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Taking it to the stage

Feature | August 1, 2015 | By:

Circle K and Kangaroo Express Speed Street entertained thousands of guests in May in Charlotte, N.C. Parmalee, a country rock band, and country singer-songwriter Corey Smith performed on the main stage in the heart of the Queen City. Photo: 600 Festival Association
Circle K and Kangaroo Express Speed Street entertained thousands of guests in May in Charlotte, N.C. Parmalee, a country rock band, and country singer-songwriter Corey Smith performed on the main stage in the heart of the Queen City. Photo: 600 Festival Association

Staging systems and accompanying tents for outdoor concerts spark new opportunities for rental companies.

The months of May through October represent prime time for music festivals, which number in the thousands and increase every year. These outdoor concerts have two unsung heroes: staging and tents. By adding stages and large tensile structures to their inventory, tent rental companies open the door to additional revenue. In tandem, they may find new uses for traditional tents at outdoor concerts. Venturing into new territory, however, requires a thorough understanding of the products and projects involved, as well as the best way to make inroads.

Breaking onto the scene

To find opportunities in providing tents and stages for outdoor concerts, rental companies first need to understand the scope of the market. “Larger events prefer to work with seasoned professionals who understand the demands of the setup at these venues,” says Dan Hooks, president of Party Reflections Inc., which has three locations throughout the Carolinas. “They usually have contacts in various cities that they have worked with in the past if they are traveling shows, so it would be difficult to break into these relationships but certainly not impossible.”

He suggests that smaller companies offer their services to the larger ones in town in the event that inventory becomes scarce and the larger vendors need more equipment than they have available. “It may be a good idea to start with the smaller events and get some experience before going after the larger jobs from the start,” Hooks says.

For a product launch by Intel Corp., Signature Systems Group supplied its AlphaDeck™ staging system to build a foundation that could withstand heavy-duty products and foot traffic. The 4-by-4-foot panels have flexible rubber feet and adjustable legs that ensure a safe, stable platform. Photo: Signature Systems Group
For a product launch by Intel Corp., Signature Systems Group supplied its AlphaDeck™ staging system to build a foundation that could withstand heavy-duty products and foot traffic. The 4-by-4-foot panels have flexible rubber feet and adjustable legs that ensure a safe, stable platform. Photo: Signature Systems Group

Party Reflections handles several large concerts and festivals that require a number of tents for auxiliary needs, “but the larger concerts usually travel with a stage cover that is designed as part of their set,” Hooks adds. Still, the company has installed a few smaller tents for the front of house or wings on the stage.

Ron Holbert, owner of JoRonCo Rentals Inc. in Bakersfield, Calif., entered the outdoor staging market close to 30 years ago when the local Budweiser beer distributor approached him about supplying stages for a festival it was sponsoring.

At the time, Holbert only had nine sections of BilJax Multi-Stage product but promptly bought another 50 decks and landed not only the festival but approximately a half dozen grand opening events at convenience stores.

JoRonCo then began to target local concert promoters and venues, eventually building up to larger events. Starting on a smaller scale “allowed us to get our name and reputation out there on how we were able to meet deadlines, demands of the artist and so on,” Holbert says. “All the promoters tell each other who is good and who is just OK. They don’t always select on price. It is based on load-in and load-out times. With staging, you are the first in and the last out.”

JoRonCo Rentals Inc. supplied and installed multiple sections of BilJax Multi-Stage over the course of several years for concerts held at the now-defunct Hollywood Park Racetrack just outside of Los Angeles. The product is built with easy assembly in mind. Photo: JoRonCo Rentals Inc.
JoRonCo Rentals Inc. supplied and installed multiple sections of BilJax Multi-Stage over the course of several years for concerts held at the now-defunct Hollywood Park Racetrack just outside of Los Angeles. The product is built with easy assembly in mind. Photo: JoRonCo Rentals Inc.

Most recently, JoRonCo provided four of seven staging setups for the Bakersfield Rock and Country Music and Art Festival, which hosted more than 50 musical acts. The company also rented more than 70 tents of various sizes for vendors and provided extra tenting backstage to store cables, lighting and microphones.

But bad weather almost put a crimp into this first-year event. On Friday, the slowest day of the music festival, rain fell and prompted JoRonCo to put tents up at the last minute over the front of house to keep equipment and the stagehand crew dry.

