Avoid RFP nightmares with these 9 tips from a destination marketer who has seen both sides

William Bakker

2 December 2016

Requests for proposal (RFPs) are part of the job for most people working at a destination marketing organization (DMO). The RFP process allows DMOs to select a supplier or partner through a fair and transparent process, which is a crucial step for organizations that use public funds.

However, the RFP process is risky. Responding to or creating an RFP can be a time-consuming bureaucratic hurdle for both the DMO and its potential suppliers. An unclear RFP that asks irrelevant questions will create confusion and frustration for respondents, while an unfocused RFP objective will reduce the chances that the DMO will find the right partner.

At Destination Think, we understand this reality well. Many members of our team have worked for DMOs from the inside, and we apply that depth of experience to our work as a destination marketing agency and consultancy. We’ve responded to over a hundred RFPs and have read thousands of them. It’s time to share some of what we’ve learned.

How can you make the RFP process easier and more effective for your DMO and for your respondents in order to find the right partners?

Here are nine tips to create an RFP process that makes life better on both sides. (Have you already released your RFP? Send it to our team.)

1) Be very clear about the purpose of the RFP

The first thing we do at Destination Think after receiving an RFP is evaluate the opportunity and the potential client, because responding requires a large investment of time. This sounds simple enough, but sometimes it can take days to figure out what the potential client is actually looking for. Sometimes, it’s obvious that RFPs have been written by consensus, with input from many points of view. Are you looking for a marketing agency? A strategic consultant? Both? Was the RFP created for a specific project, or a long-term relationship? Are you looking for something new? You might be surprised how unclear this can be. Sometimes the title of the RFP doesn’t even match up with what a client really needs, when old documents are used for a new purpose. The resulting contradictions can cause hours of frustration.

Tip: Be very precise in what you are looking for. Spell it out clearly, and communicate how the contract fits within your existing agency relationships. Watch out for contradictions that creep in.

2) Eliminate ambiguity and jargon

We probably spend almost half of our RFP response time critically analysing and deciphering what a question means. Many organizations have developed their own particular language or terminology over time. Even some common concepts such as “strategy” can mean different things to different destination marketers. For example, it turned out that “strategy” meant “promotional campaign” in one RFP that we responded to.

Tip: Semantics are important. Use commonly defined industry and marketing terminology, and create a glossary where specific language and definitions your DMO uses are explained clearly. Provide an avenue for clarification.

3) Hire an agency panel, not an agency of record (AOR)

Marketing has become a very fragmented, multi-discipline, multi-channel endeavour, which needs specialized skill sets. A well-oiled and integrated destination marketing machine requires strong collaboration between an in-house marketing team and versatile contractors and agencies. Deciding not to hire an AOR makes the decision much easier, as the consequences of making the wrong choice are much smaller.

Tip: If your budget allows, work with a group of agencies that bring many skills to the table. Or if funding is limited, choose one agency that can make your resources go furthest.

4 RFP questions your destination brand agency must answer banner

4) Create an RFP for credentials, not campaigns

Running an RFP for a creative campaign is not typically effective in today’s world. As an agency, there is no way we can extrapolate every bit of detail that we require from the initial brief alone. When an agency builds a creative campaign, there should be as much back-and-forth as required, between agency and client. The two sides need to discuss the brief in person and refine it where necessary. They need to share research and communicate key insights, including anecdotal observations. Opinions and preferences should be discussed when the project begins.

In the end, an RFP response for a creative campaign is extremely subjective. Frankly, the risk is often too high, so we won’t bother to respond.

Tip: If you need to run an RFP for a campaign, run a RFQ (Request for Qualifications) instead and select the agency to collaborate with on the project.

5) Keep it simple

Think about the value of each question before you ask it. The record length for an RFP response at Destination Think is 700 pages. Ironically, we also needed to submit ten paper copies in that case.

Your DMO doesn’t need to write and mark a lengthy test to evaluate an agency’s knowledge about every single marketing tactic. Anyone can use Google to find the right answers.

Instead, ask questions about the company, its values, credentials, marketing philosophy and methodology, people, experience, destination marketing expertise, case studies, processes, price and references.

Tip: Don’t create a knowledge-based exam, ask questions that will help you find the best partner and fit.

6) Make room for additional work and/or extensions

We’ve won a few RFPs where the client wanted to expand the scope of our engagement but could not, because of the strict boundaries set out in the RFP itself. This is a missed opportunity for the DMO.

Tip: If you can, leave your options open for contract extensions, additional scope, or future work. You don’t have to use this option, but it’s very helpful when you need it.

7) Don’t delay your RFP or settle with the status quo

We’ve seen many instances where a DMO identified a need that required a partner, but the reluctance to run an RFP process delayed the search for a long time. For many of you, an RFP is a necessary step when working with partners. Don’t let the process discourage you. Just keep it simple and get it done.

Tip: Don’t delay an RFP when you see a need for one. Get it finished quickly so that you can move onto the fun stuff.

8) Other tips and suggestions for DMOs

  • Accept electronic copies: Imagine working on an RFP response for 6 weeks, but then when you ship it, UPS loses the document and delivers it a day late. It’s an agency’s worst nightmare.
  • Don’t make your document a scavenger hunt: Critical information is often scattered throughout the whole RFP document. Help your partners by collecting it all in one place.
  • Be careful when copying and pasting from another RFP: This often leads to interesting inconsistencies, questions or requirements.
  • Limit word count for a response: You will receive better responses and spend less time reading.
  • Don’t make price too important: You often get what you pay for. Your DMO needs the right partner and shouldn’t be forced into a decision it doesn’t want.

9) Help your partners with deadlines. Send us an invitation to respond.

Finding RFPs to respond to is a process unto itself. Sometimes we find an RFP with little time left before the deadline. This result is that we sometimes spend many nights and weekends working on responses.

Tip: Help us out by letting us know when your DMO has posted an RFP.

Destination Think seeks innovative partnerships with leading destinations. Does your DMO have an upcoming or recently released RFP? Send us your request for proposal today.

Featured image credit: Lauren Hammond, Flickr


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