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Event decor: pandemic style

October 1st, 2020 / By: / Feature

As celebrations and gatherings are forced to take a back seat during COVID-19, event rental companies find revenue through new opportunities. 

by Jeff Moravec

By mid-summer in most years, the tented event industry has a pretty good grasp on what design trends have taken hold for event furniture—some anticipated, some out of the blue. 

But this isn’t most years.

“There’s nothing to trend,” sighs Peter Grazzini, managing member of the Washington, D.C.-based event company Perfect Settings. “The trend is that no one is having parties.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, has devastated the event industry. Thousands of events scheduled through the spring and summer months were canceled or postponed, usually indefinitely. Restrictions on gatherings, which were a moving target and varied widely not only from state to state but from city to city as well, prevented even casual functions for months. While summer saw loosening restrictions, the unpredictable nature of the pandemic meant that progress was often one step forward and two steps back.

Christian Party Rental in Nashua, N.H., specializes in commencement ceremonies, so there wasn’t much business last spring. By late summer though, business was beginning to pick up. Photo courtesy of Christian Party Rental.

The impact on business? Grazzini is candid. “I’m sucking wind right now,” he admits. “In May of 2019, we did $2.2 million in revenue. This year in May, we did $21,000.”

“The impact has been unbelievable,” adds Stephen “Sal” Salvatori, account executive with Event Equipment Sales in Hodgkins, Ill. “The hospitality industry has definitely taken a beating. I call it ‘the new abnormal.’”

“In my opinion, COVID has hit our industry harder than any other,” adds Meghan Garrison, branch manager of Dover Tents & Events, a division of Collective Event Group, in Dover, Del. 

“It happened quickly and without much time to plan or strategize. I’m in my 17th year in the rental industry—we plan and prepare for so much, but never did I think we would be navigating through a global pandemic.”

When business began to improve, Christian Party Rental had events to stage. However, COVID-19 shutdowns in May and June cost the company $1.2 million. Photo courtesy of Christian Party Rental.

PPP: a lifeline

While traditional events were shut down, the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) provided a lifeline to many event companies, allowing them to keep employees on as they figured out how to meet new opportunities brought about by the pandemic.

“Once we realized the severity of things and how we assumed our year would play out, we quickly began re-marketing, mainly via social media, geared towards tenting for COVID testing sites, restaurant tents, storage tenting for distribution centers and medical facilities, patient and employee intake tents—essentially anything COVID-related,” says Garrison. 

That kind of tenting “is the only thing that’s saving my company,” adds Anthony Karabetyan, owner of Chic Event Rentals in Monterey, Calif. “Our bread and butter has been 200-person weddings, renting high-end chairs, linens, tables, etc.—but none of that is going out,” he says. (Chic is down to 14 employees from 40; it would normally have four people in its laundry department, for example. But as of mid-summer the company only needed a single worker, and only one day per week at that.)

Despite the opportunity for increased tenting, with rental companies sitting on so much unused inventory, it’s a buyer’s market. “With all the competition, clients are getting a tent for a month at the price they’d normally pay for a weekend,” he says. “It’s a third of the price you want it to go out at, but it’s better than nothing and it’s enough to survive.”

In addition, by the end of summer most event companies were starting to see some events coming back, although generally smaller than what might have occurred previously, if for no other reason than social distancing protocols.

Chic Event Rentals in Monterey, Calif., specializes in large weddings—but not this year. During the pandemic, the company has turned to other opportunities, such as setting up showers and restrooms for a homeless shelter in Santa Cruz. Photo courtesy of Chic Event Rentals.

Small stuff—but something

“It’s small stuff, mostly backyard parties, but it’s something,” says Grazzini. “It’s tough though, because officials are asking us not to gather as groups—and this industry is all about people gathering.”

Christian Party Rental in Nashua, N.H., needs a lot of people gathering to keep up its business—it has 30,000 chairs in its inventory, says Michael Gould, the company’s CEO. Its core business is commencements for colleges, high schools and prep schools, events that were nonexistent this spring. “It’s been a really strange time,” says Gould, who estimated his company lost $1.2 million in business in May and June.

Christian has survived by renting tents for medical purposes, and by late summer it was starting to see renewed business from educational institutions, who, needing to meet social distancing rules, were planning to use tents for outdoor dining and classroom spaces.

At Dover, Garrison and her team were also looking at ways to add value to their services, she says.

“Officials are asking us not to gather as groups, and this industry is all about people gathering,” says Peter Grazzini, managing member of the Washington, D.C.-based event company Perfect Settings. The company is finding new ways to stage events with social distancing. Photo courtesy of Perfect Settings.

