When preparing an RFP, remember: the quality of the proposals you receive is directly related to the quality of the RFP you issue. That said, here are some 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 complex process of soliciting bids, evaluating vendors, and making the choice of 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 meeting.

  2. It defines requirements. What does your meeting 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 bother with an RFP?

If an RFP isn't in writing, it can easily be misinterpreted. A well-written RFP should result in accurate, complete bids, and the process should produce the best possible solution for your meeting requirements. The reverse 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 an 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 creating an RFP, it's unfair to give vendors one week to respond. Be realistic about deadlines.

What should be included?

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

What in an RFP can alienate vendors?

Four things that irritate vendors:

  1. RFPs with typos

  2. RFPs that are disorganized

  3. RFPs that ask redundant questions

  4. 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 meeting. What is its purpose? At the end of the meeting, 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 a detailed list of requirements for achieving the meeting goals. Learn from past meetings. What has happened, both good and bad, in those meetings, and why? What would prevent the bad things from happening in the future? In meetings that went beyond expectations, what helped to produce that result?

  3. Write the draft RFP.

  4. Identify and select potential suppliers. Or make it an open bidding process and have vendors self-select. The downside of open bidding 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 meeting is a large one, consider scheduling at least one vendor meeting — a conference call at which all vendors are invited to ask questions. And remember: You don't have to answer all the questions that you're asked.

What are your “gotta-haves”?

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

Should you include budgetary information in an 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 an 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 in an organization. If you don't, your RFP could land and sit on the desk of someone who doesn't know what to do with it. Remember, roles and names change — sometimes quickly and often — within service organizations.

What should you do if you're a new meeting planner, or if you have a first-time meeting?

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

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 meeting. This is done so people can respond quickly if their facilities are not appropriate.

  • Introduction and overview. This describes the intent of the meeting and gives administrative information.

The introduction describes who you are, where you're headquartered, what kind of meeting you're holding, how many will attend, and when the meeting will be. Also, providing background on similar past meetings will help vendors.

The administrative information includes: the deadline, to whom the RFP should be sent, how you want the proposal received (fax, e-mail attachment, hard copy) and in what format (Word, pdf, or other). Will you accept proposals on CDs? Also, if you plan multiple meetings, ask vendors to reference the meeting 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 to quickly analyze the vendors that are competing for your business.

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

How will you evaluate the RFPs?

  • First, tell 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?).

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

  • If 20 bids remain, cut it down 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 to do with late proposals?

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

This article was adapted from a tutorial given at a past RCMA by Tom Sant, CEO and founder of The Sant Corp., Cincinnati, Ohio.