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Marketing with a virtual showroom

Features, Markets | April 1, 2010 | By:

Got the goods? Show them off online.

A traditional brick-and-mortar showroom has a lot of disadvantages for a tent rental company. First, there’s space. If one room were big enough to house all the contents of the company’s warehouse, it would be … well, a warehouse. And even then, it wouldn’t show off the tents to their best advantage.

Then, there’s accessibility. Not all tent renters are located in an area with a lot of walk-ins.

“We tried having an actual showroom a number of years ago,” says Jim Gallagher, president of Partytime Productions Inc., Addison, Ill. “It was really almost useless. We took it down and we’re using it as conference room space because we rarely have people coming through our facility.”

But the rules of the game are changing for even the companies in high traffic locales. Many companies serve a broad geographic area. Shopping habits are shifting. In the past, potential clients might have started the planning process by visiting several potential vendors in person. Now they are much more likely to surf the Internet. So it’s advantageous for tent renters to build a website that is like a showroom, allowing customers to see examples of their best work and pick through their inventory one tablecloth color at a time.

“A lot of people are more tuned in to going out onto the web and figuring out what’s available and affordable for them, rather than picking up the telephone,” says Arnie Seyden, vice president of Tents Unlimited Inc., Marietta, Ga. “So we’ve done a lot of work toward making our website a lot more user-friendly over the last year. We’re documenting who and where the hits come from, and trying to fine-tune our website accordingly.”

A virtual showroom is cheaper to build and maintain than a real one, too, he notes. With the current state of the economy, tent renters are extra vigilant about how much they spend on their sales efforts.

Better prepared customers

It’s easy to see the return on a web investment, says Joe Del Grosso, director of organizational development at Camelot Party Rentals Inc., Sparks, Nev. “You can definitely tell when somebody says, ‘Oh, I saw this on your website.’ Or they come in already knowing certain tent sizes or accessories that they are looking for. That type of thing we can definitely anecdotally measure.”

There’s no doubt that having a virtual showroom leads to having better prepared customers. Tent renters with a strong online presence say their customers show up with many of their questions answered, ready to make decisions more confidently.

“Our customers frequently come in asking questions about a certain photo [in our online showroom],” Gallagher says. “Sometimes they’ll ask about the cost of producing a certain event that they liked the look of. Then you start breaking it down from there. It gives you a way to approach the sales meeting with them.”

But there’s some debate about how much information to reveal. Some companies, like Camelot, prefer to list the price of every item online.

“We want customers to know they are working with a good, reputable company, that we’re just not making up numbers,” Del Grosso says. “People want prices. They are reluctant to call for a quote, especially with something as large as a tent. In the last couple of years, with the poor economy, more people are planning events themselves instead of hiring a coordinator. Being able to see the prices gives them more power to take it on their own and run with it.”

Narcy Martinez, president of Austin, Texas-based Marquee Tents, agrees. “I want people to be able to shop 24/7,” she says. “We feel that should include full disclosure on the pricing.”

Many of the people browsing the online showroom are repeat customers, she says, and they can practically price out a whole job on their own. When they finally contact a salesperson, the sale goes quickly and efficiently.

Gallagher prefers not to put prices on the web.

“We feel that pricing a job without seeing the event site is doing both the client and us a disservice,” he says. “We want to at least have some sort of dialogue with the end user first. It’s one thing if we’re setting up in a parking lot and we can forklift equipment off the truck, and quite another if it’s a quarter mile from the load-in to the installation site.”

Worth a thousand words

Some companies manage their websites in-house; others farm them out to online marketing firms. But one thing is constant: All good online tent rental showrooms depend heavily on high-quality photography.

“Marketing and telling our story has been an aspect of the company that we’ve really paid more attention to the last two years,” says Del Grosso. “One of the things we began to do in 2008 was to focus on building a library of quality photographs of jobs that we had set up, and of individual inventory items too. Those photos became the basis of our revamped website.”

Like many tent renters, Del Grosso takes many of his own photos, since he had already developed the skills taking nature photographs. Partytime Productions prefers to hire a professional photographer to visit its installations.

“I could certainly do it,” Gallagher says. “Or the account executive who sells the job, who is usually on-site, could certainly shoot the photos. But the way we see it, this is our way of introducing Partytime to people who may have no idea who we are. We’re not like everybody else, so we spend the money to hire a pro whose photos really help us sell the next job.”

Del Grosso agrees that bad photography can unsell a job with lightning speed.

“There’s one other company in our area that has put photos on its website,” he says. “In my opinion, those pictures are potentially very damaging to them because they don’t show their equipment in a very good light. It’s more like warehouse photos and things like that.”

The virtual showroom should reflect the brand identity of the tent rental company and be tailored for the type of customer it hopes to attract. For some companies, that means sleek professionalism to appeal to corporate clients; for others it means approachability, so that families aren’t scared off from renting small tents for backyard barbecues.

“The website is the first face of our company that a lot of people see,” Martinez says. “We are geared toward the high-end wedding market, so the first thing you see in our portfolios is about a dozen great weddings, with a gallery for each one. But on that same page, we have corporate galleries, festival galleries, sporting event galleries—so that once you are there, you can see we do more than just weddings.”

Camelot has built a “Camelot Green” page on its site, detailing the company’s efforts to lessen its environmental impact.

“That was something we heard a lot about from brides, especially in the Tahoe area,” Del Grosso says. “They wanted more natural fabrics for their tablecloths, things like that. So this was a place to highlight those kinds of things. And anyway, with the economy, we’re really trying to focus on where we can be more efficient. Some of that goes hand in hand with being green.”

A tent renter’s website doesn’t just show the products and services it offers; the quality of the online experience gives potential customers clues about the company’s quality standards in general, says Seyden.

“Your website has got to be up-to-date,” he says. “It’s got to be easy to use, and it’s got to be a complete reflection of the inventory that you have and the things you’re offering the client. You find yourself in a situation where you’re taking more pictures of the things you do, and taking better care in the quality of those pictures, with the idea that it’s going on your website. I think it says everything about you.”

Based in Georgia, Jamie Swedberg is a freelance writer specializing in the specialty fabrics industry since 1997.

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