From commencement ceremonies to backyard parties, tent rental companies have opportunities to get in on the celebration
A college graduation may be a once-in-a-lifetime event for matriculating students and their families. But for tent and event rental companies, graduation ceremonies and related events represent valuable annual contracts.
Consider L&A Tent Rentals, located in Hamilton, N.J., just next door to Ivy League Princeton University, among other institutions of higher learning. According to L&A project manager Kyle Richardson, graduations and other campus activities such as sporting events, reunions, convocation ceremonies and open houses comprise about 40 percent of the company’s work.
“The larger universities also use us for their small back-to-school events, department parties and to supply additional storage solutions for different departments on campus,” he says.
The benefits of that level of recurring work from a single client can’t be underestimated. Rental companies that are successful in providing inventory and services to the academic market master the challenges of delivery and setup logistics of not only tents but thousands of chairs. They also manage client expectations and establish loyal relationships in spite of a sometimes-impersonal bidding process. For those companies that don’t have the inventory to take on large jobs at major universities, residential graduation parties still offer plenty of opportunities for profit.
All about the chair
Although some commencements call for tents, most of the universities that Special Events Entertainment & Rentals, Portsmouth, Va., works with have open-air ceremonies. If tents are requested, they’re usually for private receptions on campus or for hospitality or staffing functions, says general manager and owner Michael Fitzwater.
Chairs are a different story. These are the star rental item in any large commencement production, putting the work out of reach for rental businesses lacking an ample chair inventory and the means to deliver them. In 2010, Special Events Entertainment moved to a 76,000-square-foot facility that enabled it to carry the necessary inventory and equipment—about 19,000 chairs and 17 trucks—to start bidding on these jobs.
For example, the College of William and Mary requires the placement of more than 12,000 chairs in various campus locations, Fitzwater says.
“We provide full-service, including the setup,” he says. “It’s always a matter of getting the product and the people onsite. With William and Mary, the setups are staggered over several days as the chairs are used for the individual college ceremonies—for example, the School of Education, College of Business, etc. CAD layouts are essential and we do meet with the client and provide these.”
When thousands of chairs are involved, on delivery days, two or three trucks—the company uses 24-foot box trucks, a large Kaufman fifth-wheel trailer and stake bed trucks—will make multiple trips to the site. Once there, the company uses a Tent OX™ to move the pallets.
With two trucks, two people and the Tent OX, L&A Tent Rentals can manage delivery of 2,000 chairs, Richardson says.
“One individual can drive a pickup and trailer to the site, while the other handles the tractor trailer,” he says. “The Tent OX is used to unload the pallet of chairs (150 per pallet) from the trailer and distribute them wherever the grounds crew would like for easy setup.”
AAYS Event Rentals of Mishawaka, Ind., stocks about 35,000 chairs in its warehouse, either shrink-wrapped on custom-made pallets (180 to a pallet) or, in the case of some stack chairs, on two-wheel carts, according to AAYS president Mike Sharpe.
The company supplies chairs, tents and staging to about 40 high school, college and university graduation commencements per season. AAYS also services academic institutions with rental items for award ceremonies, athletic events, faculty and staff functions, theatrical performances and more. AAYS also subrents inventory to other rental stores during the graduation season.
For jobs calling for vast numbers of chairs, the company starts delivering two weeks prior to the event, with setup a week before, says Sharpe.
“If the job requires a drop only and is local, 4,000 to 5,000 folding chairs can be delivered within four or five hours with two guys and a forklift,” he says. “Setups will take another seven or eight hours with six to eight people. Stack chairs require more time for delivery but the same time for setup.”
Event Central in Mechanicsburg, Pa., along with its sister locations in Avondale, Pa. (General Rental), and Dover, Del. (Dover Tents & Events), provides rental services to 22 colleges and universities, says Event Central manager Andy Mattrick. These include commencement ceremonies, homecoming, alumni weekends, family weekends, Greek events, convocations, sporting events and fundraisers.
For Event Central, chair requirements range from as few as 800 up to 13,000 between the indoor and outdoor ceremony sites, says Mattrick, adding that many of these jobs also include tents, flooring, staging, lighting and other elements. Laying out thousands of chairs within a tight timeframe requires careful preparation, typically creating a grid system using small stakes and string on the site. Sometimes, the school has a grounds crew to do this; often, Event Central’s crew handles this before doing anything else.
