Rebecca Dop, CTSM, has worked in the pharmaceutical industry for more than 25 years. Her roles have included managing exhibits, promotional materials, and overall marketing programs. She currently serves as the corporate communications manager for Upsher-Smith Laboratories in Maple Grove, MN.
When "build a new booth" appears on your to-do list, it's enough to make most people duck and cover. After all, a new build means you're not only responsible for investing a big wad of your company's cash, but you also have to live with – and accept responsibility for – the resulting exhibit property for years to come. And guess what? Newbies are pretty much out of luck, as Amazon.com doesn't carry a book called "Booth Building for Dummies."
So when my previous co-worker Marcey Culp, CTSM, CMP, and I were tasked with our first new build several years ago, something akin to panic crept into the pit of our stomachs and took up residence for about a year. Our company owned two booths at the time, but they were in pretty bad shape; plus, they looked completely different, providing no continuity for our brands. Since we were about to launch a new product, management wanted a fresh new face for a major upcoming show taking place in just over a year. We needed to build a booth that not only met our marketing needs, but also was reconfigurable to sizes including everything from a 10-by-20-foot in-line to a 50-by-50-foot island.
To further complicate matters, shortly before management ordered the new build, our exhibit house folded. Rather than trying to establish a relationship with a new exhibit house and account executive at that time, we simply followed our AE to a new firm, which then stored, maintained, and provided on-site management for our exhibits. As such, when we entered the booth-building process, we were complete new-build newbies, and our company had a less-than-established relationship with its exhibit house.
When we started this endeavor, I would have given my right arm for this kind of guide. Few people have ever explained exactly how this process works from beginning to end, much less what tactics have worked miracles – or failed miserably – along the way. This is why I'm passing it on to you. While every RFP situation is different, this simple guide, which is littered with the valuable lessons we learned, should help you complete your new build faster and more efficiently.
1. Develop a timeline and budget
Our first step was to establish a basic timeline for the build, including the targeted months in which we had to identify potential exhibit houses, send a request for information (RFI), receive responses and narrow the field, issue an RFP to the remaining firms, review their presentations, select a new exhibit house, start and finish construction, and ship the booth to its first show.
Next, using information gleaned from research, industry square-foot averages, and past experience, we devised a budget and sent our capital-expense request to management, which was approved a year before the new booth was set to debut.
Since this was our first build, we didn't know how long each step would take, so we couldn't start our timeline from the beginning and work toward completion. But we knew when the booth had to be ready, so we started at that date and worked backward. We also included plenty of extra time for unexpected delays, allowing us to complete the build on time, even given a couple of minor setbacks along the way.
2. Create a task force and gather information
With money in hand for the build, we needed to set objectives and determine the look and feel of this new booth. We quickly established an internal booth-build task force comprised of my manager, vice president- and brand-manager-level reps from marketing, senior management from the commercial group, a corporate communications/investor relations rep, a medical science liaison (we were in the pharmaceutical industry), and key people from the sales management and finance departments. It was important that our team include individuals in addition to the commercial group. Our booths were going to be equally important to other teams within our company, and we needed input and buy-in from all involved.
We then compiled a list of questions for the group and scheduled a series of meetings to answer them. Questions included everything from "What do you like/dislike about our current booth?" and "What type of journey do you want attendees to take inside our space?" to "What feelings do you want our booth to evoke?" and "What messages must we relay?" After a couple of meetings, we established a list of key objectives and outcomes for the new exhibit.
During this time we also began gathering data necessary for the RFP, such as the company mission statement, product samples, a list of non-design-related requirements (such as staff experience levels, promotional-support capabilities, etc.), Pantone Matching System (PMS) logo colors and usage instructions, etc.
The members of our task force were always on the road, and assembling our decision-makers in one place and at one time proved almost impossible. Since viewing images, examining samples, and simply talking face to face were critical to the success of the group, we always fought an uphill battle. As such, I recommend setting up a video conference to establish a semblance of face-to-face communication, or if all else fails, use Dropbox to share photos and info so people in the field can still view key data and images.
The group's second, near-fatal flaw was its struggle to talk effectively about intangibles, such as how we wanted customers to perceive our brand and what we wanted our booth to convey about our company. To aid in this process, I would suggest providing photos of other booths to help people illustrate intangible concepts. This way, they can say, "I want our booth to feel like this example," or "The booth in this photo feels too cold for our brand."
