Tents play a leading role in culturally
inspired parties and themed events.
By Meleah Maynard
People have been throwing parties in tents for thousands of years, and in some cultures, tents are central to ceremonies and events. So when event planners are asked to create events based on culturally inspired themes, the natural place to start is a tent.
“I can add any kind of decor, lighting and color in order to create my theme or mood,” says Courtney Caplan of Caplan Miller Events, Austin, Texas. “When working in a venue, I am a bit more restricted.”
But culturally inspired tented events have their own set of challenges. When it comes to multicultural marriages, culturally themed parties and traditional tented gatherings, tent and event professionals need to possess both the expertise of a seasoned cultural attache and the resourcefulness of a Hollywood (or Bollywood) prop master.
A starring role
Sonia Sharma, a California-based event planner who specializes in interfaith multicultural weddings, says that for events with predominant themes, tents play a starring role in creating the right look and feel. When a client’s budget is generous, she likes to work with Raj Tents of Gardena, Calif., a rental company known for its Moroccan- and Indian-themed luxury tents.
“I love their printed fabric,” Sharma says. “And I like that their fabric is custom made for each size tent, and you can pick the border, too, so it’s not just a bunch of chiffon.”
For a recent Bollywood-themed engagement party for an Iranian Jewish couple, Sharma used two colorful tents, the first as a canopy for the entrance and the larger one for the actual event. Instead of the usual chandeliers, she opted for Moroccan lanterns, and she hired Bollywood dancers and henna artists for entertainment. She also rented two ornate red and gold chairs, the kind often used in Hindu wedding ceremonies, for the couple.
The Arabian Tent Company in East Sussex, England, provides rental and event services for trade shows for the Abu Dhabi Tourist Board and polo matches for Saudi Arabian princes, but the company is also frequently hired to provide tents and decor for Indian weddings, Bollywood-themed birthday parties and Moroccan-inspired corporate events. Creative director Katherine Hudson believes tents make the biggest impression on guests, and she is always finding new ways to use them creatively.
“Sometimes we use the interior of a tent as the exterior,” Hudson says, explaining that a mirrored and embroidered interior can create quite a “wow” factor when used as the exterior, particularly at an entrance.
Hudson uses two tents when creating a traditional mandap (a four-pole canopy-like structure) for Hindu weddings. One tent is used as the venue for the main event, and the second tent, made to match the larger one, serves as the mandap under which the main ceremony takes place. Henna corners are a popular feature in the main tent, where Hudson provides floor-level seating and cushions for the henna artist to sit on.
Hudson’s Hindu clients who are willing to depart from tradition can forgo the mandap and sit on daybeds the company designed or sit on peacock thrones, which were made by Hudson and her colleagues.
“I’m a terrible one for making anything I can’t find to rent or buy,” she says. “I head to India every winter to design and make new interiors for our tents.”
Back home in England, she’s a big fan of eBay, where brides often sell items they used in their own weddings. She also has luck at auctions, where she picks up everything from kilms (rugs) to antique brass trays.
When Sharma’s clients want a more understated Bollywood theme, or would just like to save a little money, she suggests a lounge environment with Indian-style pillows and colorful lighting, and she’ll drape standard tents with chiffon in bright colors, most often orange, turquoise, fuchsia and red. She says that props are always a challenge because authentic ones are in limited supply, but one of the places she relies on is Luna Bazaar, a Vermont-based party decor and supply company.
Ocean Tents & Party Rentals of Manahawkin, N.J., serves a large Jewish clientele, and mitzvahs are the most elaborate parties, owner Joe Peregman says. The company has much of the necessary decor and props in its own inventory, but it does subrent on occasion. The custom chairs used at mitzvahs and to lift the bride and groom at Jewish weddings are usually provided by clients.
“I spend a lot of time talking to people about what they need when we’re planning,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot, but everybody wants something a little different.”
Sharma says that she works hard to understand her clients’ religious and cultural needs. “If I’m doing an Indian event, for example, I have to be sensitive to whether or not they eat meat,” she explains. “I talk to people about their preferences, but I also do my own research on each culture, so I learn things I need to know before I meet clients.”
Like Sharma, it is not uncommon for The Arabian Tent Co. to work with a bride and groom from different cultures. While trying to fuse two cultures into one event, Hudson is mindful of the potential pitfalls.
“In a fusion wedding, the bride’s Indian family might love peacock feather vases that remind them of India’s national bird, but the groom’s English family might prefer they weren’t included, as there is an old English folk law that says peacock feathers are bad luck if used inside a building,” she explains. Tents printed with symbols can also be a problem because a symbol with a positive meaning in one culture can have a negative connotation in another culture, she says.
Peregman also emphasizes how important it is to understand clients’ individual needs when putting together culturally specific events. When doing a tented wedding ceremony for clients who are Hasidic Jews, for example, most couples want two distinct areas because men and women must be kept separate. “We’ve even put sidewalls in the interior of the tent so half the dance floor is on one side and the other half is on the other,” Peregman says. He adds that the same is often true for bar and bat mitzvahs.
Because many Jews recognize Saturday as the Sabbath (a day of rest and/or worship), tents rented for Jewish events on Saturdays are set up beforehand, and equipment such as lights, heat and air conditioning are triple checked and left running, Peregman says.
“They aren’t supposed to have people work for them on Saturdays, so if we have tents rented to Jewish clients on Saturdays, I have people go there to make sure there aren’t any problems.”
The beauty of tents is that, with the right decor and props, they can be made to reflect any cultural theme or a fusion of cultures. As an event planner or tent renter, you can help your clients bring their culture and history into their modern-day events—and inspire a party for the ages.