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Styling the perfect small event

August 1st, 2007 / By: / Event Production, Feature

Choosing the right tent and accessories can make or break small events.

Most everyone would love to have an elaborate, large-scale event, but not all events (or budgets) fit this bill. Sometimes, small events require that big-event feel. For smaller events, it’s important to provide the right tent layout dressed with the right accessories to help build a unique and upscale atmosphere.

Choosing a tent

Knowing your space requirements is crucial and prevents an event from feeling either too sparse or too cluttered. If the event is relatively small, don’t use an oversized tent. “If the tent is too big for the amount of people or tables inside, it will look too empty and open, which tends to give it a cold and impersonal feel,” says April Stewart, tent manager at Mardi Gras Rentals in Vaudreuil-Dorion, Quebec, Canada.

Generally, between 25 and 32 people will fit in a 20-by-20-foot tent, and 48 guests would feel comfortable in a 20-by-30-foot tent. Stewart says that for 96 people or so, she likes to use a 35-by-40-foot hex tent with two 10-by-20-foot tents attached, or she might attach a 20-by-20-foot tent for a bit more space and flexibility with seating.

Stewart suggests arranging the head table, bar section and dance floor so they are spaced for movement. “Do not put the cake table next to the bar,” Stewart advises. This helps prevent a cluttered look inside the tent.

Karen McVey, owner of McVey Tent & Expo in Appleton, Wis., says that cutting the number of people for an event is a big cost-saver. Choosing a more basic layout can also help keep costs to a minimum. Her company once did a wedding for a Seattle bride that had just 17 guests. Because it was such a small group, the bride was able to include all the bells and whistles that a large wedding could have had. McVey used a 20-by-40-foot tent that was set up for easy interaction between guests. The event had a square table for dining with a fountain in the center, and the tent also had room for a band stage.

Sorting out the basics

Sarah Larsen, event coordinator for Rentalex in Kalamazoo, Mich., specializes in smaller events. The company’s largest tent is 40 by 80 feet, but Larsen says every small event receives as much attention as a larger event would.

Larsen’s company provides packages for its customers that include tables and chairs, all for a set price. She says it’s often easier for a customer to work with a pre-determined layout than to start from scratch without a clue about where to begin.

“It’s easier for the customer to come in and see something set up,” she says, “especially with first-time clients.” Seeing a tent already up with tables and chairs underneath can help clients understand exactly what they’re getting for their money.

Rentalex cuts costs for its clients by carrying accessories in its own stock. Customers rarely rent staging and flooring, Larsen says. Instead of bringing in a stage for a band, Larsen suggests that her clients use a sub-floor with carpeting on top to save money for smaller budgets.

Flooring options simply depend on the customer’s needs, McVey says. Flooring has many benefits, but she points out that the cost and the noise it causes can discourage some clients who are planning smaller functions.

Finding inexpensive options

Accessorizing is a useful way to create an event atmosphere that feels much more elaborate than its budget may allow. Without accessories, a tent can look blank and empty.

Stewart says popular classics include chair covers, white lights, tulle draping, Chiavari chairs, and Martha Stewart-style white folding chairs with organza overlays. Aside from the traditional options, clients may choose an endless array of decorating accessories based on their personal styles.

To meet limited budgets, Stewart says she always tries to consider alternative options for accessories. Soft lighting, such as small, white holiday lights, can give a tent a cozy, elegant feel. Halogen lighting with a dimmer switch is excellent for setting the mood, since it can be made brighter while guests dine and later reduced to a softer evening light. Both of these options are good choices over more expensive chandeliers.

Chuck Hinson, co-owner of H & M Tent & Party Rental in Walton County, Fla., likes to use Japanese lanterns, crystal chandeliers and bistro lights when an event’s budget is not restrictive. Bistro lights are larger than Christmas lights, but are smaller than a regular-sized light bulb. The only drawback to this kind of light is that if the bulbs are touched, they break, Hinson says.

Using fabric to dress the inside of the tent can really soften the look of the tent and create a more upscale atmosphere. Tent liners are a common fabric option, but they can be fairly expensive for clients with small budgets. Hinson says his company recently donated a tent liner for an event at a charter school to help give the tent a much more elegant feel.

Larsen says her company does not generally use tent liners. Her company’s events are usually small, so Larsen cuts out the liner cost by using regular fabrics or tulle to soften the tent. This cheaper option can help hide the tent’s frame and create a more intimate look without the cost of a liner.

Stewart also uses fabric as a key component for all kinds of events. Pole drapes can be an effective and inexpensive way to soften the tent’s edges by hiding unsightly aluminum corner poles.

Non-tent-related details, such as flowers, can really bring costs up for an event. To keep these costs down for her clients, Stewart suggests renting or buying large green plants or trees to fill in the gaps. Hinson adds, “Don’t go overboard on flowers.” He says it’s best to let the natural vegetation be the floral arrangement. For beautiful outdoor venues, a site survey done early on in the process can help you decide where to place the tent to maximize the area’s natural surroundings.

Consistency is key for any set of accessories, Stewart advises. “Keeping everything along the same theme helps keep the look pulled together,” she says. Too many colors or styles will create an incoherent and unprofessional setting.

Staying trendy

Beach weddings are a popular choice in Florida, where Hinson works. In the past, couples used to choose mostly white accessories—this was the trend in the 1990s and early 2000s, Hinson says. “But now we add a little spunk to it.” Fresh colors are an easy way to boost the trendiness of any event.

Hinson turns to France and Italy for up-and-coming looks to stay ahead of the fashion curve. He says women’s magazines are also useful for keeping up with trends. “Everyone wants something different,” Hinson says. “The trend depends on the magazines.” Chocolate brown with a lighter color is still fashionable, Hinson says. Larsen agrees, and says other colors like apple green have also become popular. She’s even seen apples used in floral arrangements to complement the theme.

One tent option that is currently in high demand is a clear top that allows guests to look up at the stars. But, Hinson warns, clear vinyl can get a film on it in humid climates like Florida’s. The tent then has to be hand-washed and dried, which can take six hours. Clear tops are also not recommended for hot days in areas with little shade, as the tent will effectively become a greenhouse. And in cold weather, clear vinyl is more susceptible to cracking.

Sometimes a bride will see something she likes in a magazine, McVey says, but once the look is all set up, the bride doesn’t like it. Tall centerpieces are a perfect example of this. One of McVey’s brides said she wanted to add height at her wedding with tall floral centerpieces, but the guests eventually just took the vases off the tables so they could talk with one another.

Small events can be a challenge to provide for, but they are the perfect outlet for unique and intimate gatherings. A tent is a fantastic, customizable starting point for any bride or host. Helping your client choose the right layout and accessories can make the difference between a standard tented event and something really phenomenal.

Sonja Hegman is a New York-based freelance writer.

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