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Tenting in urban environments

October 1st, 2019 / By: / Feature

Event tent installations in big cities are spectacular—and complex. 

by Paul Johnson

Frank Sinatra sang about New York City, “If I can make it there, I’m gonna make it anywhere.” Tent installers who have worked in the Big Apple might sing, “If I can tent there, I can tent anywhere.”

Installing commercial tents on pavement in an urban environment is demanding and complex, yet lucrative and rewarding when done right. Tent rental companies that work in urban locations erect tents on streets, alleys, parking lots, roofs and access ways for a variety of public and private events, creating an event oasis amid an urban jungle. Behind the scenes, these companies tackle complex challenges, including time management, permitting and vendor coordination, while mobilizing a small army of skilled professionals to prepare, load, deliver and install equipment onsite. 

Stamford Tent & Event Services installed this 16-by-102-foot Navi-Trac® pavilion on the 17th floor of a building on the west side of New York. Photo courtesy of Stamford Tent & Event Services.

Planning and permitting

Communication is the foundation of any successful event. For a tented event in a city environment, a leadership team and project manager will develop a thorough installation plan and a meticulous delivery schedule. Experienced event professionals recommend a pre-event meeting with leadership, staff, the client and the event coordinator. 

“The expectations need to be understood and shared,” says Ed Knight, founder and owner of EventQuip, a tent and event rental company based in Montgomeryville, Pa. EventQuip installs tents in Philadelphia and other cities in the eastern U.S. “It’s all about a lot communication in the very early stages. We discuss timelines to get the job done and a cushion for things like bad weather.”  

Once the client and tent company define the event plan, the project or general manager may coordinate and conduct initial site planning and inspection with the fire department and building inspector. Any special requirements or potential problems should be discussed and resolved. Every city and municipality has its own set of event requirements and codes, and events in an urban environment may end up involving an array of city departments.  

EventQuip installed a 20-by-80-meter clear-top Losberger P3 uniflex, along with accessory and event support tents by Aztec Tents, at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, Pa. Photo courtesy of EventQuip.

“First of all, you need to make sure that either the client or I have obtained all the legitimate permits—the use permit, permit from the city, permit from the park and recs department,” says Big 4 Party Rentals owner Rob Roberts. Based in Novato, Calif., Big 4 Party Rentals serves the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. “If any street closures are involved, you need to get the police department on board. And then you have to get a meeting about road closures. Then public works has to come out to figure out road closures.”

Getting to the site

For an urban tent project, companies often move tents, heavy equipment and ballast into confined spaces without loading docks and within strict timeframes. In addition, heavy vehicle traffic, pedestrian activity and limited parking increase risk and liability. Project management, logistics, dispatch and on-site management perform like a finely choreographed ballet. Trucks often need to deliver equipment in stages and in the correct order. Each step in the process must be executed before the next step can start.

One of the biggest challenges to tenting in a city center is the limited time frame municipalities allow for an event. “They may say, ‘You can have this parking lot for 24 hours,’ but that doesn’t allow us to install and remove within that time frame,” says Stamford Tent & Event Services president Stephen Frost. Based in Stamford, Conn., Stamford Tent & Event Services installs tents in Connecticut, Long Island, New York, New Jersey and throughout the northeastern U.S. “So we’ve got to go back and get another day or two.”

This installation by Starr Tent at a public school playground in New York City required working around playground equipment and acquiring curb lane permits for load in and load out. An architect obtained and certified a Temporary Place of Assembly Permit for the layout of the tent, and professional permit expeditors were used for the filing, which is required by NYC Department of Buildings. Photo courtesy of Starr Tent.

Traffic, road closures and delivery routes in major metropolitan areas must be investigated ahead of time. When the trucks are unloading tents and equipment, a drop zone director or vehicle spotter helps to ensure that the process is orderly and safe. 

