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Stretch of the imagination

Feature, Trend Watch | April 1, 2014 | By:

Stretch-style tents offer boundless possibilities and new opportunities for events.

Flexible, artistic, attractive, good communicator. Graydon Ilderton is looking for a long-term—and long-distance—relationship with anyone looking for the above qualities.

“We have no doubt that the U.S.A. will fall in love with stretch tents, as has the rest of the world,” says the owner of Nomadik® Stretch Tents and Canopies in South Africa. “It may be a slow courtship, and there will be barriers to entry. But we are confident that the romance will be lasting and rewarding.”

While stretch tents have been used for more than a decade in South Africa, where they originated, and in Australia, they’ve only recently been introduced to North American markets.

Enchanting possibilities

“The biggest benefit of stretch tents and what really sets them apart from other tents is their flexibility. By design, stretch tents do not have to conform to the limitations faced by competing products,” says Michele Upton, managing director of Maverick Stretch Tents in South Africa. “They do not require a level surface or open area. Stretch tents are able to cover any area, be it as a freestanding tent on the beach, over paving, on a lawn or to extend existing cover. Stretch tents can also be linked together almost ad infinitum, which means they can cover very large areas. Stretch tents have revolutionized events to the point that you no longer need to tailor your event around the tent.”

Stuart Lee, managing director of Freeform® Tents, also based in South Africa, says that stretch tents can easily be attached to building structures, are lighter than standard tents and require no special rigging equipment, which translates to small transport vehicles and setup crews.

And, Upton notes, “because [the tents] are kept under constant tension, ‘sides’ do not flap like conventional peg-and-pole marquees. This offers much better wind resistance and makes them completely noiseless.”

Ilderton points to the ease of rigging stretch tents. “The labor requirements for setup and strike are significantly less than with other tent types,” he says. “Add to this the fact that stretch-tent membranes are lightweight, easy to transport and maintain, and available in just about any color imaginable and one begins to appreciate why they have revolutionized outdoor ‘eventing.’”

Bradley Morris, owner and president of Nomad Tents USA LLC in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., concurs. “Setup generally takes a fraction of the time compared to traditional tents, which allows venues to book for shorter periods, hence saving them money,” he says. “Each stretch tent is like a blank canvas. The versatility still surprises us. There is no predetermined pole placement. The placement of poles and their individual heights is what gives the tent its shape.

“Having the freedom to place poles anywhere allows us to constantly change the configuration of the installation,” he adds. “By pinning some sides close to the ground and others flared up, one can shape the tent to suit the space and the aesthetic of the landscape. Entrances can be positioned to suit any layout, and should event requirements or the weather change, modifications are quick and painless.”

“Canopies can be wrapped around trees, rocks and walls and erected with or without poles over the top of a frame structure,” says Stuart Johnstone, owner of Australia-based Stretch Marquees and Fabric Structures. “There isn’t a space that a stretch tent won’t transform into a viable entertainment zone.”

Getting acquainted

“The only real limitation to stretch tents is the ingenuity of its riggers. For some, however, this versatility and freedom can be daunting at first,” Ilderton says. “While the mechanics of setup are relatively simple and similar to most tent styles, it does require experience and intuition.”

Maverick recommends that companies wanting to start stretch-tent rentals invest in a combination of sizes—all in a neutral color. “This ensures you are able to cover the smaller, private functions right up to bigger events,” Upton says.

“The best form of marketing is to install these tents at as many parties and functions as possible, and the demand will simply grow,” Lee says. “Although there are benefits to purchasing a large number of tents at the outset, it is not necessary, and a small operation could be started with only a few tents.”

A former yachtsman, Morris was introduced to stretch tents in Cape Town and Mauritius during his travels. “I saw an opportunity for these tents at beach bars, restaurants, clubs and wedding venues,” he says. “A startup rental company, like Nomad, could easily start out with, ideally, an inventory of three to four tents in neutral colors like white, gray or khaki with sizes ranging from 30-by-40 feet to 60-by-40 feet. I like to joke that the tents come with built-in marketing, because when people experience a stretch tent, they want one.”

