Pros share secrets for pulling off successful traveling tented events.
By Meleah Maynard
Successfully managing traveling tented events is complex, detailed work, but the mantra of those who do well in the business is simple: plan, plan, plan. Trade shows, exhibitions, auto shows, concerts, corporate presentations, product rollouts—every event that travels must be thought through down to the smallest detail, or there will likely be trouble along the way.
“To be successful you have to detail the job to the nth degree,” explains Rocky Sconda, owner of Edison, N.J.-based Main Attractions. “Your work is a reflection of you, and corporations and other clients that hire you are spending large amounts of money and inviting their best clients, so you need to give them a good experience.” One important consideration, Sconda says, is ensuring continuity, which means even though an event travels from place to place, there are no surprises and everything is the same, “just like McDonald’s french fries.”
That’s why, before a tented event ever takes to the road, Main Attractions often pre-builds the setup so the client can see it and make adjustments. “That way they see exactly what is going to be delivered for the next 10 or 12 stops, however many are in the contract,” says Sconda, whose company has done many traveling tented events for clients including BMW and BMW Racing.
Even with proper planning, it’s imperative to have strong, existing relationships with others in the trade who can help if something goes wrong with a tent or with equipment, Sconda says, adding that he always calls to let people know his company will be in town. If they don’t have a contact in a particular city, they research their options and find companies to collaborate with, if need be, along the way. The one constant at every stop is the tractor trailer driver who travels with the show and moves trailers on site. “We use specialized transportation companies,” Sconda says. “They’re more expensive, but you’re guaranteed to get the equipment there on time, and it takes some of the headaches out of the job.”
Thinking ahead about labor and equipment
Like Sconda, Tony Tauer, president of American Event Services in Danville, Ill., gets most of his traveling tented event contracts through production companies or marketing firms hired to oversee the logistics. As a power and air company, Tauer makes sure tents are heated or air-conditioned at a comfortable level and that there is a dependable power supply. It helps to have a practice event before a show leaves town for the first time, he says.
In addition to making backup plans such as replacing equipment, he always coordinates ahead of time with others in the trade. “I try to limit the number of vendors I work with because I like to get to know people and establish relationship,” he says. “And I have a couple of companies who can get me fuel when I need it or coordinate a forklift at a moment’s notice if we have to have one.” On site, a project manager who travels with all the gear for each tour makes sure everything is consistent with the help of temporary workers.
For companies like Houston, Texas-based Aggreko Event Services, hiring people as a tour moves across the country is usually unnecessary because the company has facilities in most major cities. “We’re doing Coca Cola’s 125th anniversary tour right now so we’re providing an air conditioning system for their tent,” says event sales manager Daryl Benz. “We painted some of our equipment red so it would match the color of the tent and then we’re pulling everything else we need from our local depots, which saves on shipping costs.”
Hiring help on the road can be complicated for many reasons. A temp working in New York City, for example, will likely be paid more per hour than a temp doing the same job in a smaller city. And then there are labor laws to consider. “You have to know whether you’re going into a union town before you get there because that’s going to affect your costs,” says Mike Holland, president of Tennessee-based Chattanooga Tent Co.
Hotel and per diem amounts also vary from place to place and everything needs to be covered in your costs. If you don’t have time to figure everything out beforehand, Holland advises, put something in your contract that protects you. “Include something like: ‘If union wages are required, they are not included in this contract and are the client’s responsibility.’” Going through a temp agency helps, he says, because they will know whether a town is union or not.
Permitting and the benefits of collaboration
It’s always best to visit sites beforehand, of course. But when so much of a job involves going from place to place, it’s not always possible to see every location prior to arrival. At the very least, someone needs to ensure that the proper permits are in order, Holland says, adding that larger municipalities generally have more stringent rules to follow. “Sometimes you can have the permit responsibility be something the client handles, but I’ve also sent someone to do that when things have been complicated or things just can’t be handled by email or fax.”
Knowing someone in the region is always a plus, but when a location is unfamiliar Holland turns to the IFAI member directory for help. “That’s the first place I look when I’m doing research for a traveling tour,” he says. “I might call a member of the Tent Rental Division and say, ‘I’ve got a date coming up, can you provide me with a 40-by-40 tent and some tables and chairs?’ It’s not taking someone’s business when you’re traveling; it’s helping another company.” Subrenting at least some part of a traveling show is almost always a cost benefit to tent renters and clients, Holland says.
“If you want to be proactive and profitable, avoid sending a second truck when you can,” he says. Unless you’re dealing with a show where tents are a particular color or have a specific company logo, you can usually rent a lot of what you need rather than haul it across the country. “The big picture for me is that the more professional our industry looks, the more it will continue to grow, and that’s what we all want.”