For exhibit and event professionals  

The ABCs of RFPs

May 13, 2013 By Editor

eConnections talks with Rich Gilligan, VP of marketing, TELUS International

The exhibit RFP (request for proposal) process can be detail-heavy and time-consuming. To simplify it, some people reuse an existing document. But they shouldn’t.

With a well-thought-out RFP and evaluation of responses, your odds of finding the right supplier—and getting the exhibit you want—go up exponentially.

Rich Gilligan, VP of marketing at TELUS International, explains how to make the process — from creating an RFP to establishing a relationship with your supplier — work for you.

eConnections: Why do we use RFPs to do business?

Rich Gilligan: Typically, an RFP is necessary because a contract runs out or has ended, and it’s company policy to go to bid. It’s usually not a lack of performance on either side; it’s cyclical.

But if an RFP is required due to lack of performance, there’s often an “out clause” included in the contract, stating that any time either party feels there’s a lack of performance on either side, the contract will end following a 45-day notice.

Another reason is because there’s new business not previously performed at the company, so a new supplier is needed.

eConnections: Should exhibit planners write their own RFPs?

Gilligan: I don’t think they should. It should be a collaborative effort with procurement. Exhibit planners have specific insight and expertise. They understand the details of what they are sourcing. But the procurement group understands terms and conditions, and they manage risk like the supplier’s intellectual property.

eConnections: So, who should lead the RFP team?

Gilligan: That depends on what you’re sourcing. For an exhibit, the exhibit planner is the leader 90 percent of the time. But if company management feels building the exhibit is purely a price decision, procurement takes the lead. Legal comes in further down the line, and insurance people may be involved.

eConnections: Why do some RFPs work while others don’t?

Gilligan: The ones that don’t work aren’t clear as to what you want and fail to articulate what is needed. To prepare an RFP that’s effective, you must understand the goals of the company’s exhibit program, what you’re trying to source and the quantitative information you need to make a decision.

eConnections: What are the elements of a good RFP?

Gilligan: First, find out the goals and what’s most important to the line of business the exhibit will be supporting. For instance, if the marketing people intend to close business deals in the exhibit, a well-thought-out request must include that information.

Also determine how the exhibit is going to be used. Will it be just for a big industry show? Or will it also be going to smaller shows with smaller footprints or serve multiple purposes over time? If it’s going to different venues, you’ll need the exhibit to be durable, light and something that can be set up by someone unfamiliar with setups.

eConnections: How do you structure the questions to get the answers you need?

Gilligan: Ask the groups what they hope to accomplish. Determine how long the exhibit should last, for an entire campaign or one big show. And find out about the decision criteria — price, quality or somewhere in the middle.

Write questions tailored to your industry; never recycle an old RFP for another industry, just to save time. And make sure your questions include the goals and concerns of everyone who touches what you’re sourcing. Since different lines of business may be sharing the booth, consider the needs of all these entities.

For example, procurement’s requirements are more around legalities and risk. They are the guardians of bigger company finances while the exhibit professional is in charge of the exhibit finances, so the final selection must fit into your budget.

eConnections: How many RFPs should you send out?

Gilligan: At most, I would say seven, but it would be better to send out only three or four. Why? It takes a lot of work for you to develop scorecards and review all the responses. If you send out too many RFPs, you won’t have the time to look at them closely.

When you send out the RFPs, include a set period of time for bidders to ask questions. Then, send all the questions and your answers to every bidder in a way that no one will know who asked what. Providing this information to everyone levels the playing field.

eConnections: How should you evaluate an RFP response?

Gilligan: Look for who’s on target and understands the questions. A supplier may want the work and skew its answers to what it can deliver, not what you’re looking for. Pay attention to these kinds of details.

eConnections: If you’re at the point where you think you’ve found the right supplier, how do you qualify it?

Gilligan: Do a Dunn and Bradstreet search on the supplier to make sure it’s stable. Find out its client base and the spread of business across the client base. How much of its business is with its biggest client? This is important for two reasons. One, if too much of its business relies on one account, you could take a backseat to that customer. And two, if something happens to this big client, the supplier — and consequently your exhibit program — could be in big trouble.

Also, ask the supplier for three accounts it’s lost and then talk to your counterpart at each of these companies about why the relationship ended. Based on the answers you get, you should have a pretty good idea whether this is the supplier for you.

eConnections: Isn’t it polite to contact the losing contenders to explain why they weren’t chosen?

Gilligan: Telling people they didn’t get a job can be uncomfortable, and though you may hesitate to contact them, you should. Your call is valuable to them, a learning experience. If you can’t handle contacting them, at least accept the losing bidders’ calls.

eConnections: How do you use the winning RFP to start or renew an exhibit house partnership?

Gilligan: Take it seriously from the beginning. If you provided accurate information, the supplier should be able to deliver everything you asked for and then some.

But remember, there’s a ramp-up period, and you need to stay involved in the process and be willing to meet in the middle.

Rich Gilligan has over 25 years of industry experience in the marketing and event management fields. His broad-based experience includes senior executive roles in the telecommunications and pharmaceutical industries. He currently holds the position of VP of marketing, TELUS International, a position he began in February 2013. Previously, Gilligan was global commodity expert, events and sponsorships for SAP, where he was responsible for the management of the global supplier base and the execution of contracts on several multi-million dollar event programs, including the largest event for SAP, SapphireNow. Gilligan is also a proven entrepreneur, having launched and managed his own marketing events firm, IDEA.


  • Thank you, Tammy. We agree, this certainly ranks as a “best practice.” Look for upcoming articles on how to spend a summer “vacation” and the synergy between exhibit design and exhibit graphics.

  • Great information, thank you. Also, I truly appreciate the response to notifying and accepting bidder calls. This is very important. We all work really hard to do a professional and thorough job. Respecting a bidders time and effort is very important and most of all merely extending the courtesy and anyone would like to receive professionally. I look forward to further articles. Tammy Woods

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