Many tent rental companies have the trucks and capacity to deliver all tents, equipment and ballast, but the time frame and demands of a large event may require 250,000 pounds of ballast or more. When the size and scale of an event exceeds ballast shipping capacity, a tent rental company may subcontract some of the transportation. “I think to myself that we’re a freight company that happens to rent tents,” Knight says. “We ballast according to the manufacturer requirements, so there is a lot of trucking and heavy machinery involved.” 

Installation site safety is essential, especially where high levels of pedestrian traffic is present. Setting up a perimeter fence to keep pedestrians and others out of the work zone is a typical step. But in some cities, citizens seem to be determined to not comply with the restrictions. “You need to keep the perimeter of the jobsite closed,” says Christopher B. Starr, vice president of sales for Starr Tent, a tent rental provider that works in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Westchester County and Long Island. “Some people will move barricades and walk through a jobsite just because it’s easier for them and literally risk bodily harm.”

Rooftop installations can have a higher wind load requirement than ground-level sites. This installation by Stamford Tent & Event Services, perched on the 17th floor of a New York City building, offers stunning views of Manhatten. Photo courtesy of Stamford Tent & Event Services.

Anchoring the tent

Tent installers usually prefer to stake tents for anchorage because this method follows manufacturer instructions, it’s easier and less expensive than other methods, and it’s a strong and reliable means of properly securing tents. However, the property owner must grant permission to penetrate the ground, which, in the case of pavement, can be plugged or patched after the event. 

When a property owner won’t allow staking, the tent provider is left with the option of concrete ballast, which is difficult to transport and handle. While water barrels are typically less expensive to transport and set up for a tent installation than concrete ballast, many companies no longer use them because they have a high center of gravity, can easily slide on pavement, and don’t provide enough weight to safely ballast a tent.

“A lot of times we’re not allowed to stake, and that’s what the manufacturer recommends,” says Brady Castro, principal at PRO EM National Event Services, which has locations in Phoenix, Tuscan, Chicago and Los Angeles. “There are instances when you ballast [tents], and we use concrete blocks. The other challenge is actually getting to the site because it’s close quarters. We have to maintain fire lanes around the tents. That becomes a challenge with clients who want a certain size of tent (in certain spaces), but we can’t maintain fire lanes.”

This custom 15-by-45-foot “lean-to” tent by Aztec Tents protects guests for six months of the year at ATWater Tavern on Pier 50 in San Francisco. The installation by Big 4 Party Rentals required approval from the San Francisco Building Dept., the Port of San Francisco and the Bay Area Conservation Development Commision, with loading for the building engineered as well as the tent. Photo courtesy of Big 4 Party Rentals Inc.

Many factors influence the amount of ballast weight needed. Tent size, ballast configuration, wind load as well as texture and moisture level of the pavement all influence the ballasting weight requirement. The Ballasting Tool, available to IFAI Tent Rental Division (TRD) members at tent.ifai.com/resources/ballasting-tool, is an online algorithm developed by TRD and the Clemson University Department of Engineering that takes the guesswork out of properly ballasting a tent under a variety of conditions.   

Often a rubber mat or wood shims are installed under the metal base plates for concrete ballasting. “We put down a rubber mat underneath the weight plates to create that friction and also protect the surface, or we’re putting down ¾-inch wood shim with AstroTurf®,” Starr says. “Because it’s not the uplift that you’re always trying to protect against but from a strong side wind gust.”

Concrete ballast is heavy and therefore expensive to transport, and the cost is generally passed on to the client. Many companies use 1,500- to 5,000-pound ballast blocks to weight large tents. 

“We’ve implemented round [blocks] for smaller tents,” says Dan Farrell, general manager with Marquee Event Rentals, which has locations in Kansas City, Chicago and several Texas cities. “Here in Kansas City, we use a lot of road barriers. I have them starting at 1,800 pounds and they go up to 4,000 pounds and then 10-foot K-rails in the 5,000-pound range. At our more exclusive venues, I will attempt to permanently store them in a parking lot.” This saves the client a substantial amount of money over the cost of having to ship ballast to a site. 

