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The debate about tent companies as event planners

Features, Management, Markets | December 1, 2007 | By:

Some tent rental companies are adding event planning to their services. Is this a good move?

Should a tent rental company take on the role of event planner? These days that’s morphed from speculation into reality. It’s practical, some say. Others contend that practicality is precisely what gets lost in translation. But one key goal shared by both sides of the divide is providing great customer service.

Stacy Stern, CSEP, of The Special Events Group of Boca Raton, Fla., is a confirmed believer in doing what you do best—in her case, event planning. Should a tent rental company approach this sphere? She says no. The biggest downfall, she finds, is “their expertise, what they’re capable of in the realm of planning. They’ll concentrate on their specialty rather than on the whole picture—a very big difference. They’ll see an event that went smoothly, so they think, ‘It must be easy.’ But at the back end, it took a lot of planning to achieve that easy look.”

Stern points out that it’s not an easy transition from rental to planning. “They know their area but not what others need. It takes expertise gained over the years to understand the gamut from start to finish, and get the right vendors for a particular project. I do really detailed timelines and contact sheets. They know what steps to take in installing tents only, and have never done a total-event timeline in their life; they could end up losing clients.”

Stern’s biggest source of distress regarding the crossover boils down to ethics. “You want a bigger piece of the pie, but you’re simply messing up the pie. There has to be some loyalty, referring each other back and forth. Just tell us, ‘We need to expand and want to let you know… and your clients are completely protected.’ Then everybody’s happy.”

Stern contends that rental companies should play fair. “Understand one thing: When they become planners, they’ll lose their planner and lose all that planner’s customers. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Do what you do best.”

Bob Mutton, who owns Bob Mutton Party Rentals & Event Planning in Ft. Wayne, Ind., isn’t out to cause trouble; he’s trying to forestall it. His tent and party rental business evolved to include event planning because it simply filled a gap. “In a smaller town like this, there wasn’t an event planner listed in the Yellow Pages. We do it as a value-added service rather than for the money. We rely on tents for that, our mainstay. We’ve got to move that inventory; that’s the big thing,” he maintains. “If you give your personnel over to planning and coordinating events, that’s time lost to selling tents.” Nonetheless, he says, “I’m always looking for opportunities, ways to get involved, a bigger piece of the pie.”

Mutton’s skills as an event planner were gained from working in tent rental over the years. “The learning process is key. I slowly built up knowledge from experience, from contact with clients. You build relationships, so when a specific job comes in, you can call and ask, ‘Ever do this?’”

There is a danger of spreading oneself too thin, Mutton allows. “I think you can. I look at other people’s operations, and if way too much is going on, things can fall through the cracks.” But professional event planners aren’t always the answer, he believes. “They don’t know the ins and outs of specific things, like electricity, sound, traffic flow. They rely on others’ expertise. We [as a rental company] are a resource; we help them be useful.”

Chicago Party Rental represents the middle ground, offering event planning to its clients and also, as a rental company, working with outside event planners. “Personally, I’ve found event planners can be worth their weight in gold—when they really know their stuff, they’re great,” says Valerie Braun, director of marketing.

“Really good planners are incredible,” Braun continues. “They know what they’re talking about and deal honestly. When planning outdoor events with tents, it is very important to use event planners either that know the different types of tents and their applications or that trust us to guide them. Figuring out a budget for a banquet hall is one thing, but planning events under tents is different. It is important for event planners and tent suppliers to work together to offer their client the right type of tent to accommodate their anticipated attendance and budget expectations.” The bottom line, she says, is that the end client’s best interests should be served.

Knowing the planning side of the business can be a benefit to the rental side. “Everyone needs to understand everyone else’s business to succeed,” Braun advises. “So what we try to do is to make our reps more knowledgeable in all areas. (We call our people sales coordinators, not event planners—a fine line.) In the process, our salespeople had to know how to sell events, so we educated them. We didn’t simply start out saying, ‘Let’s plan events.’”

Braun says her company is based on trust. “Our philosophy is, we want to partner, not take over [an event planner’s domain]. We would never market directly to the clients that a planner had brought in. It happens sometimes; local companies can get Xed out when bigger companies come in, but we don’t feel that’s a good way to do business. We advise: ‘Have your event planner use your local rental company as a resource,’ and it’s worked out very well. The pie is big enough for everybody.”

John and Jason Lee of J.J.L. Events Inc. in Toronto also made the shift from tent rental to event planning but took the transition all the way. The company no longer owns inventory, so it’s not in competition with rental firms—“in fact, they court our business,” says John Lee. “They like to work with us because we know how to specify size and weight. We know the industry and what’s required.”

The evolution came about organically. Lee ended up doing event planning for his rental clients by default, simply to help them out—“so I started charging, made it a focus and offered full service: caterer, music, everything. It’s one-stop shopping.”

This service makes life easier for the tent rental companies they hire. “They can install it and go home and forget it. They don’t have to deal with customer complaints because our niche is: From the stake in the ground to removal, one of us is always on site. That’s a value-added service,” Lee notes. “We make sure things run smoothly. If the weather changes, we know what to do, while a normal event planner who has no knowledge of tents will need help. We’ve got that expertise.”

Lee is upfront about the price for that assurance. ”We tell our clients from the outset that we are one of the more costly companies; we charge a little extra. And we include a separate line item for on-site service so they know where the money’s going.”

Charging clients appropriately is a learned skill, according to Lee. “When a tent company goes into event planning, they’ll find out that the business is much more complicated, starting with a costing system,” he says. “At worst, their attention is split between their primary focus—the tent—and the rest. They get spread a little thin, and if we’re on the job, we end up picking up the pieces.” The moral: “Become an expert in your field, and that’s it!”

Event planner Dion Magee, of Magee Enterprises in New York, agrees. “The best practice is for suppliers to stick to their core business,” he says. “If we need a tent, we call a person who’s a provider. We do what we do best.”

Magee maintains that planners are able to offer something rental companies can’t provide as easily. “The core of what we, as event professionals, offer is strategic relationships, and that’s not something a rental company can achieve overnight,” he says. “When tent businesses start to offer event services, it becomes a bit more unstable—or a possible danger. So why are they doing it? Any company looks to add to its business, and that’s admirable.” But, Magee warns, if it’s a new area for you, be careful that you become really skilled and can follow through on your promises.

“What we do better involves relationships—strategically building them with our partners,” he adds. “Knowing upfront what our core business is: to carry a project through, wear many hats and partner with vendors who deliver. Companies are always looking for new revenue, but at the end of the day, an event planner handles the big picture.”

Carla Waldemar is an award-winning, Minneapolis-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to IFAI publications.

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