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Strategies for backyard bashes

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

Customers are still throwing parties in their backyards, but tent renters may need strategies to do more with less.

Everyone’s working a little harder for their money these days, and that includes tent renters who do backyard parties. It’s not that customers aren’t throwing parties, for they certainly are. It’s just that the mood has shifted. Customers are exploring options they might not have considered during boom times.

David O’Leary*, tent sales manager at Peterson Party Center Inc., Winchester, Mass., says his sales staff has been churning out twice as many party proposals as usual, but getting a smaller percentage of actual sales.

“I’ve been receiving a lot of calls from people who assume that backyard events will be less expensive than a hotel ballroom or a function hall,” he says. “People are calling us shopping for a lower price, not realizing that if they want to do it right, a party for 200 people in a backyard can easily cost more than renting a ballroom.”

Meanwhile, customers who have habitually hosted backyard events are continuing unfazed—with a slight difference.

“We still have the same number of orders,” says Errol Simonistich, store manager and event coordinator at Dolphin Party Rentals, Pasadena, Calif. “But because of budget reasons, it’s often not as big an event as it might have been. They’re maybe asking 75 people instead of 150.”

Surprisingly, he says, this downsizing seems to encourage clients to throw more elaborate parties. Having saved money by renting a smaller tent and fewer tables and chairs, customers often book more elegant table settings, tent liners and lighting.

Not having a party at all? Not an option. Dave Hudak, owner of Canopies, Events with Distinction, Milwaukee, Wis., points out that backyard parties often commemorate lifetime events such as weddings or milestone birthdays—not the sort of things people tend to let slip by.

Elegance on a budget

Upselling is a more delicate matter than it used to be. It’s not so hard when the items in question are for children, says Kristi Kane, co-owner of Lefty’s Tent & Party Rentals, Coleraine, Minn. Popcorn machines and bounces are still flying off the shelves. And climate-related add-ons such as mosquito foggers and patio heaters are more necessity than luxury in her neck of the woods. But when it comes to decor, Kane finds herself trying to do more with less.

“People still want new, unique and different things even though they might not want to spend for it,” she says. “We try to be creative with the inventory we have on hand. Maybe we can we use cosmopolitan glasses to create a different type of centerpiece, for example.”

The wealthiest customers may be more careful with their money, but they’re still willing to spend on trendy or unique touches for their celebrations. O’Leary says Japanese lanterns are popular (much to his dismay, since they are delicate and installers tend to manhandle them). And some clients are willing to pay extra to reserve specialty structures such as clear tops and walls.

“We’ll do a high-budget wedding in a backyard facing the ocean, and put up a whole 100-foot wall of just glass,” he says. “Seventy-five percent of the time, it’s because the sales staff has upsold these types of things by bringing them to the client’s or party planner’s attention.”

Simonistich, too, has noticed that his customers favor elegant options such as clear tops and tent liners. They strive for originality, he says.

“That’s the big thing nowadays,” he explains. “People want things a little more edgy. For example, we’re going more and more toward lounge furniture. Let’s say there’s a fundraiser in the backyard of someone’s home. We’ll do the standard tables and chairs and buffet area, but then we’ll also have a section that is a lounge, where people can just hang around.”

But not everyone has that kind of cash. That’s why many tent renters are promoting their products and services differently, placing greater emphasis on DIY.

“In general, we don’t like it when other people light our tents, because they tend to cut the ropes when they’re cutting the lights down,” says Hudak. “But sometimes, if budget is a concern, we’ll say, ‘You know what, you can save yourself $150 if you get some Christmas lights and hang them up yourself.’”

The same goes for smaller tents, tables and chairs: Hudak’s firm allows thrifty customers to pick up and self-install some of the smaller and less complicated tents and accessories.

Because some clients are preparing their own food, Kane has seen an increase in the rental of food service items—in some cases they are rented on their own, without a tent.

“I may rent out a crate of 30 wine glasses to somebody, and that’s it,” she says. “And we seem to get hits on our website for linens from all over the place. We just drop-shipped some table linens to Hawaii. I guess it’s kind of a goofy thing, but in this economy, if people are looking to rent one coffee cup, I’m willing to help them. It gets them through our door, and it’ll get them started thinking about us for when they have a bigger event.”

But wait, there’s more

Kane has noticed another rental trend in the last year or so: customers book small, modest events, then call and beef them up at the last minute.

“We’re getting a lot of items added on, like increases in tent sizes or a salad bar,” she says. “It’ll happen a week before the event, or even three days before. I guess at the last minute, they find that they have money.”

Kane has tried to help these customers by eliminating the usual surcharges on items that are added after an order is complete. Changes can affect loading and routing, so she tries to plan for a little extra room in the truck—maybe not enough for 20 extra chairs, but enough for an unexpected chafing dish.

Hudak likens this phenomenon to the mentality of a car buyer.

“When you go buy a car, you look at the bare-bones, stripped-down price and you think, ‘Yeah, that’s manageable,’” he says. “But you want the power locks, you want the cruise, you want the navigation. I think a lot of them realize at the last minute that if you are going to spend all that money anyway, why not make it a little nicer?”

There are always bargain-basement shoppers, Hudak says. But when all is said and done, most customers are willing to spend the extra couple hundred bucks to get a nicer tent or put the lights on a dimmer switch. “Really,” says Hudak, “they just want a nice party at a fair price.”

Jamie Swedberg is a freelance writer and former editor based near Athens, Ga.
* Since the writing of this article, O’Leary is no longer employed with Peterson Party Center.

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