Tents and structures often need to be installed to withstand high wind speed, and the required wind load will factor into the ballast weight. “A lot of the municipalities tell us we’ve got to meet 110-to-115-mph wind load,” Frost says. “Informally, we found that 10 to 15 pounds per square foot on the smaller tents is adequate. However, you could be up to 20 to 25 pounds per square foot on the larger tents.”

A crew of 15 from PRO EM National Event Services installed this tent at the MGM Grand Hotel on the Las Vegas strip in 36 hours and removed it in 24. Photo courtesy of PRO EM National Event Services.

Going up?

Urban areas are often short on space, which leads event planners to look up. Rooftop tenting offers a sense of exclusivity and spectacular views, especially for an evening event. But a rooftop site further increases the complexity of a tent installation. The tent, equipment and ballast all have to be safely and efficiently moved to the roof. In addition, a roof has a higher wind-load requirement than a ground-level site, and it’s unlikely that the building was constructed to accept the weight required to safely ballast a temporary structure.

“There are a lot of people who want to have rooftop events and they probably shouldn’t because most rooftops can’t support the weight of a ballasted tent,” Farrell says. “I will talk with the building engineer and let them know the pounds per square inch that I’m going to put in certain areas, and that it’s not an evenly distributed load. I’m putting concentrated load points on tent legs or structure legs with ballast. That usually turns into a ‘no’ answer from the engineers.” 

When an event has drawn to a close, tent and event rental companies must return to the event site, strike the tent, remove the ballast and retrieve all equipment. Often the crews must pack up, load and leave regardless of the weather and within tight time frames because the sites are located on prime real estate. The goal is to leave the site in the same condition as before the event.  

Tented events in urban locations are often lavish, big-budget affairs, and they are accompanied by a set of complexities above and beyond a typical tent installation. If you successfully overcome the logistics, timeline, permitting and anchoring challenges of these installations, no one would blame you for humming along with Sinatra, “I’m king of the hill, top of the heap.” 

Paul Johnson is a writer based in Minnesota.


Sidebar: Extreme weather and tent safety

Severe weather affects all tented events, and urban tenting is no different. “You can plan all day, but the one factor that’s uncontrollable, especially here in the heart of the Midwest, is the weather,” says Dan Farrell, general manager with Marquee Event Rentals. “Events get difficult when the weather changes beyond what was forecasted. Installers work slower in the rain, cold and heat. If storms happen and you’re on a tight deadline, you have to stop installations. You have to let customers know upfront. . . . The deadline is going to be pushed.”

When violent weather rolls over an event site, tent and rental event personnel need to take appropriate action. “It’s important to stay in touch with the operation and be the eyes for them when extreme weather is approaching,” Farrell says. “You have somebody in dispatch, keeping an eye on the weather and giving them enough notice. You can’t be in the middle of a tent raise.”

This 40-by-60-meter clear-top Losberger P1 maxiflex structure was installed at the top of the famous “Rocky Steps” (from a scene in the movie Rocky) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art by Eventquip. Additional Aztec frame tents included two 40-by-50-foot tents, two 20-by-70-foot tents, three 20-by-30-foot tents, and 9-foot-wide tented walkways. Photo by CinemaCake Filmakers

High heat also has a dramatic impact on labor and installation timelines. “During set up, it’s hard on our workers when they’re carrying 65-pound plywood in 100-degree heat,” says Christopher B. Starr, vice president of sales for Starr Tent. “Scaffolding systems are constructed by hand. And you’re building from one direction and your materials are coming in from the opposite direction. You have to carry the material. It’s a very physically demanding job.”

While many tent rental companies are investing in equipment that makes tent installation less labor intensive, the machines don’t do it all. “These jobs require a lot of physical labor,” Starr says. “The forklifts and the handling machines only get you so far.”