Summertime for tent rental means street fairs, farmer’s markets, outdoor concerts and community festivals. If people are gathering and celebrating outdoors, there’s probably a tent involved. But many of the best tented parties are out of sight. They aren’t hidden underground like Prohibition speakeasies, they’re just in private backyards.
Backyard parties have increased in both popularity and in scope, requiring more than just a tent and a few tables and chairs. Games and inflatables, catering equipment and concessions are just a few of the inventory categories that tent and party rental companies offer to help their customers throw the party of the season.
Ready to party
Most owners of tent rental companies would say that tents, tables, chairs and flooring form the basis of their inventory. Figuring out what to acquire beyond those core items to serve the backyard party market can be hit or miss, with some big surprises along the way.
Some rental companies tailor their inventory with specialty items that help them stand out from competitors. Located in the heart of Washington State’s wine country, Sandy’s U-Rent in Walla Walla carries a large supply of genuine crystal stemware for wine-related gatherings, along with a wide selection of linens, says Toni Thorne, Sandy’s U-Rent manager.
“We offer everything and we own it,” Thorne says. “We’re really proud of that. We have close to 6,000 pieces of linen and 8,000 napkins in a really nice variety. We’re putting our name on it and we want to have quality control.”
Darcy Van Gorp, president of ABC Rentals Special Events, Sioux Falls, S.D., struck gold with a sweet party item: a soft-serve ice-cream machine. “Initially, we thought [a soft-serve ice-cream machine] wouldn’t work for us because we really only have two busy graduation weekends during the year,” he says. “We had a few requests, but thought we couldn’t afford to buy the machine for just two weekends out of the year.”
Van Gorp took the risk, however, and he’s glad he did, as the machine became one of his most popular upsells. “After people found out about it, we had to buy another machine,” he says. “We rent it more throughout the year than we anticipated. Neighborhood parties rent it in the summer, and people take it to the lake for their anniversary parties.”
Cordless propane tiki torches are the unexpected success story for another rental company. “I didn’t think they’d perform well, but people use them a lot at the many beach homes we rent to,” says Patrick Andress, event specialist for Redi-Rental of Muskegon, Mich. “They don’t want cords by the water, and the propane lighting provides that.”
Plymouth, Minn.-based Ultimate Events is capitalizing on the rustic aesthetic by developing its own wooden plank furniture. “Wooden plank furniture is a fairly recent trend that has been very popular,” says Tim Smith, the company’s senior sales representative. “We have developed our own version of the wood plank tables that have multiple styles of leg that fit in them so people can use them for cocktail tables or at sit-down height.”
A backyard party often means tenting around—and sometimes incorporating—all sorts of obstructions. Extending decks, abutting garages and dodging landscaping are just some of the obstacles tent installers face.
“We get clients who want us to cover walls, pools, decks, trees and shrubs,” says Benjamin Moy, vice president of business operations, Atent for Rent Inc., Dedham, Mass.
Van Gorp finds that many of his customers want to extend their driveway by putting the tent up against their garage. “We usually have to use some concrete weights to secure the tent down,” he says.
Some backyard parties stand out for their memorable and complex requests.
“We just had a customer who wanted us to put a tent up on blocks,” says Thorne of Sandy’s U-Rent. “I immediately called the tent manufacturer, sent pictures, and they were amazing. They provided us with all the information we needed to do that job properly, safely and within their standards. We were able to provide them with the information they needed, and they gave us updated anchoring specs to keep it safe. We generally look to the manufacturer for help when we have a unique installation request.”
Moy tells of a client who wanted to floor over an entire pool without draining it. “They wanted the flooring to be level with the pool deck, so we had to have one of our employees, who is a certified scuba diver, go underwater beneath the flooring system and adjust the jacks,” he says. “Another employee on the flooring would knock a certain way to have them move the jacks up or down until it was level.”
Andress recalls a hard-to-access beach property that posed a unique challenge. “We actually built a 48-by-88-foot floor on a client’s beach with plywood and laminate flooring to put the tent on top of,” he says. “We carried everything down to the beach by hand. The family had hand-leveled the sand in the yard, and then we went out there and figured it out. It was connected right to their deck at home and it looked awesome.”
Backyard events may seem like simple parties at first glance, but clients often need more rental items than they assume to throw a successful soirée. Offering clients what they need and getting them to agree is both an art and a science.
“Our whole philosophy is that we’re here to help them with whatever event they are putting together,” Thorne says. “We just ask a lot of questions to find out what they need. If we’re doing a tabled event, we ask if they need linens, glassware, etc. We make them think about everything they might need. We don’t want to talk them into something they don’t want, but we also want them to be aware of all of our options.”
Van Gorp also employs the Socratic approach when trying to glean information from clients. “For some people, it’s their first graduation, and they haven’t thought through it that much. We always upsell by asking questions.”
He notes that a popular upsell item is an elastic-banded disposable table cover. “The elastic prevents it from blowing off in the wind,” he says.
“Most customers don’t know about it, and they go to a paper warehouse and buy a roll of vinyl. When they see these things, they usually end up buying them from us.”
To selectively upsell to his clients, Andress spends time on-site and with the client. “I go to their house for every single tent that gets set up,” he says. “I look at things and talk to them, and some things I push them on to get, and some things I say it’s not a good idea. I like helping them, and I’d rather have them get something they really need and that improves their event.”
Smith of Ultimate Events takes a practical approach. “I think that it is important to start out with the nuts and bolts or the fixed items that they know they are going to need,” he says, “and we always like to make sure they are covering all the bases. We reference [our] website and ask them to look and see if there’s anything else we can help out with. We also remind them that where the caterer takes over is where we stop. We can help with the linens and refrigeration and catering equipment if they need it.”
Helping clients transform their backyards into unique event spaces requires experience and knowledge—or at least a good hunch—about what inventory has the potential to be a hit in a specific market. Offering a variety of reliable standards while taking a few risks on less common inventory items is a strategy that could have you partying all the way to the bank.
Jake Kulju is a freelance writer based in Shafer, Minn.
The size of a residential lot will often determine the style of tent that can be installed for a backyard party, says Tim Smith, senior sales representative with Ultimate Events, Plymouth, Minn. A wide open, two-acre yard will have many more options than a small yard with obstacles. Smith uses technology when consulting with clients to quickly get a sense of possibilities and limitations. “The instant information you can get by being on the phone with the client and having them snap some pictures so you can literally see the same thing [helps us get] so much information so quickly,” he says.