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Tents 101 for event planners

Event Production, Features | June 1, 2009 | By:

Intimidated by tented events? Don’t be—just get the information you need.

Tented events can seem daunting to inexperienced event planners. Tents allow planners to create a completely unique space—but some basic knowledge about tents is necessary to make the most of them.

“A tent allows you to enjoy the best of both worlds—both inside and out—at an event,” says Jason Wood, production manager for Showtime Events, Lansing, Mich. With additional locations in Florida and North Carolina, Showtime both plans events and installs tents, which gives Wood a special appreciation for what a tent brings to an event.

Tented events have a number of requirements that don’t necessarily come into play with other event venues: site surveys, permits, bad weather backup plans and the need to turn a “blank canvas” into a client’s dream. But with some basic knowledge and experience, you can manage successful tented events.

Survey the site

One of the first steps is researching the location. “It’s always very important to find out everything you can about the space,” says Alex Quintana, president of Quintana Events, Orinda, Calif.

The information you’ll need includes the size of the area, the presence of any overhead obstructions and the stability of the ground. Talking to the property owner and walking the site are the best ways to make sure all of the details are noted.

To determine how to place tents on various surfaces, Dawn Westermann of Skyway Classic Events, Bloomington, Minn., calls for an underground utilities check to mark potential on-site hazards. “You don’t want to hit electric, sewer, gas lines or any of that when you stake,” she says.

Event planners must always find out if the tent company is handling all of the safety preparations. Sometimes safety is a shared responsibility, so event planners should familiarize themselves with guidelines for creating a safe site for guests.

Set it up right

Once you are familiar with the location, you can begin plans for setup.

“You’re literally building the event from the ground up,” says Stacy Stern, president of The Special Events Group, Boca Raton, Fla. “You need to put all of the components that you assume you have when you’re in a traditional venue in the tent.”

In addition to the guest areas, tents can provide space for dressing rooms, kitchens or bars. To provide the same amenities of a building, some events require tents to be equipped with running water, climate control systems, generators or propane tanks, which can require permits. Contractors who supply the tanks generally obtain these permits two to three days before the event.

Another important permit is the tent permit, which must be displayed in every tent. Scott Bryant, manager of tents and event rental for Bryant’s Rent-All, Lexington, Ky., says Bryant’s submits an application for this permit to a building inspector’s office, where it can be approved the day it is received. The application includes the tent location with a site plan drawing, purpose of the tent, duration of the event, number and size of the tents, notices of electricity being used and a letter of permission from the property owner to have the event.

Once applications are approved, an inspection, which occurs on the day tent installation is complete, is scheduled at least three days in advance. At the inspection, the fire marshal, electrical inspector and building inspector walk through the site and sign the application. Then, tent permits from the building inspector’s office can be picked up in person or faxed to the tent company.

To meet fire code requirements, tents must have an adequate number of exits, and furniture must be arranged to allow guests to exit quickly if needed. Fire safety is crucial, which is why tent manufacturers must use flame-retardant fabric.

In addition to meeting codes, tent rental companies and event planners decide on a course of action to take in a weather emergency. Showtime Events’ contracts state that tent setup may not proceed if winds are more than 20 mph and there is a 50 percent or more chance of storms. Wood also checks with clients to verify they have an evacuation plan and a backup space.

Dress it up

The maxim about event tents is that they are blank canvases, and it’s up to the event planner to coordinate decor.

“One of the most satisfying aspects of tented events is bringing the planner’s and the client’s visions to life,” says Mike Carleton, owner of Happenings Party Rentals, Collingwood, Ontario.

Lighting is a popular addition, with options such as string lights, LED lighting, chandeliers and custom fabric lanterns. Other accessories to consider include leg drapes, sidewalls, French doors, flooring, liners, furniture, linens, trees, columns, staging and dance floors. In some cases, the setting itself provides the ideal environment, so tents may feature windows or clear walls.

“Most clients don’t realize the draping and linings in a tent are extra costs,” Quintana says. “It’s important to make sure the client has the budget to dress up the tent.” Quintana recommends LED lighting projections or paint on tent walls as inexpensive decor options.

Work through the unexpected

As any event planner knows, events have their share of unplanned moments, and tented events are no exception. Good communication, quick thinking and teamwork can help overcome most challenges.

With the date of a backyard wedding approaching, Bryant learned the number of attendees had increased. To accommodate the extra guests, the event planner got permission to use another tent in the side yard. On installation day, Bryant discovered a sidewalk in the yard where a tent leg needed to be anchored. To solve the problem, the event planner convinced the homeowner to let installers take a drill to the concrete. “With that type of help from the event planner, problems get resolved quickly and the event goes on to be a complete success,” Bryant says.

Westermann had a similar space issue when a bar manager and a local music coordinator planning a concert realized the bar didn’t own the entire parking lot where they wanted the tent and couldn’t get permission to use the full space. Skyway solved the problem by using a narrower, longer structure to cover the audience.

Teamwork helped Happenings Party Rentals after an intense storm saturated carpet inside a wedding tent. With the help of a large crew vacuuming the carpet, the tent was ready moments before the event began. “We were exhausted, but everything went off without a hitch,” Carleton says.

Reap the rewards

Despite the challenges, a successful tented event is worth the effort. Carleton calls a positive result the “wow factor,” when the event exceeds the expectations of planners, clients, guests and even tent companies.

Wood finds the ambience of a tented event brings him great satisfaction. “There is nothing like having the backdrop of the outdoors and nature when working with a tented event,” he says.

Sterns also notes tented events reward her with an extra sense of accomplishment. “Planning tented events allows you to create your own world,” she says. “It’s what creative people love to do.”

Abbie Yarger is an editorial intern for IFAI.

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