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Strategies for festival tenting

Event Production, Features | April 1, 2013 | By:

Tenting for festivals calls for thorough planning to ensure a successful outdoor event.

When you’re providing tents for one of the biggest festivals in North America, you have to pay attention to the details. Calgary Stampede—a 10-day event in July comprising a rodeo, chuck wagon races and an exhibition in Alberta’s largest town—requires tents for everything from livestock to entertainment to food and beverage. For the 2012 event, Calgary, Alberta, Canada-based Warner Shelter Systems Ltd. supplied nearly 600,000 square feet of clearspan and marquee tents.

Although Warner Shelter has worked with the festival since the 1980s, the tent manufacturer leaves no stone unturned. “Making sure that the tent is structurally adequate, anchored properly and has enough entrances and exits is half the battle,” says Chad Struthers of Warner Shelter. The project, like any festival, involves knowing code requirements, planning site surveys and coordinating transportation and installation logistics. To pull off a successful event, Struthers says, “you need to get your ducks in a row.”

No matter the size of the festival, tents are the workhorses of outdoor events. “The advantages for tenting are endless for festivals,” says Regina Barker, who handles outdoor sales for Camelot Party Rentals in Sparks, Nev. “They provide shade for the attendees and they also protect equipment or merchandise.”

Tents also bring a uniform aesthetic to any event. “When people are driving, these large white tents will grab the eye and draw attention to your event,” Barker adds.

Proper prep pays off

When it comes to tenting for festivals, smart preparation and organization play key roles. A thorough site survey, for instance, can lead to fewer headaches during tent setup. “It is always a good idea to do site inspections, whether you are setting up a 20-by-20 in someone’s backyard or installing a huge clearspan in the parking lot of exhibition grounds,” Struthers says. “Then you know what some of the obstacles, if any, there are when it comes time to set up. Are there power lines? Are there underground locates? What is traffic like to get the trucks in and out?”

Site surveys depend on the client’s and the event’s scope, says Steven Eisenstein, president of Classic Tents & Events in Norcross, Ga. “We typically would have pre-event meetings and on-site walkthroughs, which may include chalking/flagging tent locations and identifying underground utilities,” Eisenstein says. “The timing is a function of the size and maturity of the festival. For a new festival we would typically work several months in advance.”

Warner Shelter Systems advises that site surveys occur no less than three months before for a small outdoor event and no less than six months before for a large festival. “Especially when you are working with a committee and the planning has to pass through five, 10, 20 people, it takes about six months on some projects of substantial size,” Struthers says. “And that is six working months, not talking on day one and then not talking until day 90 when we are halfway through.”

Even if festival organizers or local municipalities provide their own site plans, tent companies should still do their due diligence, according to Katie Frattini, sales and rentals manager of All Shelter Sales and Rentals in North Bay, Ontario, Canada. “Typically these site plans are recycled from year to year and will often omit significant site changes such as newly planted trees, new tree growth and even new lamp posts,” she says. “It is important to be critical of any site survey provided to you. Do your own site visit, have utilities marked both on the site survey and on the ground. A final walk-through with lead festival organizers to have tent locations marked out will save you valuable time when your tent crew and equipment arrive on site to begin setup.”

Just as crucial as performing the site survey is understanding codes. “We familiarize ourselves with the particular municipalities that are responsible for the areas,” Eisenstein notes. “Meeting with the departments that govern these areas is premium. We attempt to include the responsible government entities in the pre-event meetings as often as possible.”

Because of its location in the Reno area, Camelot has to keep track of two states’ codes. “We always comply and keep regular checks and updates with the Nevada and California codes,” Barker says. “We also work hand in hand, whether it be with the city or the private venue owner, when installing equipment.” For an additional measure of safety, Camelot requires that its crews go through training prior to install.

Another important consideration in the event planning process is the arrangement of tents, which helps determine the festival’s flow. Classic Tents & Events will recommend installing tents with specific functions—for example, a shade tent for a place to stay out of the sun while waiting for rides or activities for the children.

“Often we will suggest a main centrally located seating/dining tent for a food event, as attendees will typically stay longer if they have a place to sit down and eat,” Eisenstein says. “We also suggest having tents grouped so that there are main thoroughfares.”

Tent arrangements also must take safety into account. “We set up festival areas with enough room for vehicle navigation and crowd mobility in case there ever were an emergency,” Barker notes. “We always recommend setting up tents off the street and closer to sidewalks, unless it’s an event that closes the street.”

Software can be a tent rental company’s best friend when formulating layouts. “A lot of different software programs will give you easement, walkways, spacing and booth placement,” says Fred Tracy, owner of Fred’s Tents and Canopies Inc. in Stillwater, N.Y. “It makes a good presentation for the customer if you are trying to sell the job, and it makes the job a lot easier to lay out too.”

Managing logistics

A strong grasp on logistics can mean the difference between a chaotic or a smooth tent setup. Camelot employs a logistics supervisor who plans delivery routes well in advance. “We use our own system to ensure deliveries and times with our customers and set up an accurate delivery schedule,” Barker says. “It is put on a master spreadsheet each week. Our installation is all done by trained Camelot employees so we know exactly how the delivery goes each day.”

Eisenstein believes that the most important aspect of transportation logistics is having a detailed layout of the festival prior to loading the trucks. “We load the trucks based on what needs to come out first—it is loaded last. When the layouts are incorrect or inadequate, the labor costs increase and efficiency decreases.”

Struthers advises that customers avoid skimping on transportation costs. “You can load certain things into a standard ground freight truck and get a cheaper rate than you might get if you load it onto a flatbed trailer,” he explains. “But at the end of the day, your people have to spend more time unloading a covered trailer.”

For tents on cross-country journeys, “rail is something important to look at depending on how large the event is and if the time frame allows it,” Tracy says. “You could use intermodal, which is a combo of tractor trailer trucks and railcars, depending on if you have large festivals that move throughout the country. People worry about rail in terms of time frame, but if you have the time, it is a pretty inexpensive way to move large amounts of product across the country.”

Furthermore, assembling a quality crew for tent installation translates into efficiency and competence. In addition to in-house labor, Classic Tents & Events works with labor companies that specialize in event staff/laborers. “In some instances we work out of the metro area/out of state and work primarily with American Rental Association members in those areas,” Eisenstein adds.

“Depending on the size of the event we may send multiple supervisors and then hire a temporary local crew,” Frattini says. “By doing so, we reduce our transportation, meal and accommodation expenses. We develop relationships with our labor providers, and over time they get to know the quality of labor we require. Often other tent companies have crew available, which they will subcontract to us for large events.”

In fact, collaborating with other tent rental companies can be good for business. “It is in your best interest because at some point you will always need a favor or a friend,” Struthers says. “If you can share business and have a good working relationship, that always comes back to you.”

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

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