Few aspects of the global economy are untouched by the COVID-19 pandemic, but for the tent and event rental industry, the crisis has been especially devastating.
North American tent rental companies gearing up for a robust spring season spent the months of March and April scrambling to adjust as all types of tented events were canceled or postponed. Face masks joined hard hats and safety vests as required PPE on tent installation sites as companies pivoted from weddings and festivals to temporary hospitals and drive-through testing shelters.
“I’ve been in the tent and special event industry for 25 to 30 years, my whole career. This is the absolute worst thing I’ve ever seen,” says Carol Cundey, CERP, marketing and customer services manager for tent manufacturer Eureka! of Binghamton, N.Y. “To see so many of my customers but also my friends and my colleagues hurting bad—it’s just heartbreaking. But we all work together. We are a strong and resilient industry.”
For several years prior to the pandemic, the industry faced a labor shortage, and many companies had kept employees on their workforce rosters over the winter so that they would be available when the 2020 season got underway. But as cancellations mounted, one of the biggest struggles rental businesses faced was the decision to lay off employees. In a video conference for company owners hosted by tent washing machine manufacturer Teeco Solutions in mid-March, one owner related the pain of telling employees that they were out of a job, while others said they were putting off that step, even though it was costing them money.
“To me, that’s where the rubber meets the road,” says Teeco’s Steve Arendt, CEO and founder of the Kirkwood, Mo.-based company. “That was a heartfelt moment.”
‘Survival is success’
Since the start of the crisis, the American Rental Association (ARA) has been surveying members on a weekly basis to monitor the impact of COVID-19 on the industry. For the survey conducted in the last week in April, nearly 55 percent of party and event rental companies surveyed reported that, given the circumstances at that time, they would be able to stay in business for three months or less.
Rental business consultant Gary Stansberry of the Stansberry Firm LLC, Fair Oaks Ranch, Texas, said in video conference that in 2020, “survival is success” for tent rental companies. That conference, hosted by Pennsylvania-based tent installation tool supplier Tent OX, is just one example of the ways the industry has come together. Rental companies have shared photos of hospital installations and CAD diagrams of drive-throughs to help other companies advertise their capabilities. New industry Facebook groups popped up. Ten U.S. tent and structure manufacturers banded together to connect customers with official emergency channels.
For tent rental companies that have installed tents for medical testing purposes, an issue when the crisis is over will be how to properly clean the vinyl, frames and other components. The Tent Rental Division of IFAI worked with industry experts and vinyl manufacturers to issue a “best practices” statement for safely cleaning these tents.
Where do we go from here?
With some tent rental companies closing at least temporarily, the balance of supply and demand when the crisis is over will pose another challenge, says Michael Tharpe, national sales manager for Rainier Tent, Tukwila, Wash., and IFAI Tent Rental Division steering committee chairman. Companies are looking closely at economic relief options and their workforce.
“I think that the tent rental people are going to look at their employees, how much they contribute to them, how valuable they are to the company, and they are going to make wise use of the money they have available before they make investments in anything,” he says.
In late April, as states and localities were contemplating how to restart the economy while continuing to social distance, Eureka! created a guide for rental companies to promote their services during
the “bridge period.” “A Practical Guide to Tents and Shelters” offers suggestions for how restaurants, grocery stores, realtors and other businesses can use tent and rental items to help them reopen.
“It’s not going to help anybody get back to 100 percent; we know that,” Cundey says. “But our industry is a hard-working industry. Having tent people sitting at home doing nothing is horrible. This can help them get out and go sell themselves in their local community.”
Tharpe expects that lessons from this moment will change the way tent renters and manufacturers do business. The best-case scenario for the industry will be that, when the crisis is over, the general public will want to come together in groups more than ever.
“People will realize we’ve been through something that we have never seen before,” he says. “How do we celebrate to this? Should we gather together and just mix with one another, renew friendships, renew contacts, making this a positive achievement? We came through this! Let’s celebrate! Let’s do things differently so that we don’t have to go through this again.”