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Tenting for festivals and fairs

Event Production, Features | April 1, 2011 | By:

With proper planning and communication, tents can bring beauty and function to outdoor celebrations.

Tents are the unsung heroes of festivals. They provide protection from the elements, a place to gather and a uniform look; often, they set the tone for a large event. These outdoor celebrations can be broken down into two categories: nonprofit community events and promoter-sponsored events for profit, according to Howard Tabackman, executive vice president of Choura Events in Torrance, Calif.

Fairs that take place solely on the streets tend to be set up in six hours or less and have a more utilitarian effect—meaning that most of the tents and canopies house vendors and food booths, with one or two stages at either end. On the other hand, festivals (often taking place in a park) will need tents not only for vendors, but also for multiple entertainment venues, special events, dining and, of course, shade. “We typically have three or four days to set up tents for festivals,” Tabackman explains. “The priority for the tent company is to make the event look good, whereas the priority for street fairs tends to be to get them set up in a short period of time.”

Whether you’re working on a street fair or festival, big or small, it’s important to understand the requirements and nuances that can arise when planning and installing tent structures.

Valuable planning tools

Tents need to accommodate the movement of hundreds, if not thousands, of people strolling around a festival. As such, proper planning is key. Site surveys are a helpful tool in the process. “Some events have been going on for years and the customer knows exactly what they need,” says Bobby Braun of the Elk Grove, Ill., location of Signature Special Event Services. “But if this is a new customer or event, a site visit is a must. The earlier the site visit takes place, the better, in case the layout has to be changed prior to planning or submitting for permits.”

A site walkthrough with the client helps them “see how everything will fit and if we need to make accommodations for obstacles that are site related such as walkways, fire breaks, trees, ponds or whatever the case may be,” explains Donny Vasquez, vice president of marketing and special projects for Made in the Shade Tent Rentals, Inc. in West Sacramento, Calif.

Beyond the site review, Made in the Shade ensures that its customers are always in the loop. “We spend weeks working with event planners to ensure their diagrams are correct and ready on set-up day,” says Vasquez, adding that when that day arrives, “we like to schedule multiple crews to start in different areas, then meet in the center, thus completing the job quickly.”

Another big help in the planning stage for a festival is having only one contact person from the client’s side. “It’s important for them to know in the beginning that if anyone else [associated with the event] starts making requests or changes, they need to go through the point person, especially on the day of the event,” Tabackman states. “You can’t have committee members or sponsors asking for tents to be moved.”

Additionally, versatility pays dividends for both the rental company and festival client. “Situations tend to develop at these events that no amount of planning could adequately predict,” says Michael Schulz, who is responsible for inside sales and service at Pacific Domes in Ashland, Ore. “We simply arrive early—with a big box of gear. Flexibility is a mandatory survival tool for these events.”

Safety first

Safety plays a big role in tenting for festivals. “The tents should have wide aisles and be set up so attendees won’t be tripping on the stakes or any of the anchoring,” Tabackman says. For street fairs, “we need to make sure the street is closed to traffic while we’re installing. The tents need to be properly secured with stakes or heavy weights.”

For festivals held in parks—often taking several days to set up—Choura Events will rope off the tented area. “Our employees wear hard hats and we keep the public out because this really is a construction zone,” says Tabackman, who has seen families play volleyball in the middle of an installation. “But what’s really frustrating is when the event producer allows vendors to come in before we are finished with our setup. Not only does it slow us down, but it can create an unsafe area.”

Sometimes, event organizers want to move tents at the festival—another potential safety hazard—“and it eats up our labor,” Tabackman says. “We will generally allow one move of a couple of smaller canopies, but I will state in my contract that if a tent needs to be moved after it is placed by the client, and it is not our fault, they’ll be charged. Putting a dollar amount on that is a good way to discourage clients from rearranging tents.”

When considering the interiors of its event domes, Pacific Domes first determines if the client plans on hanging anything from the frame structure. “If the client intends to suspend lighting or audio, we need to ensure that steel tubing is appropriately sized to safely handle the flown weight and that the loading points have been evenly distributed around the structure,” Schulz says.

Kitchen confidential

What would a festival or fair be without the food? Tent companies need to follow a set of standards when installing kitchen tents. Often, food booths have a cooking area outside, and right next to those spaces are tents designated for serving to the public.

“Most kitchen tents are good prep tents where the food is warmed or prepared. They do not need to be as nice as the presentation tent, but they are just as important,” Braun explains. “Local codes will require different things for kitchen tents, but fire protection is primary. They may also require a floor other than just grass or dirt for safety and health reasons.”

In southern California, for instance, the health department says that food tents need to be completely enclosed with a mesh-like material that has windows in it. However, the fire marshal wants the booth open. “If ovens or barbecues are being used, we will pull back the roof of the tent so the gas can ventilate,” Tabackman says.

What’s more, HVAC systems can come into play at festivals. “Some events require air conditioning for health or safety reasons such as a cooling spot for seniors or a dressing room for stage performers,” Braun states. “Heat may also be required if the weather does not cooperate.”

Above all, festival tenting requires strong, open communication with the event organizer or other designated contact person. “You want to make sure that everything is arranged and marked on the ground before the trucks get there,” Tabackman says. “There is nothing worse than somebody planning the event while we are looking for places to put things. The better the communication, the better the festival is going to be.”

Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer based in Pine City, Minn.

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