Managing risk in the tent rental industry is difficult, but not impossible.
By Jessica Sellers
Even in the face of external forces outside your control, managing risk appropriately is not an impossible task. Risk management is a process that all reputable event companies take seriously. “Experience can tell you what the risks are,” says Tom Simpson, vice president of American Tent & Awning, Indianapolis, Ind. “It is up to the tent renter to advise the client accordingly.”
Chris Rogers of Aon Risk Services Inc. is a risk management consultant who works with tent rental companies as vendors for events that he coordinates. Rogers has used tents at the Super Bowl, the NFL Experience event and corporate parties. Rogers looks at the tent industry from a sponsor’s point of view. “I want to see that the tent company has provided certificates of insurance, that the tents are properly staked, that they are not going to present trip-and-fall events and that the materials meet all federal requirements for flammability,” Rogers says. “We use references from their last three jobs so we can look at quality as well as price.”
A key component of Rogers’ advice: “Make sure you don’t create hazards that didn’t exist before.” This advice applies both to setup and during the event. “Keep stakes out of areas with heavy pedestrian traffic; tie colored ribbons at eye level to the rope staking,” he advises. “Cover the sharp corners of tent stakes to prevent hazards. Make sure there are no gas lines or pipelines of any kind, or electrical cabling, and make sure you don’t puncture anything underground.”
Training is a crucial way to ensure risks are better managed. John Costa of B.C. Tent & Awning Co. Inc. in Avon, Mass., holds three to four days of training for new employees. This includes visual inspections of proper safety and handling, setting up a tent, and appropriate lifting techniques.
Insurance protects the company, its employees and the client. Every employer needs workers’ insurance. It’s also crucial to find an insurance broker who understands that the rental business is unique: Last-minute events do happen, and rental companies may need to produce proof of insurance and verify site plans quickly.
Rogers carefully chooses which companies to recommend for an event and considers their insurance companies when doing so. “Some insurance companies are not that reputable,” he says, “so the vendor has to be with a certain level of company before the event planner will even accept them.” To determine the insurance company’s level, Aon Risk Services examines its financial capabilities. “We don’t want to be in the position of recommending a company that might not be able to meet the financial levels that they are saying they can,” Rogers says. “So there are ratings—A, AA, AAA—that help show if you should trust them.”
Simpson got his start in the tent industry 27 years ago. “One of the old-timers told me that as soon as you put a tent in the air, it becomes a living thing that responds to its environment, and you have to think about how it will respond,” he says. “You have to know the limitations of the tent, and watch and follow those at all times. It’s up to the tent renter to advise the client what are and aren’t good conditions to put up a tent.”
Before even accepting a job, Simpson’s crew always does a site inspection, looking for overhead electrical lines; underground lines including electrical, water and steam; wind loads; and building proximity. Wind is a particularly serious concern. “If you’re close to a building, the wind changes because the wind shear comes straight down after hitting a building. If you are on the lee side, then you can be protected from the wind and never even get a breeze. If you’re in a downtown area, you have to look at what the wind is doing there,” Simpson says. “The site inspection helps us determine if the location is good or if it should be moved.” Other concerns include potential snow loads and, for staking purposes, soil quality and condition.
Knowing the site can also help you determine what kind of equipment to provide. “We do site inspections previous to accepting new accounts,” Costa says. “We don’t know what equipment we want to offer until we see the site.”
When weather strikes
It’s important to know your options in case of unexpected bad weather. “One time after we’d set up a tent using steel stakes, a storm blew in with an unusual amount of rain,” Simpson recalls. “It was more water than the soil could hold—it turned liquid. Wind followed that, and when you have that kind of combination, steel is not going to stay in, and the stakes slipped out of the ground. We came back and put in old-fashioned wood stakes, and those held. They didn’t want to come out five days later, but they held, no one was hurt and we had everything set to go for the event the next day. We had to work all night, but it was ready.”
Sometimes there isn’t anything you can do when bad weather strikes. “A number of years ago we used canvas as well as other materials, and we put up a canvas tent: 60 by 180 feet that used 24-foot center poles,” Simpson says. “We got broadsided by a tornado. Afterward, every line and pole was taut, but not a stitch of canvas was left. It looked like Spanish moss hanging off those ropes up there.” It’s important to have up-to-date weather forecasts for all your event locations.
The bottom line
“The key to any tent is anchoring it properly,” Simpson advises. “Don’t take any shortcuts—ever. The safety of your clientele and your crews is paramount. We are in the business of making memories for our clients, and we want to make them good.”
Costa agrees: “If we don’t think a particular job is going to be safe for our crew, then it won’t be safe for the client, and we don’t do the job.”