Graduating tenting requires an education in economics, communication, logistics and marketing.
By Maura Keller
Graduation ceremonies and parties punctuate the end of a long educational journey and celebrate a new stage in life. Rental companies help make these celebrations memorable with crisp tents, upsells such as specialty lighting, and rows and rows—and more rows—of perfectly aligned chairs.
“Commencements are the final impression that thousands of students will have of their alma mater, so they are very important events,” says John Creedon of Creedon and Co. Inc., Worcester, Mass. “To meet our objective, we communicate with the [college or university] staff to educate them about the mechanics and practical realities of installing tents, chairs, staging, lights and other equipment.”
Several tent renters who serve the graduation event market note that the economic collapse beginning in 2008 dramatically changed this market sector. “Companies that didn’t typically involve themselves in events like college commencements found themselves looking for more work,” says Ben Philbrook, sales manager of Chase Canopy LLC, Mattapoisett, Mass. “Thus the bidding process has become very competitive, and the schools now have a disclaimer in most bids that basically says they can break a contract at whatever point they wish, without having an explanation.”
Creedon, whose company offers catering services in addition to tent and party rental, adds that colleges and universities are taking a closer look at bids and RFPs due to budgetary constraints.
“Since the economy slowed over the last few years, cost has become a more important component in customers’ decision making,” he says. “Wherever we can add value for our customers—by cutting costs or providing more efficient options—we always do that. Long-term relationships with our customers are more important to us than a single invoice.”
Matthew Mutton of Bob Mutton Party and Tent Rentals, Fort Wayne, Ind., has noticed a decrease in the number of tent rentals for graduation parties and open houses.
“I believe some of this is a direct result of the economy causing homeowners to tighten their budget,” Mutton says. “But I think another factor in this is some of our competitors are discounting prices because of the economy.”
Bob Costa, owner of B.C. Tent & Awning Co. Inc., Avon, Mass., says the first challenge in providing tents for the collegiate community is getting in the door, as most schools already have a working relationship with tent vendors.
“Once in the door, it takes years of work to build trust,” Costa says. “College graduations are a major statement and representation of the college itself, so everything has to be perfect. They want to impress parents, students and alumni. Therefore, margin for error is close to zero. Like most large institutions there are layers of bureaucracy, so getting prompt answers and decisions are the greatest challenge.”
Creedon notes that another major challenge to providing rental services to graduations is that in the United States, most commencements occur within a time span of two to three weeks, making the month of May one of the busiest times of the year for tent rental companies.
“Across the country, tent and event rental equipment companies’ inventories tend to be pretty well tapped out during commencement season,” he says. “This time of year also tends to be one of the busiest for the colleges and universities too. As a result, clear and efficient communication in preparing for and executing the event is absolutely critical. We work hard to earn our customers’ trust and confidence in our ability to perform and deliver smooth equipment installations even in the face of challenges such as hectic schedules and sometimes severe weather.”
Making the grade
Mutton believes the biggest key to success within the graduation segment of the industry is clear communication when it comes to policies, procedures, expectations and deadlines.
“It’s important that not only do we understand what the school expects, but that they know what our expectations are,” he says. “This becomes particularly important when someone new takes over responsibilities at the school.”
For large-scale layouts, Creedon generates CAD drawings before the installation and shares those drawings with its customers to ensure that they are on the same page.
“Again, clear and efficient communication is critical,” Creedon says. “When we’re on site actually installing chairs, we use string grids to ensure that the columns and rows of the thousands of chairs we set up are straight and sharp looking.”
Douglas Barrera, owner of Camelot Party Rentals, Sparks, Nev., begins graduation jobs by conducting a site review—traveling to the event location, meeting with the event designer and measuring the location of the event.
“We then use our PartyCad program to draw out different setup designs for the client to choose from,” Barrera says. “On the setup day we use plumb lines and specific measurements to space the rows and aisles to scale. When you are responsible for setting up a large amount of chairs, even a little error can be detrimental on a time-sensitive setup.”
AAA Rental System, Markham, Ill., warehouses its chairs on movable racks to ease delivery and load-in. “We try to deliver with logistics in mind,” says owner Jay Heiferman. “School facilities don’t often have great loading areas. Pre-event site visits are essential for the on-campus event.”
Mutton requires that the customer call to have underground utilities marked. “We are very clear and repetitive through the entire planning process: from quoting, to reserving, to confirming delivery times about having utilities marked and what the free services do and don’t mark,” Mutton says.
For AAA Rental, a sprinkler damage waiver isÂ part of its rental contract. “A system schematic of course is always nice to have,” Heiferman says.
When orchestrating backyard graduation parties, Creedon typically visits customers’ yards to measure for the tents, get a sense for the terrain and any slopes or challenging areas, and determine the best method to load and install the tents.
“One solution if there are serious concerns or unanswered questions about what lies underground is to install a weighted frame tent instead of hammering stakes into the ground as anchors,” he says.
The combination of a competitive marketplace and a tight economy calls for effective marketing to potential graduation clientele. AAA Rental serves both the consumer and commercial markets. “Bringing in new customers of all kinds is, of course, our goal,” Heiferman says. “We try to attract new ‘general public’ customers primarily through search engine optimization as well as word of mouth and very targeted print promotions and community-based sponsorships.”
One way AAA Rental targets the graduation party market is by providing graduation party tent packages. “Consumers enjoy not having to make too many decisions,” Heiferman says. “Packages make it easy for both of us. We also market specials for the school ceremonies.”
In Creedon’s experience, the best source of business is from repeat customers and referrals from satisfied customers to their network including family, friends, co-workers and neighbors.
“Our staff always answers the phone with a smile and we make it a point to be as prompt with our responses as possible,” Creedon says. “Our website, social media efforts and referrals from online search engines also work well.” Beyond that, Creedon encourages staff to be involved in the community and to network with existing and new customers.
When it comes to graduation parties and ceremonies, tent renters are providing memories as much as they are providing tents.
“A lot of people just have a backyard party with those 10-by-10-foot easy-up tents,” Philbrook says. “But let’s be honest. In the end, tents can keep you dry in the rain and cool in the sun, but it’s not the shelter you’re renting, it’s the atmosphere it brings to the event.”