After 20 years of installing traditional tents, the principals of Event Labor Works in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, were introduced to stretch tents by a South African colleague.

“When we saw how easy they are to install and transport and offered such an interesting and innovative look, we decided to investigate the possibility of selling them in North America,” says Matt Pare, director of sales. “We learned that they weren’t really being offered in this market and realized we had an amazing opportunity. We set up a test market in Whistler, British Columbia, and it has been a great success. That encouraged us to expand the North American market.” Partnering with a Canadian tent manufacturer, Event Labor Works developed a line of stretch tents that can integrate with clearspan structures. It also developed a training video for installation crews.

Stretch Marquees, makers of Bedouinflex™ tents, sells a 4.5-by-6-meter tent for less than $1,000. “The tents are a lower-cost option than many standard marquees. As all the accessories are common between different-sized tents, there is a greater ability to grow the range of options,” Johnstone says. “Our 100-percent waterproof joint system, winch-up truss king poles and quick-tensioning system ensure rental companies can get a quicker and overall greater return on their investment. Cleaning, transportation and storage costs also are far lower in comparison to bulkier, traditional marquees.”

Potential matches

According to Pare, flexible tents are easy to brand and match to Pantone®. “Our marketing clients and festival clients love this,” he says. “Wedding clients appreciate the look and feel, especially the ability to light the interior. Quite often, a wedding client will have a liner installed inside a [traditional] tent to have better lighting. The Flex Tent does not require a liner, as the interior already has a warm feel to it.”

Freeform exports 80 percent of the tents it manufactures, with sales on
every continent except Antarctica. Customers tend to be tent rental companies with a focus on high-end and stylish events. Its tents have been used for the London 2012 Olympic Games, sporting competitions at Royal Ascot, gala dinners and dance performances in Covent Garden and weddings at locations ranging from beaches to wineries.

Maverick has developed a franchise to sell turnkey operations, which is the company’s primary source of sales. The next categories of customers, in order, are event companies, corporations, and venues and individuals looking for custom tents to cover decks and patios. Rental clients include event organizers, wedding venues, private estates, golf courses, schools and hotels.

The majority of Nomad’s clients are restaurants for increased seating capacity, developers for groundbreaking events and nonprofits for fundraisers. The company, whose market ranges from Florida to California, recently expanded into the Caribbean with an office in St. Maarten.

One of Event Labor Works’ first clients was the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, which purchased three tents for a downtown location that posed many obstacles.

Stretch Marquees’ international customer base ranges from rental tent providers to hotels, event centers, festivals and major brands such as Red Bull, Nike and Xstrata.
“Xstrata is a good example of a custom stretch tent,” Johnstone says. “We designed a touring structure, complete with integrated flooring and a simple, no-tool build that can be easily packed down and transported to remote areas within the Philippines.”

Nomadik has made custom tents for Heineken and Steers (a major fast-food franchise in South Africa). According to Ilderton, improvements in fabric longevity and UV tolerance have increased demand for semi-permanent canopy installations.

Taking it slow

“Nomadik has pioneered stretch-tent rigging and technology in South Africa since 2002,” Ilderton says. “It has taken many years for stretch-tent technology to evolve to a point where the fabric and the manufacturing process conform to international standards. And rigging techniques have advanced dramatically through the years. Meeting international fire-retardant standards has been one of our greatest challenges and perhaps
the single biggest obstacle to international exposure.

“By pursuing a rigorous R & D program and continuous reinvestment in manufacturing techniques, we are now in a position to offer an internationally certified product. We are well positioned to actively pursue partners in North America in the tent and marquee industry who have an existing infrastructure and who are interested in expanding their inventory
to include stretch tents.”

Stretch Marquees has a branch office in London and distributorships in New Zealand, Malaysia, Mauritius, Brazil and, since 2009, Seattle, Wash. “We’re now seeing a great in interest in our stretch tents from both major brands and some of the established rental tent companies,” Johnstone says.

Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif.

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