Finally, our task force should have included the field-sales reps and booth staffers who have contact with customers and are the ones working the booth, which means they possess oodles of information that would have aided us in planning our new exhibit.
3. Identify potential exhibit houses
Throughout January and February, I researched exhibit houses and compiled a list of seven that I thought could deliver our design, construction, and service requirements. Then I attended EXHIBITORLIVE, an educational conference and expo for exhibit and event professionals, where I spoke with several new exhibit houses and added another four to our list of potential firms.
While I wanted to identify as many feasible exhibit firms as possible – and to make sure "the perfect company" didn't slip through the cracks – I shouldn't have added the last four firms. While those companies weren't lacking in any way, their addition brought the total to 11, which was too many to manage effectively.
So instead of issuing an RFI to 11 companies like we did, thoroughly research each company and conduct verbal interviews to help narrow the field to a more manageable number.
4. Develop and issue the RFI
Going off of a template from our AE and questions developed by our task force, our team created a five-page RFI that asked for information in nine major categories:
➤ General Information:
Does the firm have a global presence? How many people does it employ? What is its corporate philosophy?
➤ Account Team:
How many clients are handled by the team that might be assigned to our account? What, if any, duties are subcontracted?
➤ Technology and Design:
How many designers are currently on staff? What awards, if any, has the firm won for exhibit design or related efforts in the past three years? Is installation and dismantle outsourced? Does the firm offer inventory-tracking capabilities?
➤ Clients/Trade Show Experience:
Does the firm have other clients in our industry or sector? Who are the company's top 10 clients? In which foreign countries has the firm done business in the past year?
What is the firm's pricing philosophy? What are the current rates for fabrication, warehouse handling, graphic design, storage, etc.? Is leasing an exhibit an option?
➤ Financial Position:
What is the company's Dun & Bradstreet rating? What level of revenue growth is the firm anticipating in the foreseeable future?
➤ Pharmaceutical-Industry Details:
How much experience does the firm have in the health-care industry? At which medical shows has it recently created and/or installed exhibits?
➤ Additional Information:
What personality traits describe the company's corporate culture? What animal might the firm choose to represent itself?
Whom might we be able to contact regarding their experiences working with the firm, particularly if they're from the pharmaceutical industry?
We sent the RFI to the 11 firms selected and provided a deadline for receipt of their proposals. Once we'd received the proposals, we analyzed each of them compared to our goals, as well as the quality and speed of their responses, and eliminated all but five of the exhibit houses.
The strict deadline was key, as only eight of the 11 firms met it. As an exhibit manager, I understand busy schedules, but if an exhibit house couldn't meet our first deadline before it had even secured our business, I could only guess how many deadlines it would miss after it had our money. Thus, defining and enforcing a drop-dead due date allowed me to quickly and easily eliminate three exhibit houses and focus more closely on the eight that remained.
My RFI was also far too detailed, as it generated a mountain of information that was difficult to sift through, making it hard for our group to identify key differentiators and stay on schedule. So streamline your RFI as much as possible, honing in on the areas that are most important to you and your internal team.
5. Create the RFP
During the RFI process, we simultaneously created the RFP using our research and the information and requirements developed by our task force. Here are the six components of our RFP.
➤ Company Overview:
This included a description of our company, its products and competitors, our mission statement, core values, organizational structure, key corporate messages, corporate logos and PMS colors, and the requirements for their use.
➤ Marketing Strategies:
We summed up our general brand-marketing plan and product-marketing messages, and included key sales and marketing collateral, promotional-campaign strategies, print advertising, and competitive profiles for each of the company's products.
This section detailed the problems with our existing property, as well as our functional and design objectives for the new build.
I provided an overview of services we required during the next three to five years, including overall account management, storage of our booth properties, international exhibiting, possible inventory management, etc.
Here, we shared images of our existing properties, including individual elements and details.
We chose to share a general budget range rather than an exact figure for the project.
Initially, we wanted to withhold all budget information for two reasons: 1) We didn't want our budget to limit the design team's creative process, and 2) We were afraid an exhibit house would simply slap a price tag equivalent to our budget on its design, regardless of the booth's actual value.
