Hit the TargetApril 17, 2023

Creating a More Strategic RFP By
April 17, 2023

Hit the Target

Creating a More Strategic RFP
When creating an RFP, be specific about the types of activities to  include. If you want country music, for instance, be sure to specify that versus “a band.” (Right:) Brightspot Incentives & Events team at Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth. Photo courtesy of Brightspot

When creating an RFP, be specific about the types of activities to include. If you want country music, for instance, be sure to specify that versus “a band.” (Right:) Brightspot Incentives & Events team at Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth. Photo courtesy of Brightspot

Meeting planners and venues, as well as suppliers, need to build robust relationships.  A first step begins with a request for proposal (RFP), especially when meeting planners can’t tour multiple destinations and, therefore, want to choose a venue without an initial visit.

The RFP should be strategically written, and subsequently responded to, for an event’s success. It begins with planners writing as thoroughly as possible, as well as tailoring it to a specific service: it could be for a hotel or resort, technology, marketing, catering, audiovisual, entertainment, or meeting- and event-production services, among others. The more key information provided to the vendor, the more thorough a response.

Jill Garcia, president and owner of the meeting and event planning firm, The Hutton Group, says precision is paramount when it comes to an RFP.

“The more specific you are in an RFP, the easier it is for the hotel or vendor to provide the correct needs,” Garcia says. “For example, requesting a meeting space and not specifying the set of said space can make for an uncomfortable situation if the details are not accurate or caught before contracting. Ensure that you provide the vendor with the actual needs versus general requests. Things can be interpreted differently from client to vendor. Having a western-themed event? Specify that you want a country band versus a band. An inaccurate RFP could spell disaster.”


New Tech Can Assist But Keep the Human Touch

When Garcia started in the industry, RFPs were faxed. The paper trail could easily be lost, or misinterpreted by messy handwriting. “Today, an original RFP can be traced for accuracy with online formats or through email,” Garcia says. “In the past, if there was an error on paper or a space-booking error, that booking could be pencil erased and there wasn’t accountability or proof of who made the mistake or change.”

Genny Castleberry, CMP, director of sourcing at Brightspot Incentives & Events, agrees RFP technology has advanced to make it more strategic. Even so, the human element is still key.

“We are seeing hotels still struggling with staffing shortages stemming from COVID and the delayed responses to hundreds of leads coming in daily,” she says. “It is not uncommon to receive hotel responses well past the due date, which is unfortunate as timelines can’t always be extended when a client or prospect is expecting a proposal by a certain date. Technology is a wonderful tool, but we will always need the human connection to make it a win-win in the meeting and events industry. Although it may take more time on the front end, a meeting planner should try to include budget, program history, program details and decision timeline.”

That’s why Castleberry says the more details, the faster a response from hotels and vendor partners. And after the RFP response, it’s important not to just rely on emails or the RFP platform, but to talk directly with a sales manager.

Be transparent about the decision timeline: Castleberry recommends clearly articulating with the vendor how the bid or decision-process works, as well as how you prefer to handle the follow up by hotel and others.  “Most sales managers will follow up early and often, so to eliminate additional work for both parties, include information in your RFP regarding your expectations and anticipated timeline,” she says. “Don’t blanket an RFP to the world but instead strategize on destinations or properties that would be the best fit for your program.”

Remember The Venue’s Perspective

When creating a strategic RFP, keep hotel priorities in mind. As Tom Pasha, president of the event planning company, CONTACT Planning, explains that hotel sales managers are trained to maximize revenue and minimize waste for each department.

“The planner should include as much salient, revenue-driven information as possible on the exact rooms, meeting space and banquet sales that the group will bring to the hotel,” says Pasha, who teaches a class for meeting planners, The Meeting Planning MasterMind, in which he discusses hotel operations, P&L, RFPs, space usage, negotiations and contracts.

Pasha points out that, years ago, rather than using RFPs, planners would simply speak with sales managers and negotiate a group package.  Now, most sales managers are required to present each booking to their director of sales for approval.  “Sales managers are often competing with other sales managers for specific dates, so the planner needs to show as much revenue, space management and room optimization as possible so their sales manager will win the competition,” he says.

Another RFP strategy includes spelling out hybrid-event plans. In the post-pandemic environment, Vinnu Deshetty, founder and CEO of EVA Event Tech Hub, says many planners are still trying to determine their virtual- or hybrid-event strategy. This can affect the RFP progress. Collaboration amongst vendors once happened after vendors were chosen.  “Now, I’m seeing more planners involving their existing vendors to be part of the selection discussion,” she says, giving the example of a client who asked Deshetty to meet with its AV vendor. They were able to tell them how the Earned Value Analysis (EVA) software and onsite staff would work with the AV team.

“By directly communicating with each other, we were able to ask questions and get information that ultimately provided the best solution for the client,” Deshetty says. “RFPs are great place to start and identify the basic requirements.”


Learning the RFP Ropes

As with most components of any role, we often learn from our mistakes. As such, it’s important to pay attention to the errors in RFP strategies that other planners may have made — and avoid doing the same.

One area to avoid is providing either incorrect or too little information. “From the RFP to the proposal, to the contract and banquet event order (BEO) – there could be a huge miss from one document to the next,” Garcia says. “Ultimately, the RFP must be correct so that the final product, the BEOs and all the pieces fall in line.”

