards or on paper napkins. Today, most meeting and event proposals average a dozen pages in length and are often supplemented with corporate or product brochures, drawings and contracts.
From the event planner’s point of view, writing a request for proposal (RFP) can be one of the most time-consuming and difficult challenges they face. So what is the best way to create an RFP that streamlines the process of receiving estimates and proposed solutions in writing and helps establish a strong planner/vendor sales relationship?
There are many different types of services requested through RFPs within the meetings and events industry. From small intimate soirees to expansive, multi-day corporate offsite meetings, RFPs take many forms.
According to hospitality industry trainer Lynne Wellish, CMP, CHSE, CHO, RFPs are vital components because they are often the first line of communication between a meeting planner and a property.
“Meeting planners need to research and find venues that fit meeting space and guest room needs,” Wellish says. “Be specific and precise with check-in date, departure date, guest room count and number of suites. Send an agenda or time line that reflects actual needs.”
Some key questions to ask include: When does the AV load in? Prior to the guests checking in, do you need a 24-hour hold on the meeting space? What time frame does the hotel allow for setting up or taking down elements of the meeting or event? How do you handle emergencies?
“If there is an unknown or the client has not finalized details, be honest,” Wellish says. “Remember, sometimes a venue is just not a fit. Be as flexible as you can.”
Wellish says meeting space needs, size, set-up and room rental are some of the most important elements of any RFP. They should also include:
“Ask if any competitors will be in the hotel over the same dates,” Wellish says. “Check to see if any construction or renovations to the property are scheduled. What is on the wish list of concessions from the planners? How far out is the cut-off date and discussion of attrition? Are there any charges not listed that the planner is responsible for, such as parking, resort fees, fee for early check-in or under departure?”
The overall insight is to be as thorough as possible and to tailor your RFP to the specific service requested — whether it is for hotel space, technology, meeting and event production services, creative, marketing, catering, audio-visual or entertainment.
“The ultimate goal is to find a win-win situation … finding the best venue for a program where both meeting planner and hotel find a common ground for a positive and profitable outcome.”
— Genny Castleberry, CMP
Keri McIntosh, senior vice president of events at The Castle Group, says every meeting RFP should clearly define the needs and specifications of the program.
“The more information provided in the RFP, the better for both parties,” she says. “It’s important to include a response date and decision date in the RFP so that the time line is clear. We also request that the hotel outline any additional fees (such as resort fees, service charges and taxes) so we are aware of total costs when budgeting.”
Vital elements of the RFP are the room block needs, the meeting dates and the meeting space required. It should be noted if the dates are firm or flexible, including the day of the week pattern.
“To set expectations, desired concessions, such as complimentary room upgrades, waived fees and discounts on services, should be provided in the RFP,” McIntosh says. “It is also a great idea to include the group’s background, meeting objectives, previous meeting history and any ‘hot button items’ so that the hotel is aware and can address them.”
According to Genny Castleberry, CMP, director of sourcing at Brightspot Incentives and Events, in today’s sellers’ market, meeting planners need to be thorough and outline all requirements in their RFP.
“Be up front and share valuable information about the program and meeting to arm the reader with key points which will help the hotel sales manager assess the worth of the RFP and also quickly understand the planner’s expectations in terms of proposal content and negotiable vs. non-negotiable elements,” Castleberry says. “Most importantly, the meeting planner needs to understand that space and rates are not guaranteed until an agreement has been signed — time is of the essence in this current market.”
Also, meeting planners should be selective to whom they send their RFP. Limiting the number of venues that receive the RFP — and informing the venues of this number — provides each with a better chance to win the business. For example, knowing they have a one in five chance or a one in 75 chance may change the venue’s perspective on responding and the thoroughness in which they do so.
The RFP is a road map to creating a successful meeting or event for both the planner and the property. Sometimes there is not enough detail when an RFP is originally sent or parts don’t match what is being proposed, so a supplier may have to reach out to the planner to receive more information on the event. The more detail that is provided makes the RFP process much smoother for both parties. And this results in a successful event.
So what are common mistakes made within RFPs or the RFP process that can affect a meeting planner and the event they are planning?
Knowing the true budget and being able to manage it and share it with your partners is paramount. Go online and look at the meeting space that is being proposed by the venue. Will your group actually fit in the room layout you want? Wellish often reaches out to peers to see if they have used that venue before and if there are any challenges she should know about.
“Planners need to double-check the RFP for accuracy; sometimes, RFPs are crafted by procurement, and details may be lost in translation,” Wellish says.
Also be sure to stay away from a basic, cookie-cutter RFP template. Every meeting and company is different, so list what is important to the planner, the decision-makers and the attendees. Don’t be afraid to tell a property what the final decision is based on, what has worked well in the past, the budget and the main goal of the meeting being planned.
McIntosh says that once it’s determined that a hotel has available dates and is a good fit, planners need to make sure they are holding the space on a first option basis and request a realistic option date, especially if the decision-making process can be a lengthy one.
