The disaster relief tent market is unpredictable, but the rewards can be satisfying—professionally and personally.
By Jill C. Lafferty
The market for disaster relief shelters is a good news-bad news scenario. A sudden demand for relief tents usually means that in some part of the world, people are suffering. This was certainly true the first several months of this year, when the catastrophic January earthquake in Haiti was the first, and most massive, event in a series of natural disasters around the globe.
Even when disasters occur, developing situations can result in market confusion. Days after the Haiti earthquake, president René Préval issued a worldwide plea for tents to help house the more than one million people in his country left homeless. But in the coming weeks, with the rainy season approaching and the realization that temporary structures would be needed for months, if not years, some relief agencies began to back off from tents in favor of more solid, semipermanent structures. As Lindsey McDonough, contract manager for Spokane, Wash.-based Berg Co., says, there is no good way to manage demand for disaster relief tents.
Industry professionals agree on a few keys to success in this vital market: manufacturers must offer a well-designed shelter that is easy to install, take down and transport; and relationships with relief agencies need to be developed before disasters occur.
Economy Tent International, Miami, Fla., manufactures a 13-by-13-foot relief shelter that can be installed by two people in about 30-40 minutes. It’s designed for long-term temporary housing in challenging climates, but can also be used for business operations or government services in disaster situations. Economy Tent president Hal Lapping says that a good relief shelter is one that is safe, installs quickly and provides comfort.
“It is very important to make sure the shelters have easily replaceable component parts for serviceability,” Lapping says. “Engineering and wind load testing are also important, as well as using high quality material, FR- and UV-treated vinyls, that have blackout covers to stop sun penetration and reduce heat.”
Economy Tent is a contract holder with the Government Services Administration (GSA) and an approved vendor with many relief agencies. But even with those connections, managing supply versus demand is by far the most difficult issue with these shelters, Lapping says.
“We try to maintain at least 100 units in stock but can gear up manufacturing to produce 100 to 200 per week,” he says. “Sales of these shelters have been brisk, so we have now increased our stock and try to inventory 400-plus units.”
Serving the military and humanitarian markets, Berg Co. manufactures general purpose and relief shelters in a number of sizes as well as water and fuel containment berms and collapsible fabric tanks. McDonough says that the company manufactures all of its products to order and does not keep large reserves of tents in stock. Berg works with organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Guard before disasters occur so their shelters can be quickly deployed when needed.
“There are some cases where we get requests for thousands of tents and have to suggest the customer choose a lower quality supplier who has that amount in stock,” McDonough says. “We focus on high quality products that are made to specification and are not kept in inventory. We are able to produce up to 12 tents a day if requested and are willing to work overtime and third shifts when these situations occur.”
For many companies in this market, relief shelters are just one slice of their business, but Universal Space Frames Inc. (USF) of Laguna Beach, Calif., formed in 2008 with a specific mission to produce and distribute its unique shelter system in disaster and humanitarian situations. The company had just completed its first production run of a weight-bearing shelter based on geodesic principles when the Haiti earthquake hit.
“We decided to accelerate our production and financing efforts in order to prepare for what we see as long-term, rather than short-term, shelter needs in Haiti,” says Jimbeau Andrews of USF.
Attempts to connect with aid decision makers after the earthquake were inconsistent, Andrews says, because those people were in the field. So in May, USF representatives accompanied a relief team from the University of Iowa on a trip to Haiti. USF provided the team with shelters and temporary workspaces, found volunteer opportunities and made connections with local government officials.
“The bottom line is that you have to put yourself out there and get in the mix to introduce a new product no matter what the market is,” Andrews says.
Opportunities in the humanitarian shelter market extend beyond manufacturing. Many tent rental companies have emergency response divisions ready to install tents at a moment’s notice, including large structure tents for field hospitals and temporary government infrastructure. Mahaffey Fabric Structures of Memphis, Tenn., provides shelters and structures for base camps, temporary housing, fire and flood relief and business continuity. In just the first half of this year, Mahaffey has installed a clearspan tent in Haiti, responded to flood relief efforts in its home state and provided shelter to oil spill cleanup workers in the Gulf region.
“We hold a disaster preparedness meeting during the first week of June each year in order to get everyone on the same page in terms of operations, available inventory, marketing and sales—going over any new or existing contracts, as well as the crew and equipment those contracts entail,” says Mahaffey marketing manager Beth Wilson.
Mahaffey installers are ready for rapid response with prepared disaster kits filled with fuel, nonperishable food items, bottled water, sleeping bags, radios, batteries and other necessities, which prevents last-minute holdups for getting the crew on the road.
“Once we learn of an impending storm or other disaster that may have already taken place, we go over any and all action items to make sure we’re fully prepared in all aspects from operations to equipment to sales,” she says. “If it’s safe for the crew to drive into or closer to the disaster area, we mobilize immediately.”
The relief shelter market is like any other market in that sound business decisions regarding raw materials, design, manufacturing, price point, marketing, inventory and delivery are required. Yet, the tragedies that create the demand for these shelters touch and motivate the individuals and companies involved in this form of disaster relief. Kevin Sing, Mahaffey field supervisor, traveled to Haiti in March for the installation of a clearspan tent the company sold at a discount to the Digicel Foundation, a nonprofit charitable organization that builds communities.
“It’s an honor for each and every employee of Mahaffey to be involved in such a wonderful project,” Wilson says. “Seeing the devastation firsthand will undoubtedly stay with Kevin Sing for the rest of his life, though he takes pride in knowing that he had a small part in helping to restore life in the ravaged nation.”