Discuss with your team to make sure everything is correct with your RFP so that everything is specific to your needs. DepositPhotos.com

Discuss with your team to make sure everything is correct with your RFP so that everything is specific to your needs. DepositPhotos.com

The more information provided makes the RFP process much smoother for both the venue and the meeting planner. Sometimes, there is not enough detail when an RFP is originally sent, or details don’t match what is being proposed, so a supplier may have to reach out to the planner to receive more details on the event.

Even though it’s important to provide the event’s key details, Pasha says, it’s also imperative to keep the RFP simple: Delete any words about presentation topics, speakers, etc. and focus on exactly what the group needs.

“Show the day-by-day room block, the daily space usage and a bullet-point list of requested concessions,” Pasha says. “Concessions should include the comps, upgrades, special services and price-points you want from the hotel. Be sure to include specific history of the group, showing the last two to three years by date, location and hotel. The sales manager will review everything with their directors of sales and revenue. The booking that generates the best-proven revenue-profile wins.”

Deshetty suggests meeting planners include enough time for suppliers to ask questions and get responses. “It is very likely that if one vendor asks questions, others will have the same questions,” Deshetty says.


RFP Requirements

The basic elements of an RFP are the dates, the meeting type (board meeting, sales, team building, etc.), number of attendees, how many guest rooms per evening, meeting space and sets, meal requirements, audiovisual requirements and meeting history.

Specifically, the RFPs should include:

  • The client and its business
  • Meeting/event goals
  • Pertinent meeting information (dates, location/preferences, number of attendees)
  • Meeting/event overview including agenda
  • Event history
  • Services required
  • Budget
  • Decision factors in order of importance
  • Response deadlines
  • RFP instructions that include expectations for the response (capabilities, references, samples of work)
  • Contact information for questions and who receives the proposal

In current RFPs, planners should include their requested concessions, clearly spelled out. “Bear in mind the hotel may not extend all of them, but it’s a good basis to negotiate,” Pasha says.  Planners should also include any clauses required by their legal department. Most hotel companies have an in-house library of approved clauses, so be sure to see what clauses are typically offered for attrition, cancellation, resell and rebook, renovation and more.

“Recently, many planners have added service standards to their RFP, mostly in response to hotel staffing issues in the post-COVID world,” Pasha says. Some standards may include: One server per 20 attendees at a banquet, one bartender per 75 attendees, daily housekeeping, open food and beverage outlets and other items.

“Well after COVID, many hotels have extended limited staffing in banquets and housekeeping, but are still charging full-service pricing and maximizing profits,” Pasha says.

Specific arrival- and departure-patterns are critical to the RFP, and it should show that the daily use of meeting space follows the room-block bell-curve of most bookings. “Planners should work to limit multi-day set-ups, which makes even the best booking a ‘space hog’ to the hotel,” Pasha says. “Most hotels are built with 125-150 sf of space per group-room, so if a group exceeds that, the booking is space-heavy and will not be accepted.  Also, a daily-catering spend ranging from $150- $175 per room, per day (plus service charge and tax) is critical for most convention hotels.”

From a planner’s perspective, hotels and vendors often use standard responses and don’t take the time to prepare a custom response. Look for properties that are willing to take the extra time and respond with a high level of detail. It will be expected when the event is underway.

Also make a note if the date or your program is flexible. That simple step can drastically change the way the hotel responds to your RFP.

“Given the current climate with lack of hotel availability and compression for space between corporate clients and the leisure market, the more flexible you can be, the better the odds of receiving positive responses from hotels,” Castleberry says. “Include attachments if your program has a significant amount of meeting space too. Also focus on your top concession must-haves, rather than a lengthy list of wishes. This will assist the hotel’s sales manager in making a case for your program to his/her revenue manager and whether the property will submit a proposal or turn down the opportunity.”

Planners also should know that hotel sales managers are trained to sell three things: space, rates and dates. As Pasha points out, sales managers are also trained to allow planners to receive their preference for just two of the three items.

“Many planners send a list of demands to the hotel that are disproportionate to the size of the group, and the hotel or center will specifically avoid booking the group and give the space to another, more reasonable planner,” Pasha says.

Make sure RFPs are very specific to counter a wave of contractual “traps” that many hotels have added to their contracts.

“Many hotels have added clauses during COVID that are one-sided in the hotel’s favor,” Pasha says. “Some attempt to charge rooms and F&B attrition on a day-by-day basis, when it had formerly been on a cumulative basis.” Some hotels try to extend VIP upgrades over the peak nights of a booking, when VIPs prefer to arrive early and stay late. Even in-room internet has been changed to basic bandwidth, so if the guest requires better Wi-Fi, there is an up charge.

“For any item that is important to you as the planner, be sure it is clearly spelled out,” Pasha says. “Also, because sales managers are constantly moving in and out of the business and from hotel to hotel, be sure you have a signed and countersigned agreement for every booking.”

And remember to proofread the RFP since it should look professional. It is also important to avoid generalizations, so be as specific as possible in all RFP sections, as this minimizes miscommunication.

Finally, don’t forget to inform all of the potential destinations after a decision has finally been made about where the meeting will be held. Hotels and convention centers are holding valuable meeting space and guest rooms, which could be sold to another group. After all, it’s important to keep the line of communication open with all the vendors. And be ready to explain why their site was not selected to host the meeting. C&IT

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