Such decisions reflect the importance of forming relationships with vendors involved in setting up an event, such as sound and lighting firms. “There is a lot of working hand-in-hand with other people in the industry,” Holbert says. “It is about having a good core group you work with that understands how important everybody’s job is.”

These partnerships extend to other tent and event rental companies as well, especially when JoRonCo has to turn away requests due to constrained budgets, project timelines or simply not having the proper inventory. “I don’t want to just leave customers hanging when we can’t do something for them,” Holbert says. “We suggest they call someone else who may be able to help them. I think that goes a long way.”

The entertainers’ dressing area at the Gentlemen of the Road Stopover in Waverly, Iowa, in June 2015 provided each act with its own tent and a common area to hang out during  the day. Photo: Julie Drewes, Wartburg College
The entertainers’ dressing area at the Gentlemen of the Road Stopover in Waverly, Iowa, in June 2015 provided each act with its own tent and a common area to hang out during the day. Photo: Julie Drewes, Wartburg College

When JoRonCo does work on a job, staff always asks bands about the gear they will have on the stage to determine the appropriate staging and load rating. The company also performs a site evaluation prior to the concert to see where the staging will be placed.

When selling outdoor festivals and concerts, Party Reflections emphasizes its service aspect. “We have crews who are experienced with this type work and we let them know that they can depend on us to make it happen for them,” Hooks says. “You get these [jobs] by not biting off more than you can chew from the beginning and growing with these events.”

Staging know-how

Event rental companies have access to a variety of stage platforms—some of which also include guardrails and ramps—that are suitable for outdoors with an emphasis on safety. Wenger Corp. of Owatonna, Minn., manufactures StageTek™, a portable stage system that touts stability, versatility and efficient setup.

Modular platforms ranging from 3-by-3 feet to 4-by-8 feet, as well as custom shapes and sizes, offer a load rating of 200 lbf/ft2. Wenger also performs side-load testing to ensure the deck can take lateral movement, as well as point loading, in which the stage withstands concentrated loads in small areas (for example, the wheel of a grand piano).

Major entertainment acts often tour with their own staging system but require auxiliary tents for vendors, VIP guests, and first aid. Photo: Julie Drewes, Wartburg College
Tents Unlimited, Marietta, Ga., installed 165 tents for a June festival in Iowa, including backstage tents that were enclosed and accessible through double-glass doors. Photo: Julie Drewes, Wartburg College

Wenger recently completed dynamic live load testing that simulates performers jumping on the stage. “This is something that exceeds anything called out by safety or building codes,” says Andy Forsberg, product manager for Wenger.

The entire stage is set up without the need for any tools. StageTek uses plug-in legs available in fixed or adjustable height options. The system also includes provisions for storing legs under the deck “so that you don’t have a bunch of loose pieces and extra baskets of parts,” says Pete Menzel, a design engineer with Wenger.

Other options are available to securely connect the decks, the most popular of which draws the units together using a two-leg connecting bracket. Another method uses cam locks built into the stage frame.

This ease and intuitiveness of installation served as a primary driver in the design of StageTek. “At events like concerts, speed and manpower are at a premium,” Forsberg says. “Technicians can set up staging by hand very quickly.”

Signature Systems Group LLC of Flower Mound, Texas, offers an outdoor staging solution called AlphaDeck™, comprising 4-by-4-foot platforms that connect on all four sides and support heavy weights. Like all staging providers, Signature Systems supplies an installation manual, along with specification sheets, to help guide the installation crew on safety features, loads and questions to ask.

“There are varying factors that can affect what can be done with the stage such as the height and sub flooring,” says Daniel Oblath, sales manager for Signature Systems Group. “Weather and ground conditions play a factor and the users must be knowledgeable about what is safe to do.”

Archbold, Ohio-based BilJax has been manufacturing portable staging for more than 25 years and has seen the importance of safety in both the installation and performance of its products. The manufacturer’s offerings include the Multi-Stage® ST8100 series, featuring interlocking decks, adjustable legs and steel composition.

