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Features, Industry News, Management | October 1, 2013 | By:

Adding party inventory and event services to tent rental offers opportunities for growth and new customers, especially when companies find the right niche.

Entrepreneurial spirits—and the tent rental industry is full of them—are seldom content for long. Their businesses rarely remain static, but instead are characterized by a mindset always on the alert for growth opportunities.

Consider Mahaffey Fabric Structures. Located in Memphis, Tenn., the company is known nationwide as a manufacturer and renter of large temporary structures. However, one of the ways the company decided to expand its market was to step into the party and event rental arena, says William Pretsch, company president. About four years ago the company began acquiring the items necessary to make it essentially a full-service shop for event planners and customers. This effort currently targets the Memphis area and is known as Mahaffey Tent and Party Rentals. However, Pretsch says the company is now concentrating on expanding to a 100-mile radius outside its base of operations.

“We had customers telling us they didn’t want to call three different places to get what they wanted,” he says. “People wanted to knock it out with one phone call.”

Making it easier for customers—and keeping them from heading off to a competitor—is often the motivation driving expansion into party and event rental for many tent rental businesses (and also the converse: inspiring primarily event and party rental shops to add tent inventory). Fueling this trend is the fact that time-stressed customers increasingly demand a one-stop experience.

“Clients want to work with the least amount of people as possible,” says Farrah Slinger, event division manager for Event Essentials, Windsor, Wis. “For wedding planners especially, it’s great if they can work with just one rental company and have just one point of contact.”

How far beyond tent rental companies go depends on variables specific to a company and its market. Business models are also highly individual. Here’s how some have approached it.

Splitting it up

Pretsch’s company is split into two divisions: Mahaffey Fabric Structures, which is primarily focused on large tent rentals, and Mahaffey Tent and Party Rentals. Each has its own website and marketing program. The split, which occurred in 2010, minimizes customer confusion and maximizes party rental operations.

When the company decided to get into party/event rental, it identified a manager to broaden the market and bring on inventory. It also developed a network of providers that offer services it doesn’t, such as HVAC and lighting. Currently, the party side comprises about 15 percent of the business.

“We went from zero to 15 percent in three years, so we’re happy with this,” Pretsch says.

He’s also happy about the difference this addition has made to employees. “It’s given us the ability to work employees more steadily, since the party and event business isn’t as cyclical as tents,” he says. “We’re now able to offer employees the ability to grow and have a career in the rental business.”

Event Essentials recently split from its parent company, A to Z RentAll and Sales, Madison, Wis. Prior to this, both were under the same roof and known as A to Z RentAll and Event Essentials. During the early years—the company started in 1954—the inventory was mainly homeowner tools and household equipment. As event planners began frequenting the business, party equipment and tents, along with other event-related inventory, were added.

As time went on, the marriage started to chafe, Slinger says. “Half of the showroom was tools, the other half was event. I’d be helping a customer rent a chainsaw and then I’d have to switch gears and work with a bride. It was confusing and didn’t show the event side to the best advantage.”

Now, A to Z operates out of one location, renting tools and medium-sized contractor/construction
equipment. Event Essentials is a full-service resource with its own staff, warehouse and showroom. The divisions operate under the same accounting system, but the separation has enabled the divisions to hone their focus, expand inventory and grow both sides of the business, Slinger says.

Growing together

Others, such as Vermont Tent Co., embrace a different strategy. Located in South Burlington, Vt., the company started in 1976 with a single pole tent, and rented out tables and chairs, says Mike Lubas, vice president of sales and marketing. Initially, the tent inventory remained limited, but after about eight years the company expanded its selection and also moved more solidly into event rentals, eventually creating an event division with four consultants plus Lubas. Although internally the tent and event sides are handled separately, the company has not created an obvious split between the two. For customers it’s a seamless integration, Lubas says.

The company’s core remains tent rentals, which make up 65 percent of its overall revenue, but it does quite a bit more events, Lubas says, and it is starting to reach out to the convention and meeting service market.

Montana Party Rentals Inc., in Bozeman, Mont., also started small. In business since 1996, the company first operated out of a garage. Company president Jill Redmon had three tents and basic tables, chairs and china, and no employees—although family members helped out. Now the company is a full-service event/party and tent rental business with about 30 employees in peak seasons.

Initially, the company focused on indoor venues. But because Montana’s stunning topography inspires weddings and other outdoor events, the company began adding more tents into inventory to capture a larger market. Currently, Montana Party Rentals offers about 30 tents (as well as four tipis and one lodgepole tent); tent rentals generate about 35 percent of the business.

Mining the niche

The growth doesn’t stop once a company has become more full-service. Instead, many look within their operations to see what segments justify additional resources. For example, Montana Party Rentals offers a variety of unusual vintage items and concessions to stand out from competitors.

Or consider Brian Jenkins, president of Dallas Party Tent and Event. Headquartered in Arlington, Texas, Jenkins describes its niche as a tent company that provides limited full-service event rentals.

“Although expanding our business into more caterers and event planning is in the works, we’ve always felt our biggest revenue generator was tents,” he explains, saying tents account for 75 percent of revenue.

Initially, the core business was private parties. Eight years later it’s leaning toward corporate, municipal, professional sports organizations and disaster relief—a transition that has prompted the company to purchase more tents, expanding to a full line of structure tents.

For Event Essentials, building up its linen selection has brought in new business. Five years ago the company offered just three colors of 120-inch rounds (black, white, ivory). If clients wanted something different, they had to go elsewhere. Now it offers more than 75 colors, along with different sizes and textures, to meet any request.

Party Reflections Inc. in Charlotte, N.C., has also grown its linen department, recognizing that while the core business—tables, chairs and tents—was growing, clients looked elsewhere for linens, says Maurisa Beaver, creative director and linen specialist.

The company opened in 1958, offering tables and chairs, adding tents in the 1970s, and expanding the inventory since then to include special event equipment. The client base was originally country clubs, caterers, schools, churches and homeowners, but to this it has added event and wedding planners, corporate clients and large sporting events.

The most significant expansion since adding large structure tents has been the addition of 100 new and custom fabric choices, Beaver says. The tablecloth department was rebranded “The Linen Gallery,” and a launch party was held.

“Having the ability to tell a client we can get additional linens has opened up the floodgate to adding additional product onto every order,” Beaver says. “Our goal is to be a one-stop shop for all rental needs. The more elements we can provide on a job site, the more success we can promise.”

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, Calif.

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