However, we also knew that the designers needed a guideline, so shortly before we sent out the RFP we included a ballpark budget to give some flexibility. We also stressed that designers should include all of the wow-factor elements they could muster regardless of cost, as we would consider going above our budget constraints if their creative capabilities warranted.
I recommend this ballpark strategy, as it provides enough of a framework for designers to develop some parameters, but it also gives them some room to flex their creative muscles.
6. Issue the RFP
We then sent the RFP to five exhibit houses along with a confidentiality agreement (basically stating that we wouldn't share their intellectual property, and they couldn't share ours) and a form of acceptance. Since the RFP process requires a considerable commitment from all parties, a completed form of acceptance (which we included as the last page of our RFP document and asked that it be signed by a representative from the firm and returned to us via fax or email) indicated to me that the exhibit house was entering the RFP process and intended to follow through to completion.
Several supplemental instructions and information accompanied the RFP. For example, the cover letter listed all the competing firms responding to the RFP and provided a deadline by which they had to submit additional questions and requests for clarification. It then explained that we would answer each question by a certain date and copy all firms on each question and answer.
The RFP also contained detailed instructions about how firms should respond. For example, it explained what we expected to see during the presentation and its suggested length, what we needed to see in writing, how many copies were required and in what format, a list of people who would be in attendance, the audiovisual equipment available, etc. Plus, we asked that all creative concepts be presented prior to and separate from any pricing information.
While the form of acceptance may not have been legally binding, we wanted more than a handshake to ensure each firm's commitment to this process; otherwise, we had plenty of other companies that would have been happy to sign the form. As such, I encourage you to include a similar element in your RFP to identify whether each exhibit house intends to respond. If a firm doesn't return this form, you may want to reconsider sending your RFP to a previously eliminated exhibit house if your company policy or procurement department requires having a minimum number of bidders.
We knew that the minute firms received the RFPs, phone lines would be buzzing as reps tried to find out who they were competing against. So instead of fostering the mystery, we listed all of the companies on the cover letter. This strategy not only cleared the phone lines, but also allowed firms to play up their strengths in relation to the competing companies – which in turn allowed us to more easily compare them.
Having a set timeline for incoming questions and our responses also allowed us to assess each firm's ability to meet deadlines; plus, our on-time responses showed the exhibit houses that we could hold up our end of the bargain as well.
Keeping the Q&A process transparent helped level the playing field, as we wanted all companies to have the same exact information from which to create their designs. This open communication made the exhibit houses think twice about the questions they asked and how they asked them, as nobody wanted to give away any clues about what they were working on.
Furthermore, the Q&A process was a time-saver for us, as it kept us from answering the same questions over and over again. However, it might have prevented some firms from establishing a competitive edge. Without our information-sharing process, perhaps one firm would have asked several critical questions, allowing it to develop a better design than its competitors – and allowing us to witness its analytic capabilities. So weigh the pros and cons of transparency and decide which method is going to give you the best insight into the responding firms.
Separating the creative ideas from their costs was also key. The minute you mention a dollar figure in front of members of management, they seem to hear almost nothing afterward. By focusing on the creative concepts first and dollar figures second, we could better evaluate the entire project, rather than being struck deaf by sticker shock.
7. Check financials and references
While the firms worked on their proposals, our accounting firm performed a financial check on each company and found all of them to be in good standing. Meanwhile, we began contacting all 35 references and asked them the same questions.
While conducting the reference check was tedious, and merely connecting with busy exhibit managers was a challenge, it was a major eye-opener. Not only did we learn about the strengths and weaknesses of each firm, but we were also able to completely eliminate one of them. Apparently, that firm didn't take the time to check its own references, as exhibitors reported feeling like small fish left to fend for themselves in a big pond filled with sharks, which was exactly the type of situation we hoped to avoid.
8. Perform site visits
After conducting the reference checks, we visited four of the five remaining exhibit firms, excluding our current exhibit house.
A warehouse is a warehouse all over the world, so for us the visits were an opportunity to spend more face time with company reps, pick up on the general attitude of its employees, and get a feel for the quality, service, and efficiency of each company.
Surprisingly, one firm completely blew us away during our site visit. We met everyone from the night janitor to the CEO; plus, our entire visit was molded into an integrated program and organized around a summer-picnic theme. As such, I believe it's worth including your existing firm in the site visits to ensure it has the same opportunity to showcase itself.