“Then, we’ll have a crew member arrive on the site an hour before the entire crew (the chairs have already been delivered) and set up the first row on these grids to show how they will begin,” he says. “The rest of the crew can begin setting up chairs directly behind that first row, using measuring sticks to ensure consistency.”
Some setups happen on Tuesday or Wednesday for a Saturday ceremony. However, more often, these jobs require set up on a Friday for a Saturday commencement, with teardown on Sunday. Setup of 4,000-plus chairs may involve eight to 10 people. A teardown requires about the same number, perhaps one or two fewer, and takes about four to five hours.
Three cheers for loyalty
There are plenty of issues related to working for colleges and universities. Identifying the command chain is one of them, says Richardson.
“It can be difficult to find the right person to sign off on a change order or to be able to tell us when we can and cannot be on site,” he says. “After years of dealing with the same campuses, we’ve learned where to go to get the correct answers, but it still could pose a challenge at times.”
Because of the complexity of these events and how much is riding on them going smoothly, communication is essential. Sharpe says it’s particularly important to be specific with customers about how long setup and breakdown will take. “Don’t let the customer set you up to fail by not providing enough time to get the job done,” he warns.
Production schedules and diagrams are valuable tools that keep everyone informed and the project on track, Mattrick says, especially when working with other vendors on a multiple-day installation.
The bidding system for commencements is somewhat impersonal, and the process can be a little challenging because it takes the relationship aspect out of the equation, Mattrick adds. On the upside, state colleges’ bid systems sometimes award multiyear contracts, allowing time to establish rapport and loyalty. And indeed, he says, their academic clients tend to be the most loyal, something Event Central doesn’t take
“We understand the relationship and know the opportunities, so that typically means we’re flexible with them,” he says. “We’re constantly trying to improve each time we’re on campus, whether it’s a large commencement install or just a linen delivery. Every department on campus has the ability to impact our relationship.”
Developing a long-term relationship with a college or university isn’t much different than with any client, says Fitzwater. It’s a matter of honoring commitments and avoiding the pitfall of overcommitting, he says.
“We make sure we’re honest with our contacts about what is possible and offer solutions to adjust the schedule if needed,” Fitzwater says. “Many of the [rental] companies I followed at the universities I work with disappointed them with the execution. We make certain both sides have a realistic expectation of the setup and breakdown.”
For many new grads, the celebration doesn’t stop when they walk off the stage, degree in hand. The private graduation parties that follow offer more rental opportunities.
Event Central and its sister locations deliver rental products to 250 to 300 residential outdoor grad parties each season, Mattrick says.
“What we’ve noticed over the years is friends who have graduated together are doing joint parties, reserving larger tents to accommodate this,” he says.
Andrea Bach, senior event specialist for Après Event Décor & Tent Rental, a Minnetonka, Minn.-based full-service tent and event rental company that works in five states, has seen this trend of a single party celebrating two or three graduates. This can save individual families money while allowing them to throw a bigger bash. Budgets don’t always constrain a party, however. Some graduation parties rise to almost wedding level, Bach says.
Families throwing basic parties often opt for a lightweight all-purpose canopy, although Bach says in Minnesota, Après can often upsell to a frame tent with sidewalls because of the unpredictable weather. Many of Event Central’s customers request all-purpose canopies offered in four different striped color options that coordinate with the colors for many of the schools in their area, Mattrick says.
Some rental companies market graduation party packages as an easy, one-stop solution for a memorable event. However, Jenny Cole, operations manager for Charnecke Tents Inc., a Rosholt, Wis., tent manufacturer and full-service party rental company, says that because of varying party requests and delivery distances, the company tends to price grad parties per-event rather than offering packages. Charnecke begins marketing efforts for grad parties four or five months ahead of the season via online advertising and social media, although word-of-mouth still plays a big part.
Graduation ceremonies and post-commencement parties represent a milestone for graduates—and repeat business for event rental companies. Break into the academic market, with its year-round opportunities, and congratulations will be in order.
Pamela Mills-Senn is a Long Beach, Calif.-based freelance writer.