One of the cardinal laws of meeting planning is that there should be no surprises. A major step toward that goal for lighting, projection, and sound in your general session is to begin with clear and concise Requests for Proposal (RFPs). AV equipment rental and labor has a reputation for costing more than you expect. However, if the RFP is done properly, there should be no surprises on your bill.

Cover Letter Include a cover letter as part of your RFP. It should include the objectives of your meeting or event; the hotel address, phone, and fax numbers; the name of the general session room and the dates and agenda of the general sessions; the name of your convention services manager if one has been assigned; and when the ballroom is available for setup (I recommend two days before your first general session). Allow for strike time (the time it takes to take everything down)--normally four to six hours for a general session setup that's fairly involved.

If you have dimensions of the rooms, or floor plans, and a photo or color copy of what your general session setup looks like, include them with your RFP.

Ask for at least two recent references--ideally people who used about the same amount of equipment that you need.

Equipment List The meat of your RFP will be a list of AV equipment needed to stage your general session, often presented as a spreadsheet. I divide this section into major categories: Projection equipment, audio, lighting, communications equipment, screens, pipe and drape, carpeting, and miscellaneous. There should be a column for the daily rate for most of this equipment and a column for how many days you are to be charged. This is very seldom the actual number of days that you use the equipment, especially if the AV company owns the equipment. Typically, if you use the equipment for, say, eight days, you will receive a discount--so you might be charged for only five days of rental (this is called the "show" rate).

The show rate is often the main variable between companies that are bidding on the job. One company might charge you a six-day rate and the other a four-day rate. Carpeting or drapery is usually a flat fee.

You should indicate when equivalent equipment can be substituted for the specific equipment you've requested. For example, if your equipment list indicates an Otari 5050BQII four-track, reel-to-reel tape deck, can the vendor substitute a Tascam machine instead?

Backup equipment often is rented at half the rate of the primary equipment. It is equipment that is critical for your show and that you want on-site in case of malfunction or breakdown of the primary machine. For an important video, for example, the backup projector will often be turned on and projecting with your primary projector, with the two images superimposed.

What Should It Cost? The daily rate for AV equipment rental is often 10 percent of the cost of the new equipment. For example, a slide projector that cost $350 new will usually rent for $30 to $35 per day. Renting good AV equipment can result in a big bill--but it's often exceeded by the cost of labor.

Indicate on your RFP the setup days, rehearsal times, and actual show times. For our larger general sessions, I have one crew to work on the grid (for slide projectors or for video projection), one for audio, one for lighting, two camera operators if we are recording the general session, and a director. Load-in and strike typically require twice that number.

Early morning or late evening hours will be billed at a higher rate, often one-and-a-half times the regular hourly rate, and holidays are often double the normal hourly rate. Be aware if you are working in a union hotel. There will be guidelines for rates, and requirements for breaks and meals.

In determining costs, don't forget to add in the cost for per diem and lodging expenses for the crew. The per diem rate is normally what it would cost to eat in the meeting hotel. If you are providing any meals, then subtract that amount from what you pay. Per diem is paid up front; for the other items, 50 percent of the cost is typically paid when the contract is signed, and the remainder at the conclusion of the conference or within 30 days of final invoice.

The crew can stay in the meeting hotel or in nearby facilities. Often there is a less-expensive hotel that the crew can stay in; but I do this only with the agreement of the AV company and with the intent of getting the crew into private, rather than shared, rooms. In Hawaii, condos are often convenient and cost-effective to use for the crew.

Do a Thorough Search You should always get at least two bids--three if possible. The first one will probably be the hotel's in-house AV company. The second one should go to the company the in-house would use if they needed extra equipment or crew. The third RFP might go to a vendor your destination management company recommends.

If you receive an RFP that doesn't have enough detail to make a direct comparison with another vendor, call and request more information. The better you are at communicating with your AV companies, the better they will be able to meet your expectations.