For example, she says, her sales team has come up with social distancing wedding floor plan samples for a variety of different guest counts, to share with clients. “We have devised different square footage calculations in order to quickly figure out tent needs based on social distancing seating arrangements,” Garrison says. The company has done the same for other types of customers as well. “We have helped a number of restaurants do the same, not just for their rented tents for outdoor seating, but also for their interior dining room areas. The same is true with a number of school commencements.”

Even though business is slow, with fewer employees, it doesn’t always seem slow, says Garrison. 

“Our operations team is typically more than triple the size it is now, so we are ‘feeling’ as if we are very busy in that regard,” she says. “But we’re paying close attention to revenue versus labor in order to stay where we know we need to be right now. Also, we’re fortunate that the staff seems personally invested in the ‘health’ of the company and they are working as efficiently as possible to help us stay that way.”

It’s been a tough year to be sure, but sometimes a little perspective goes a long way. “Things are okay, I guess,” says Salvatori. “I’m staying safe and staying healthy and I’m employed. Those are the priorities in my life these days.” 

Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer from Minneapolis, Minn.

SIDEBAR: A few trends to be found 

While it’s true that event planners have had a lot more on their mind this year than figuring out the latest trends, industry insiders say it’s still important to keep up with what’s going on. We asked Meghan Garrison, branch manager of Dover Tents & Events, a division of Collective Event Group, in Dover, Del., to share her thoughts on the subject.

What do you see currently trending?

I think many of the trends vary greatly based on location. In my area of the northeast, the farmhouse-style tables are still very popular, paired with our cross-back chairs, bistro chairs or any of our six Chiavari chair options.

I feel many are leaning toward an overall eclectic look ranging from a mix of table shapes and styles, such as mixing farmhouse tables along with rounds for seating with a nice textured linen, down to selecting our mismatched vintage china for place settings. Greenery is still very popular this year in centerpieces as well as used down the length of the farmhouse tables or king tables, doubling as a table runner.

The colors I’ve seen trending are shades of blue, which was also the Pantone color of the year. That always seems to carry through to the year’s hottest wedding/event color. 

When the pandemic hit, Dover Tents & Events, a division of Collective Event Group, in Dover, Del., moved much of its business to tenting for COVID-19 testing sites and patient and employee testing tents. Photo courtesy of Dover Tents & Events.

How does furniture affect an event’s flow? What strategic furniture arrangements are popular?

Furniture placement, arrangement and vignette-style groupings definitely impact the look and feel of an event. When we talk to our clients and determine the overall feel they are going for, it’s so important to make suggestions and show them sample CAD layouts to help reflect that. 

If they are going for a cocktails-style event with guests milling around throughout the event, the tent or room needs to invite that—with furniture such as high tops, some with stools and some without. Groupings of lounge seating throughout. Interactive food stations and multiple bar stations will keep guests exploring and active. We also like to use the bar-height banquet tables with interesting linen or even our reclaimed wine barrel bar tables, with a few bar stools to create spaces for larger groups to stand around and chat, compared to the typical 30-inch round high tops. 

And it goes the same for a seated event. Make sure the flow works with the strategic placement of the check-in area and seating chart. Easy-to-locate table numbers or labels. In the case of a large seated banquet set up, we often suggest taller centerpieces placed throughout the space in combination with lower, to create more depth and texture when looking over a sea of round tables. 

When guests enter the event space, they should immediately feel and understand the concept of what the host intended, and that begins with event furnishings and decor properly fitted and placed for that specific affair. 

SIDEBAR: Safety: an ongoing concern

Even when the pandemic has waned, Peter Grazzini, managing member of the Washington, D.C.-based event company Perfect Settings, is betting that the issue of safety will remain a priority in staging events for some time to come—if not always.

“It’s going to be important to look at ways to make events safer,” says Grazzini. “When parties do come back, people are going to want to see changes. The rental industry has to be thinking about products that help encourage people to come back to events.”

Toward that end, Grazzini says Perfect Settings has been adding sanitation equipment and services to its menu for socially distanced gatherings and celebrations, with equipment available for rent to restaurants, hotels, resident common areas and more. 

That includes touchless hand sanitizer and handwashing stations, providing guests with convenient areas for cleaning up before, during and after meals. Plexiglass® sneeze and cough guards are also available.

But what Grazzini thinks will make the biggest difference is the decontamination wand services he is adding.  “These handheld UVC light devices are chemical-free, designed for decontaminating surfaces such as countertops, seats, bars, buffets and tables.”

Using UVC light that kills viruses and surface microorganisms, the sanitation service can take place before, during and after an event, he explains, with rental equipment sanitized, plastic wrapped and marked as sanitized at the warehouse prior to all events. 

“This is about safety, and thinking outside the box,” says Grazzini. “The pandemic definitely has us thinking about things we would not normally be thinking about.”