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Great events on a budget

Event Production, Features | October 1, 2008 | By:

To help clients with limited budgets, tent professionals need the imagination of an artist, the tact of a diplomat and the aptitude of an accountant.

You can’t always get what you want — but try telling that to clients who want everything for nothing. For clients on limited budgets, every tent professional needs a plan: creative solutions, diplomacy, an uncompromising stance on safety and the ability to educate clients about costs and where best to spend their money for a successful event.

Creative solutions

Becky Harris, national account manager for Minneapolis, Minn.-based Event Lab, says that in limited-budget situations, the available money needs to be spent in the place where it will have the most impact, like the entrance or a stage. Too many event planners and clients spread the money around too thinly, thinking they can have it all even on a tight budget, she says.

“You need to make an impact, otherwise it will look too small or too insignificant and nobody can tell you spent any money on it,” she says. “You want to put your money in the place where the people are going to look, and if you can only do a centerpiece, do a really good one. Or if you are going to do stage décor, make that the emphasis. Don’t try to have a little bit of this and a little bit of that.”

Limited budgets require event planners to be more creative, says event manager Dion Magee. He recalls hunting for a less-expensive fabric that would provide the same effect as white lamour when draped throughout a tent, and using FloraLytesTM in clear balls suspended throughout a space in place of more expensive lighting options.

Donny Vasquez of Made in the Shade Tent Rentals Inc., West Sacramento, Calif., describes a client who started with a “sky’s-the-limit” budget, but who came back to earth when presented with an $8,000 estimate for installing lighting with a Tiffany-blue fabric hung throughout the tent. Vasquez turned to Sacramento Theatrical Lighting Ltd. (STL) for advice on how Made in the Shade could handle the lighting. STL proposed illuminating the back wall of the structure in the same blue at one-tenth the cost of having fabric, eliminating labor and installation fees.

“The final bill from the lighting company came in at $1,400, and we lit this 60-by-80 structure tent and the exterior of this courtyard with those lights,” he says. “We created a look the customer was really happy with, and instead of just having one area that was Tiffany blue with the fabric, we had a whole tent that was illuminated in Tiffany blue.”

Safety first

Tent rental companies and event planners can’t afford to cut corners when it comes to safety, but that doesn’t stop clients from asking.

“I’ve had people say we don’t live in a perfect world, and my initial reaction is, you might not live in a perfect world, but under my tent it’s going to be perfect,” says Mark Holloway of Macon Tent Rentals Inc., Macon, Ga. “I don’t know another way to do it, and I’m not willing to sacrifice anything.”

Educating clients about the risks involved is crucial, Dion Magee says, recalling a client who did not want to pay for air blowers.

“We explained that you are liable if someone is uncomfortable or has a heat stroke,” he says. “We just kept convincing them that if you look at insurance premiums, you may pay $20,000 or $30,000 if something happens, but renting these blowers is only $2,500.”

Show me the money

One tented event professional, who asked to remain anonymous, admits that he would rather not work with clients on limited budgets, at least not those who are inexperienced in tented events and are shocked when they see estimates.

“If budget is the first word out of their mouth, or the first thing they are concerned about is driving numbers down, we really like to pass on those people [and] let them go find somebody else who needs the work more than we do,” he said.

Turning away a limited-budget client can be a delicate job in itself. This professional recommends feeling out the clients and letting them down gently if you think it isn’t going to work out, and using an “out,” such as a conflict with another event.

“We don’t want to offend anybody and we don’t want to make enemies, but you have to very tactfully let them know that maybe this isn’t the right company fit for them.”

Tented event professionals describe different approaches when asked about taking a potential loss for an event. Macon Tent Rentals has a designated amount in its annual budget for “give-away” setups for clients with particularly compelling circumstances, but when that money is gone, that’s it for the year. Event planner Becky Harris says her company will take a loss on a particular item, like a great centerpiece or linens, if she thinks the item will be perfect for an event and she can sell it again. Magee believes there is always room to make a profit; planners should only take a loss if there is some benefit to them in promoting their brand and services through the event.

Being located in its state’s capital, Made in the Shade provides tents for the events of government agencies that must work within a strict budget, as they are allotted a certain amount at the beginning of each year. Vasquez allows those regular customers some leeway in order to keep their business.

“We know we will get paid eventually,” he says. “On the flip side, you have your brides who, [as] it’s a one time thing, they are trying to knock you down.”

Being aware of your own profit margin — and where you can make adjustments and still be profitable — is crucial when a client starts to haggle, Holloway says.

“At first you have some ‘fudge’ room in your mind, thinking, ‘Well, I know what my profit margin is,’ and if it’s only three percent to begin with that’s a pretty slim margin, whereas if it’s one guy delivering 500 chairs the profit margin is almost 11 percent, you’ve got some serious fudge room in there,” he says.

There will always be clients with limited budgets and unlimited desires. It’s up to the professionals to decide what is profitable and how to make those small-budget events profitable, says Magee, who looks positively even on lower-budget events. “At the end of a day, an event is still an event,” he says. “It does continue to add to your portfolio of work; it does continue to showcase what you do best.”

Jill C. Lafferty is a freelance writer based in Burnsville, Minn.

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