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A Better Approach to a Bid Process

By Tom Merrill

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The email arrived on a Monday. “Dear Travel Planner:”

These never end well.

They were requesting an itinerary and price quote for a five-day trip flying cross-country to New York City. Four months from now. A specific checklist that had very few actual activities, leaving a large amount of open time to fill…and a list of what not to include. No meals (a bad idea). No on-site tour director (a colossally worse idea). Finally, the ask — “We need this by Wednesday in order to get school board approval next week.”

When I finally reached the music teacher on the phone my suspicion was confirmed: “We’ve already selected our travel planner…I just have to get three bids for board approval.” At least they were honest.

The concept of getting multiple bids for a product or service comes from a good place—the desire to ensure that you have done your due diligence and research and are getting the best experience for your time and financial investment. Very recently I went through this process when our home’s 25-year old HVAC system needed to be replaced.

If you don’t have an established relationship with a trusted travel planner or your school district requires you to solicit bids for major expenditures, how do you approach the process in a better way than the example above? (Besides waiting until four months prior to get trip approval, an entirely separate subject.) Full disclosure of course—I am a performance travel planner; what I share here reflects situations I’ve seen over the years that prevents setting groups up for their best success.

Are bids part of your process?

If so, be upfront about that with the travel planners you contact. You may have a “front runner” from the beginning…that’s okay, and it’s your prerogative whether to disclose that.

Spend some time having a conversation with the travel planners

At this stage, an actual conversation (versus text or email) is tremendously more efficient. While having a “spec list” can provide some parameters, those can also restrict a travel planner from developing creative solutions that could provide a better, more meaningful experience to your group. Every company has special skills, backgrounds, and a “repertoire” of tour ideas that can enhance your plans. Unfortunately, sometimes those special options have to be abandoned out of concern of being a higher cost and losing the business due to “bottom line.” Which leads to the next item.

The bid process often confuses “value” with “cheap.”

This is what business leadership writer Seth Godin often refers to as “the race to the bottom.” This is created by making a decision based solely on lowest price. The most exciting opportunities I have had happened when an idea of overall budget was set, and we had a collaborative conversation that created something special. It wasn’t a free-for-all by any means, but allowed for creativity. The WORST situations have been when a school district takes over the selection process with a strict list of requirements and bases the decision on the only thing they can easily understand….price.

Once the proposals are gathered, talk with each planner

This allows you to fully understand what they are uniquely bringing to your experience. With few exceptions, substantial effort goes into developing these plans for you to consider. There are calls to hotels and airlines to check availability, planning and writing an itinerary, contacting motor coach companies for pricing specific to the itinerary, and taking into account the specific outcomes you desire for your students. All of this involves not only the planner, but multiple people down the line. These don’t just get pulled off of a shelf. That conversation is the least you can do in exchange, and may even lead to providing a better experience than you imagined…making you the “hero” in your students’ eyes.

When all is said and done, deliver the news to everyone

When you’ve decided, contact all the planners involved or respond when they reach out to you to inform them. Ghosting—to use the current phrase—is tremendously rude, and doesn’t reflect positively on you.

How did my HVAC bid turn out? We didn’t select the least expensive—in fact, we chose the most expensive one. And not because we felt several thousand dollars burning a hole in our pocket. It was because the consultant spent 90 minutes taking measurements of the house, inspecting our duct work, and asking questions to assess our actual needs. (The other two…combined…spent less than 30.) Because he outlined the different options and showed us that the bigger, more expensive AC unit was unnecessary. Because he took the time to consult with us and show us the best value to meet our needs.

And yes, I did call the other two. And yes, they were difficult calls to make. But at the end of the day, everyone knew where they stood and why. And that’s only fair. If a bid process is necessary…conduct it in a way that truly presents you the best options. In the long run, your students will be the benefactors.

Tom Merrill is a travel consultant with Bob Rogers Travel. He has nearly 30 years of experience as a music educator, festival and event organizer, and performance travel planner.

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