Staging and tents are ready for Mumford and Sons’ Gentlemen of  the Road Stopover on the campus  of Wartburg College in Waverly,  Iowa. Photo: Julie Drewes, Wartburg College
Tents Unlimited, Marietta, Ga., provided about 28,000 square feet of tenting for Mumford and Sons’ Gentlemen of the Road Stopover in Waverly, Iowa, in June. Photo: Julie Drewes, Wartburg College

Meanwhile, the AS 2100 series comprises an aluminum frame design available in 4-by-8-foot and 4-by-4-foot sections. The AS 2100 system “is much faster to set up and uses fewer legs for the understructure,” says Eric Short, Western sales representative for BilJax. The uniform load for each 4-by-4 section is 150 PSF but the manufacturer tested it at 300 PSF, resulting in a 2:1 safety factor.

Despite the simplicity in assembling the AS 2100 outlined in the instructions provided by BilJax, human factors will always affect setup, according to Short. “People are people and they take shortcuts,” he says. “They don’t put the correct bracing on or maybe they don’t put bracing on the legs at all. Then the stage shakes and wiggles. Musicians want a nice solid surface when they get up on it.”

Tents to accompany staging

Although most of the tents at outdoor concerts or festivals are geared toward ancillary uses such as food, merchandise and first aid, tent rental companies can supply a number of staging-related soft structures.

Traube Tents and Structures of Columbia, Ill., is supplying nearly 70 tents for LouFest, a large outdoor festival featuring national acts that takes place in St. Louis, Mo., in September. Although most of them are slated for typical festival applications, some will be stage-related. One will serve as a green room, where performers can get ready and relax before they go on stage, says Deryck Dietz, Traube’s general manager.

Traube also installs many clearspan structures ranging from 900 square feet up to 20,000 square feet for festivals and concerts such as Fair St. Louis, Oktoberfest, Mardi Gras and Pridefest in St. Louis, Mo. The structures prove their worth because they require no support beams, handle heavier loads of lighting and audio/video equipment, and withstand winds up to 90 mph, Dietz says.

Additionally, Dietz says, Traube partners with tent and/or event companies “to support other concerts and festivals throughout the Midwest in a turnkey or subrental scenario.”

Many popular bands travel with their own staging system, which often includes a roof cover. However, tent manufacturers produce large soft-sided structures that blend sharp aesthetics with the acoustic properties required
by musicians.

Comprising heavy-duty 17 oz. vinyl, Anchor Bandshells from Anchor Industries Inc. include poles, stakes and guy ropes. Lighting and sound equipment securely attach to reinforced eyebolts on the poles. Meanwhile, Tentnology makes SaddleSpan™ stage covers and band shells, which are tensile membrane structures that provide the flexibility of a portable tent.

In addition to the usual lineup of tents for festivals, rental companies can find a new revenue stream in supplying stages, bandshells and soft-sided stage covers for the musical acts playing at these events. As with any major addition to their inventory, rental firms need to thoroughly vet the products and understand issues surrounding installation, loadbearing and other safety concerns.

Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer based in Joshua Tree, Calif.

Staging for alternative applications

Even if tent and event rental companies are just dipping their toes into the outdoor entertainment waters, they still have plenty of reasons to add these platforms to their inventory. As Ron Holbert of JoRonCo Rentals puts it, “For small- to mid-size companies like mine, there is more to stage jobs than just large concerts.”

One common use is flooring for irregular ground surfaces. For a major product launch with Intel Corp. in the Meatpacking District in New York City, branding agency The Taylor Group tasked Signature Systems Group with building a sturdy platform to hold heavy-duty products and allow spacing for patrons to stroll the product display.

“The base floor was a century-old cobblestone road with uneven breaks and cracks, making it difficult to walk on,” explains Daniel Oblath, sales manager on the project.

Signature used its AlphaDeck™ staging system to create a safe, stable foundation comprising 4-by-4-foot panels with flexible rubber feet and adjustable legs. In fewer than four hours, a crew of about eight members installed 338 decks covering more than 5,000 square feet.

Similarly, JoRonCo Rentals has used BilJax stages for robust applications, such as car displays for automotive shows. For a 2015 Easter service held in a field and attended by 4,000 worshipers, JoRonCo not only built a large stage but also used some of the platforms to create ADA-accessible ramps.

Portable stages also serve well in applications for tiered seating, such as a VIP section offering an exclusive experience at an outdoor concert, says Chris Storjohann, national sales manager for special markets at Wenger Corp.

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