9. Analyze the presentations
When it came time for the firms to present their designs, the task force used score cards to evaluate each proposal. The score cards employed a point system, with one being "acceptable" and five being "very good." The team members were asked to score each of the firms' presentations based on the following nine criteria:
Will the booth adapt to different spaces and products?
Does the design accommodate an interactive event, theater-type setting, high-traffic giveaways, etc.?
➤ Overall Design:
How does the overall design help us communicate our image, messages, and brands effectively?
➤ Account Team:
Are team members' personalities a good fit with our company, and do they all have sufficient experience to take our program to the next level?
➤ Total Program:
Does the exhibit house offer a suite of services, such as online inventory management; pre-, at-, and post-show promotion programs; measurement tools; etc.?
➤ Pharma Experience:
Does the firm and its account team have enough experience in our industry?
➤ Financing Alternatives:
Do the payment, lease, and/or rental terms match our company's needs?
Are the costs warranted and within our budget ballpark?
➤ Financial Stability:
Do the firm's finances appear reasonably stable?
The score cards helped us organize our thoughts and reinforce general feelings. In fact, using them allowed us to eliminate another firm based on its desperately low point total. However, task-force members' scores varied so greatly and team members had such differing opinions regarding the importance of each criterion that the score card wasn't a prominent factor in our decision making. Rather, it was simply another tool in our arsenal. Bottom line: Use a score card as a guide for discussing each firm's high and low points, not as a final determining factor.
10. Select and notify the winners and losers
Within 24 hours of the last presentation, the task force submitted their scores, and we tabulated the results. By the end of that week, we had evaluated our scores and opinions and finally settled on a firm that we felt best met our needs.
We immediately notified the winning firm; however, we also sent the remaining firms a letter explaining that they had not won our business and specifically stating why we had chosen another firm over theirs. We then followed up with a personal phone call to each unselected firm, reiterating the details of the letter and thanking reps for their time.
Shortly after notifying the winning firm, we invited its reps to our offices to meet our entire team, including product managers, commercial management, exhibit management, etc.
While these calls and letters might seem like a waste of time, they were a critical part of the process for us, personally. Obviously, we don't like breaking bad news to people, but given the time, money, and emotional involvement they'd committed to the process, we didn't want losing firms to get the equivalent of a "Dear John" letter. In fact, we felt we owed them, and we thought we could even the score with a little constructive criticism that they could use to improve and hopefully win their next bid. The firms were pleasantly surprised by our follow-up and were extremely appreciative.
11. Prepare an executive summary
As soon as our team selected our new exhibit house, we composed a one-page executive report for management that explained the entire booth-building process at a glance – including what we used to have, what we needed, what plans were presented, our recommendation, and our reasoning. We then sent the summary to our vice president of commercial development and our CEO, who quickly approved the purchase.
While this summary took us only about an hour to complete and deliver, it saved us weeks or perhaps months of time. Rather than having to explain every detail of the RFP process to multiple people in the chain of command, we went straight to the top with a document that was easy to digest in one brief sitting. Within two weeks of receiving the summary, management signed off on the new build, and we were on our way.
Beyond the Build
Even the most well-planned process is prone to a problem or two. For us, our main boo-boo involved Uncle Sam. While determining our first annual budget for the new build, our new exhibit house asked us how we planned to pay the sales taxes on the booth. Oops! We'd forgotten to include sales tax in our budget, and nobody had mentioned it along the way. And having never built a new booth before, we'd never run into this issue. However, after a bit of investigation, our accounting department determined that we'd pay taxes the first two times the booth was prepped for a show, and we reallocated funds from multiple areas in the budget to account for the fiscal oversight.
We were also caught off guard by the cost and hassle of getting rid of our old properties. While we tried to sell the exhibits through a brokerage firm, we ultimately ended up paying our previous exhibit house to destroy them. Next time, we'll get an estimate from the exhibit house and shop around for alternative options long before building a new booth.
Despite facing a few unexpected challenges and learning some hard lessons along the way, this RFP process served our company well. I hope it does as much for you and that your booth-building adventure is as pain-free as possible. But keep in mind, building a booth is a lot like childbirth – there's usually a lot of hard work and pain involved, but a few weeks later, you forget the pain and focus all of your energy on your new baby booth. E