Dressing for the occasion

Event planners and decorators find ways to stylize any type of tent.

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Quick: What great hotel ballroom event have you attended that comes to mind? Still thinking?
OK, maybe you did think of one. But what do you remember about the event? Probably something besides the walls, ceiling and fleur-de-lis carpeting. “The beauty of a tented event is that any tent style can be tailored to a specific theme,” says Loulie Walker, president of Loulie Walker Events Inc. in New York City. “A tent is an opportunity to create an environment or tell a story. If you go into a ballroom, you have the infrastructure. It’s all there and your focus is the table, linens and flowers.”

Consider the possibilities

“In an ideal world, determining the decor and design of an event would come before deciding upon the style of tent,” says Allison Munsell, account executive at Ultimate Events in Plymouth, Minn. But, she notes, most often event planners are hired after the venue is selected.

“The tent is your vehicle, so one should determine the tent style first and other decisions will follow suit,” Walker says. “The type of tent or style is dictated by the setting and location it is going into.”

Geri Sims of Atlanta Wedding Decoration & Event Design in Georgia adds that a client’s budget also influences the type and size of tent. “If you are a good designer, you can make anything happen,” says the specialist in drapery and ceiling design for weddings.

“Once the tent style is determined, decor options will present themselves,” Walker says. “Frame or structure tents typically require more decor to hide or mask the framework. Also, lighting elements may function to distract from tent hardware. For a Navi-Trac® tent with a partial-draping treatment, we created a 24-by-24-foot grid of rain lighting over the dance floor. The lighting served as the visual focus, and the tent ceiling and hardware simply disappeared. With a Century® or sailcloth tent, a liner or draping is not necessary because there is no framework to camouflage. Rather, a partial-draping treatment may be used to further highlight and accent the sloping ceiling. Century and sailcloth tents have internal poles, which become part of the decor because they can be dressed in fabric sleeves or turned into trees with palm fronds.”

Sims, who usually works with frame tents, says, “Once I drape a tent, most people have no idea of the structure.”

Sarah Miller, event producer for Caplan Miller Events in Austin, Texas, notes that there are numerous ways to conceal structural components. “One of my favorite projects was one where we built custom wooden walls with windows to be inserted into the tent frame and wood veneer beams around all the metal structure. The perimeter was completely concealed with wooden walls,” she says. “The top was clear, and we had drapery panels around the windows to absorb sound and make it feel warmer.

“Anything can be done, really,” Miller adds. “I do like a pole tent or a Sperry tent from the standpoint of wooden legs and canvas tops that have a festive feel. With a structure tent, you have to work a little harder or spend a little more money and time to get that look. With a structure tent, there is a lot of disguising.”

“Every element of a tent is decor—the ceiling, sidewalls, flooring, as well as what one thinks of typically, which is tabletops, linens and flowers,” Walker says.

What’s the hang-up?

Tent types affect decor options in weight load, attachment points and aesthetics. “Frame tents and structures offer framework to attach lighting, floral and draping/liner options,” Munsell says. “If the event requires a greater amount of decor or lighting, then the best option in terms of weight load is a structure tent. However, that same framework can be an eyesore if the customer chooses to forego a fabric liner. Pole tents, on the other hand, can be considered more aesthetically appealing in their natural state, but they do not offer as many attachment points. Weight restrictions are a concern if the event requires rigging decor and lighting between center poles.”

Dan Skena, owner of PartySavvy in Monroeville, Pa., points out that certain lighting fixtures are designed for specific tents, such as chandeliers designed to clamp onto a center pole. And Japanese lanterns, he thinks, look best in a tent with multiple hanging points. “You can string them on aircraft cable from a center pole to side poles, but they would be hung in straight lines,” he says. “We like to hang them in a random pattern.” Sims says she installs a web of cables to hang lanterns or a chandelier anywhere in a tent. “We can even hang clusters of chandeliers,” she says, adding that the light fixtures she uses have a 40-inch circumference and weigh 10 pounds.

Attachment points also can affect the overall floor plan. “If there are any specific placement requirements, such as a chandelier over a particular area or table, you have to make sure the placement point is possible with the floor plan,” Munsell says. And, she adds, a center pole can create a “gap” in the floor plan. “This can feel like dead space for an event and affect the aesthetics, as well as the energy of the space.”

Above it all

Decor considerations go beyond where and how lighting fixtures are attached. “If an event uses rotating/moving lighting throughout the space, a structure or frame tent is a better option than a pole tent so that the lighting effect isn’t interrupted by a center pole,” Munsell says.

To lend an air of elegance, romance, softness and drama, as well as to envelop guests in an atmosphere, event planners often drape fabric across a tent ceiling. A Century tent, however, doesn’t require a liner or draping, Walker says. “You almost want to accentuate the soaring, sloping ceiling more through lighting with a pattern wash or color wash.”

Miller appreciates the beauty of a clear-top tent at night. “It almost becomes a mirror, reflecting all the beautiful lighting,” she says. A liner or vinyl tent also can be reflective, she adds. “But a white tent can absorb a lot of color, so you want to use patterns and color to make it show better.”

“Pole tents are great if you want to do special effects because the ceiling is a blank canvas that you can project color or patterns onto,” Skena says. “You can alter the whole look of a tent, changing the lighting throughout the evening.” And patterns could resemble clouds or stars moving across a sky. The effect can be done in a frame tent; but, Skena notes, then you highlight the framework.

A popular trend among PartySavvy’s customers is cafe lights—exposed bulbs on a string that swags across a ceiling. Skena says those work well in a clear-top tent because of the reflection.

Clear-top tents also work well in settings where the structure is surrounded by tall trees. “We like to up light trees so that there’s something above the tent that you can see through the top,” he says.

When it feels right

All of the above considered, certain tent styles lend themselves to the tone of an event. “A sailcloth tent with its tailored lines, gently sculpted peaks and airy nature is ideal for a beach setting or manicured lawn, as the tent itself is elegant and polished and complements those types of environments,” Walker says.

“With carnivals, the main objective is the lively look of striped tents, both in smaller frame tents and pole tents,” Munsell says. “For vintage weddings, the classic pole tent fits the bill. We also carry a Stillwater tent that has more translucent, sailcloth fabric that works great with vintage/classic outdoor weddings.”

And then you have personal taste. “We had a client with a very minimalist aesthetic,” Walker says. “We chose a Navi-Trac tent with a gable because it’s a very clean look with simple lines, whereas the curvature of a Century tent with its soaring, sloping ceiling perhaps did not speak to her the same way.

“People love throwing a tented party because they can have it at home,” she says. “And people love the personalization aspect that a tent offers.”

Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif.

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