“Keep an open line of communication during the RFP process,” McIntosh says. “You would not want your best option to fall to another group. Another potential pitfall is not including the proper load-in and strike time into the meeting space requirements. If there is significant setup for the meeting, consult with the production crew or the hotel AV department in order to factor enough time for rigging, load-in, testing and rehearsals into the equation. Ideally, a planner would want this to be on straight time, not overnight or overtime.”
Castleberry has seen a variety of mistakes being made on the part of planners as it relates to RFPs and the hotel sales process. For instance, a delayed process can cause problems when the meeting planner or corporation involved doesn’t make quick decisions to secure or contract the chosen property.
“The fear on the part of the meeting planner to not disclose their true budget and pain points from the onset can also be an issue,” Castleberry says.
Asking hotels for their very best offer from the get-go is a must as time is a luxury that those within the industry simply can’t waste.
“The meeting planner needs to understand the hotel’s perspective as well and how many e-RFPs flood their inbox daily,” Castleberry says.
One other common mistake she sees planners make is having a lack of respect or professionalism when working with a hotel sales manager. They may exude a sense of entitlement about the company they represent and what they should be offered.
“The ultimate goal is to find a win-win situation with any hoteliers — finding the best venue for a program where both meeting planner and hotel find a common ground for a positive and profitable outcome,” Castleberry says.
Planners need to look at the bigger picture and not just the property they are booking for an event, but what hotel chain and what other programs they might be able to reserve within that entity.
“It goes back to the ethical question of doing the right thing,” Castleberry says. “This industry is such a small circle when you analyze it. You never know who your next client, employee or employer will be, and you never want to burn your bridges or have a poor reputation as it will spread faster than [something on] social media. These types of actions may deter planners from ever booking a property or hotel chain in the future.”
For many planners and hotel sales professionals, the RFP is the true icebreaker, opening up the conversation and establishing a relationship. In a world of electronic RFPs, it is still important for planners to forge solid relationships with hotel contacts.
Here’s why: Global hotel sales representatives can make the RFP process easier for planners. From a planner’s perspective, hotels often use standard responses and don’t take the time to prepare a custom response.
Planners should look for properties that are willing to take the extra time and respond with the same level of detail that the planner and their team has prepared and requested.
In an era where personal relationships have taken a backseat to electronic communication, it is so important for a meeting and event planner to be as specific as possible in every email. Also, planners need to take time to pick up the phone and discuss pressing matters or important questions rather than sending an email.
“Being able to connect with your hotel sales manager and talk through situations will be so much more beneficial than trying to convey the information in an email,” Castleberry says.
“Having a sales rep that knows your group can make all the difference,” McIntosh says. “For example, if they understand your needs, less time is wasted on properties that will not fit. They may pitch a perfect property that you weren’t even considering and can work collaboratively with you to plan for long-term goals.”
Ultimately, both parties should be seeking the best fit for the program. If it doesn’t work on one occasion, it might be better for another.
“When a hospitality sales executive contacts the planner, be certain the questions are relevant to the RFP and clarify some cloudy points,” Wellish says. “This attention to detail becomes the foundation and will foster a positive working relationship.”
Wellish likes to build the relationship via phone and speak directly to the hospitality sales executive to introduce herself and her program. To follow up, she sends the RFP and the communication begins.
“It is crucial to pick up the phone and talk through any changes as soon as they occur,” Wellish says. “Each call and email is a touch point to continue building the relationship.”
One of the most common mistakes she sees meeting planners make that can affect the hotel sales relationship is not responding to phone calls and emails, on either side. Constant open communication is the key to a meeting’s success.
Castleberry advises other meeting planners to stay in touch through the sourcing phase of the meeting or events. It’s important to keep the hotel sales manager appraised of the time line and decision-making process and share any dilemma that a meeting planner may run into while they assess all of the options.
“Sometimes the timing can really work in your favor, such as at the end-of-quarter or end-of-year deal where some extra benefits might be added to your proposal for the sake of closing a deal within a certain time frame,” Castleberry says. “Put all your cards on the table and share any challenges you may face — be it budget, proposed meeting space or any other elements which prevent you from booking this hotel.”
In the end, it’s important to stay in touch. “In negotiations, open and honest communication is important along with the need to be flexible and think creatively,” McIntosh says. “Also, when the final hotel is selected, it is proper etiquette to contact all parties that received the RFP and inform them so that the hotels that did not make the cut can take the space off hold. All parties in the meeting industry depend on each other, so it is good business to play fair and not burn bridges.”
Hotels and convention centers are holding valuable meeting spaces and guest rooms that could be sold to another group, so it is crucial to keep the line of communication open with all of the vendors. And be ready to explain why their site was not selected to host the meeting.
“Remember it is a win-win game. Lack of interest, incorrect information and asking for too much can mean big delays in the sales process,” Wellish says. “A planner must know the true value of their meeting, and the venue can be honest from there. Not always is it a good fit or perfect match.” C&IT