10 Insights for Better Trade Show RFP Responses


When it comes to your trade show, RFP doesn’t have to stand for “Really Frustrating Process.” As a supplier of trade show and exhibit services, MC² receives requests for proposals (RFPs) and information (RFIs) all the time. While we readily admit that some trade show RFPs are downright difficult, others actually make the process of providing information easier, which helps us deliver more rewarding outcomes for you.

So, on behalf of all the suppliers out there, here are 10 things to keep in mind the next time you create a trade show RFP.

1. Ask open-ended questions

Quality information enables you to make the correct decision, so don’t be afraid to go into detail. The more specific your trade show RFP, the better the proposal you’ll receive in return. For this reason, avoid closed questions that require “yes” or “no” answers and employ open-ended, multi-layered questioning techniques instead. Consider asking questions that give companies a chance to tell you about the evolution of their services. For example, asking “How do you handle ___ today compared to three years ago?”

2. Talk about budget

To help level the playing field, consider specifying a budget number and asking what you would get for that amount. Even if the budget is just a preliminary estimate, this exercise will allow you to compare the offerings of multiple suppliers and weed out any trade show RFP responses that are below your expectations. Without a specific budget number, your responses could be all over the place.

3. Provide as much information as you can

Help me help you. When you include photographs, drawings, sketches, and actual setups in your trade show RFP, you give responding companies a better platform to work from. When you don’t, you run the risk of getting an off-brand proposal and wasting everyone’s time. Be sure to tell the responding companies what you need, what you like, and why your programs have succeeded or failed in the past.

4. Investigate the company’s thinking process with “what ifs”

Don’t be afraid to ask hypothetical questions. You’ve learned from your past experiences, but how would the companies responding to your trade show RFP react in those same scenarios? This is your chance to find out. If they suggest the same or a similar solution to the one you chose in the past, you can assume that their thinking process is aligned with yours—for better or worse. If they go somewhere completely different than you did, consider investigating their thought process further, you might be grateful for the new perspective.

5.Test their ability to follow directions

When writing up your trade show RFP, consider including a question that begins with “In 50 words, describe your company ….” Surprisingly, the content of the answer isn’t as important as the exact word count is. Sound too tricky? Remember, you’re about to choose a company that will be receiving very specific assignments. If suppliers don’t follow directions now, it’s reasonable to assume that they won’t in the future. If you’re torn between two suppliers, this could be a tiebreaker.

6. Establish clear selection criteria and processes

Start whittling down your list of possible suppliers from the very beginning by being upfront about your needs in your trade show RFP. Stating minimum criteria upfront let’s suppliers know whether they have what you’re looking for, before you invest time reading their responses. Additionally, you should include the expected time frame for final selection and what happens along the way so that you can stay on track and they can know what to expect.

7. Limit your mailing

Only include 2 to 3 companies for every $1-2 million in your budget. Why? The amount of time and energy a company puts into a trade show RFP response is directly proportionate to the number of companies they know are on the bid list. For instance, if a trade show RFP or RFI goes out to 20 companies, they each will assume that they have a 1 in 20 chance of making the cut and won’t put as much effort into the creative portion of their responses. We call these mass mailings “cattle calls.” Having a reasonable number gives you much higher quality responses.

8. Weight and rank your trade show RFP responses

Ask yourself, “what are my most important program elements?” then assign each one a value and see how well the respondents stack up. By developing a simple matrix, you can make a smarter decision based on data.

9. Physically visit the sites of 2-3 finalists

There’s nothing like a healthy dose of intuition, and you can learn a lot about a candidate just by seeing where they work. Chemistry is a very important aspect of a trade show or event partner relationships, so a face-to-face meeting can help you find a partner that you feel good about.

10. Use a “buying center” approach.

By including more of your team in the trade show RFP process, you can gain a greater perspective before making your final decision. Invite people from diverse departments in your organization to join the decision-making team. For instance, a finance person who can run the numbers presented by your responders would be a huge asset. Also consider including a corporate marketing person, as well as someone from IT to evaluate responses on the technology side. These added eyes and ears, become part of the buying center, along with your own team members, to keep the evaluation objective.

Sending out a trade show RFP is a lot like looking for a life partner. You need to find someone who is upfront, honest, understand the way you think, and complements your best assets. Knowing exactly what you want in a partner and conveying what’s important to you increase your possibility of finding “the one” that’s right for you.

Do you need more help creating a dynamic and effective trade show RFP? Let us know what you’re looking for and how MC² can help.