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RFP Writing 101

By Connie Jeske Crane

Tried and true, the RFP tool is a powerful workhorse and the foundation of many a successful event. Yet in an industry that revels in face-to-face excitement, it’s safe to say that crafting a voluminous, uber-detailed RFP isn’t always a planner’s favourite task.

Adding to the challenge, there’s a hard truth. Lots of RFPs could do with a few improvements. How so? Ask any vendor who’s wading through a 100-question RFP with a two-day deadline. Or the savvy young hotelier who thought she blew away the competition but is now puzzling over why the same old vendor won the business—again.

While so very useful, RFPs are also time-consuming and prone to particular frustrations and pitfalls. So how to ensure we’re putting out solid RFPs, acting ethically and inspiring the best from vendors? We talked to four event planners and discovered these winning strategies:

Know your “why” and communicate well

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that mindlessly dropping an RFP every three years isn’t your best bet. Invest a bit more thought upfront though, says Kathy Smart, director of marketing and sales for Calgary-based e=mc2 events, and you can really elevate your game. “Clarity on the ‘ask’ is what makes a good RFP,” says Smart, whose company primarily responds to RFPs and monitors incoming opportunities daily. “We want to make sure we’re clear on what the client’s objective is.”

Tailor your RFP according to your needs, says Rachel Gilmour, vice-chair of finance for International Live Events Association (ILEA) Canada, whether that’s scouting out single elements (AV services, say), or venues in other cities. RFPs are “a helpful tool when we’re doing larger events where we have not made a decision about a particular property or city.” RFPs can also keep vendors on their toes, she adds. “That’s the whole point of an RFP, to get the best deal, see new things and what other suppliers have to offer—maybe new equipment, or new services that didn’t exist three years ago.”

Once you’re clear on your RFP objectives and scope, Smart underlines it’s equally important to communicate concisely— which means watch those page counts. “You don’t want to make them wade through until page 23 just to find out what the event is about!”

Choose a practical platform

While the digital revolution has delivered shiny tools—many government RFPs, for example, flow through portals like MERX or Biddingo—several planners we talked to lean towards surprisingly simple platforms like Microsoft Word. Their advice is to choose what works, with these considerations:

STANDARDS: What is the standard for your vendors and particular niche?

SUSTAINABILITY/CONVENIENCE: According to Pearleen Mofford, managing director of Halifax-based Downeast DMC, “in a digital world and one where people are trying to be more sustainable,” uploads and electronic signatures are pretty standard.

CREATIVITY/ACCESSIBILITY: “New tools allow companies to put their best foot forward, and present who they are from a creative standpoint,” adds Mofford, but she advises careful adoption as you can run into upload issues with some technology.

VISUALS: Plan for how you want respondents to forward photographic and video materials, says Mofford.

FLEXIBILITY: Claire Leahy, senior director of business operations and events for Managing Matters in Toronto, says RFP platforms should also be able to accommodate multiple response formats. “If I have my PDF response here ready to go, I would prefer not to rewrite the whole form again on an online platform. There should be an option to let you fill out the online form or upload a file.”


Your RFP should outline event specifics to help bidders craft a comprehensive response. Generally, include:

  • Event objectives
  • Target dates (plus dates to avoid)
  • Your event agenda
  • Accommodation needs and number of attendees
  • Additional guest services required (ground transportation, entertainment, etc.)
  • Meeting spaces required (plus seating specifications)
  • Food and beverage requirements
  • AV requirements
  • Requested concessions (VIP upgrades, etc.)
  • Your ballpark budget and payment schedule
  • Profile data for attendees (age, gender, etc.)
  • Reservation and billing instructions
  • Historical event knowledge (previous locations, contracts, budgets, etc.)
  • RFP procedures, deadlines, response formats, etc.
  • Selection process

Play nice

To further improve the process, here’s how to head off some top vendor frustrations:

TIMELINES: While tight timelines seem to be an industry trend, allowing adequate time for RFP responses can pay off. “We try to give properties and venues a two- to three-week timeline if possible for larger RFPs, and as well for things like larger AV components for conferences,” says Leahy, adding, “If you give people a short turnaround time, they may not have the time to put their best proposal together.”

TRANSPARENCY: If a particular vendor has basically won, be honest. Gilmour says you can choose not to go to RFP at all. “If my business partners know who they want to go with, I don’t do an RFP, I don’t want to waste anyone’s time.” Or, if there’s a clear favourite, she says, be very upfront with candidates about their odds. “Yes they have a favourite, so blow them away if you want to get in.”

CONSISTENT RULES: Treat all candidates equally, says Gilmour. “You cannot just give one company an extension, it has to be a fair game. Give everybody an extension.”

CONFIDENTIALITY: While respondents can expect to have formal Q&A responses shared with the group, other than that, you should take steps to respect your respondents’ confidentiality around strategy. Also be aware that, due to confidentiality concerns, respondents may not reveal their full strategies in an RFP response.

FOLLOW-THROUGH: Close off with unsuccessful bidders. Leahy says, “We’ll just advise them that on this occasion they didn’t win the bid. Because we run multiple associations, we can always say we hope to work with them in the future and give them feedback as to why they weren’t a successful candidate on this occasion. It could be price, it could be just their layout didn’t work…It’s good to get the feedback, so we try to give it.”


Finally, it’s good to step back and remember RFPs are just a tool, so don’t be afraid to change up the process a bit. For example, says Mofford, you might benefit from pre-screening vendors via a sort of request for information (RFI) process. Basically, planners stress, it’s about constantly tying the RFP tool back to your big picture. “I think that the more that a vendor knows you’ve given it some thought,” says Mofford, “and you think they are one of the people you are considering, then that vendor will really lean in and put their best foot forward.”

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