by Sarah J. F. Braley | March 01, 2010

For about 50 sporting events each year, the national arm of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Team In Training sends hordes of runners, triathletes and cyclists to fulfill their fundraising promises. For instance, about 6,000 women (and a few men) head to San Francisco each fall to run in the Nike Women's Marathon, for whom the LLS planners arrange about 3,500 rooms. In 2009, those athletes stayed in 11 hotels. But the year before, when San Francisco was hosting a citywide convention at the same time, Randi Willmann, an event and meeting manager for the society, helped block rooms for LLS runners at an astronomical 43 hotels. Booking those properties took a lot of juggling, especially during the request-for-proposal phase.

"There are four of us managing the event," says Willmann, who is based at the society's home office in White Plains, N.Y. "Each of us had between eight and 15 hotels to manage. We handled the RFP process through the chains' national sales offices, but for independent hotels, there was a lot of research on Expedia and Google."

In the RFPs Willmann prepares, she's not afraid to ask for numerous concessions, a hallmark of the process in the current economy. Planners also are sending out more detailed RFPs to make sure they get exactly what they want. For some, it's a hotel with plenty of rooms available on the desired dates, an attractive rate and all the free function space the group needs. Others might prioritize subtle service elements, location or security. Winnowing down the choices starts with a well-built RFP and quick turnaround from the hotels.

Prep workSherry AwbreyBefore beginning the RFP process, planners should take a mental walk through the day-to-day needs of the meeting. That's the advice Nancy Crook and Sherry Awbrey, both directors of national accounts for EMCVenues, a site-selection and meetings education firm, imparted to attendees of the "Effective RFP Writing" sessions the company offered during its MEET events, held around the country last year.

"You want to understand all the specs," says Crook, based in New York City. She suggests planners get a firm handle on all meeting room and guest room requirements, food and beverage minimums, and any special needs before starting the RFP process.

This includes figuring out all the information you want back from the hotel -- in addition to dates, space and rates -- in order to make a final decision. "You want to be comparing apples to apples," says Crook. "You'll know that the average buffet price at each hotel is x, for instance, because you asked that question."

Fill in the blanks
Now you're ready to fill out the form. Whether you use your own RFP, the hotel's or one from an online site-selection service such as the M&C Facilities Search, include the following basics.

• Details about your organization
• Information about the event and its purpose
• Who the attendees will be and whether they are required to attend
• Dates you are considering and whether they are flexible
• Number of guest rooms needed per night
• Meeting space needs
• F&B needs, including whether the meals will be plated or buffet and if there will be any special dietary instructions
• A/V requirements
• "Green" specifications
• Any special details you require

"Two key points I have seen that very much help us put together an educated proposal are the demographics and a quick overview of the organization," says Michael Dominguez, vice president of global sales for Loews Hotels. "You never know what correlation will come through when we're putting together the proposal. For instance, for a scientific program in Arizona, we found out that the organization had been involved in a NASA space program. At the time, the University of Arizona had been awarded a component of a NASA mission and was able to bring in a full-sized model of what the school was helping send to Mars. When you're trying to lock in a destination, you won't know such information unless you've helped us help you."

Depending on the event, you also might need to add specifics such as exhibit space requirements and special room setups, and requests for information about details such as occupancy tax, typical transportation costs, parking fees, renovation timelines and so on.

"One of my clients only wants to know the room rate, the exhibitor fees and F&B minimums," says Crook. "And I have others who want to know if there are ergonomic chairs, what the ceiling height is and the average F&B prices for each meal. It all depends on how complicated the meeting is and what information my client wants back in the proposals."

Awbrey, Crook's colleague, reminds planners to ask all the suppliers the same questions, so all responses are consistent. Also, if you are putting together RFPs for a series of programs, such as training sessions held around the country, create one form and just change the dates and destination from one event to the next.