During the COVID-19 pandemic, the tent industry finds new ways to survive.
by Jeff Moravec
There are all manner of seasonal ebbs and flows in the tent rental industry, but perhaps none as anticipated as the annual ramp-up to spring, summer and fall events. Staff is hired, inventory is refreshed and contracts are checked. Each year is a new beginning.
That is until the spring of 2020, when the spreading COVID-19 pandemic began affecting the rental industry in ways that few could ever have anticipated.
For example, in New Jersey, on March 16, the governor ordered all bars and restaurants closed and instituted a mandatory curfew.
“During the week of March 23, we received about a million dollars’ worth of cancellations on upcoming events,” says Brian Richardson, CEO of L&A Tent Rentals in Hamilton, N.J., a company he started in 1987. “Most of the educational and corporate clients in the area were shut down by executive orders, and that essentially shut us down.”
“Every event was canceled, from big graduations to reunions,” adds Michael Lubas, co-owner of Vermont Tent Co. in Essex Junction, Vt. What has made it particularly difficult in Vermont, according to Lubas, was the governor’s order that anyone entering the state must quarantine for two weeks, which has remained in effect even as other restrictions have eased.
“There went the tourism and hospitality industries,” says Lubas.
A deep breath
Plenty of similar scenarios played out through the country, but after a deep breath, most business owners and managers sat down to determine what they might be able to do to survive.
“At first, there weren’t really any options,” says Lubas.
The lack of available options made for tough times at companies trying to make payroll, even those that had been able to access various forms of government assistance, including the Paycheck Protection Program. “I got our team together and assured them that we would be able to weather the storm financially until at least August,” explains Richardson. “But after that, it was going to be anyone’s guess.”
But some breaks, big and small, began to appear.
“About seven members of our team were hired to assist another company on a project,” says Richardson. “That helped us slow down our cash burn, as it removed them from our payroll for three weeks.”
Then in early April, a large online retailer looking to set up employee hiring venues reached out to the company. “The retailer needed to take applications and interview hundreds of applicants, but it didn’t want to bring people into facilities, possibly exposing staff to COVID-19,” he says. “We installed heated tents and restroom trailers for three months in offsite satellite parking lots.”
New needs materialize
Other new needs for tents that materialized included coronavirus testing sites for hospitals and municipalities, and then outdoor seating for restaurants in areas that were beginning to reopen.
“We went from having no work to having more work than our current staffing levels could handle,” says Richardson. “During peak season we typically have 30-35 installers, some who come from Puerto Rico. When business dried up, we advised them not to come, so we ended up operating with only a third as many people as usual.” The company ended up setting up more than 20 testing sites and 30 restaurants.
Other tent rental companies found work from other sources.
At the beginning of the pandemic, New York Tent, based in Bohemia, N.Y., made the decision to ride out the downturn without laying off any of its 50 employees “because it’s taken us a long time to get to a really good place with our team,” says CEO David Tannenbaum.
New York was hit hard and early by the pandemic. “It got serious here real quick,” Tannenbaum says. “There were periods when there was a little work, and some seasonal staff were furloughed, but we really started brainstorming and it’s been keeping us going. We have a lot of relationships that help. We just doubled down.”
The company landed work with hospitals and the Army Corps of Engineers, but decided to let restaurant work go to others. “A lot of what we do the restaurants couldn’t afford, and I didn’t want to cheapen our product by giving it away,” says Tannenbaum. “So we let that go to some of the smaller companies while we focused on large national clients.”
Business is booming, but …
Everything Entertainment, an event production company providing services to both corporate and private clientele from its headquarters in Staten Island, N.Y., has been providing tenting for restaurants, but it’s not like the corporate clients that have been the company’s main clientele in the past.
“The restaurants are only taking tents. Nobody is taking walls, flooring or anything else,” says Scott Weisberg, the company’s president and co-owner. “So business is booming, but it hasn’t been profitable.”
Deryck Dietz, CEO of Traube Tents and Structures, St. Louis, Mo., believes his company’s diversity—with extensive work in government and in the commercial/industrial sector—has helped it “tread water” during the pandemic.
In April, the company began marketing to support hospital settings such as drive-through COVID-19 testing and triage facilities. Traube also built canopy enclosures for the St. Louis city morgue to increase capacity in preparation for a possible increase in COVID-19-related deaths. “It was up for a month and a half and was not needed, which was fortunate, but that really hit home on what this is all about,” says Dietz.
In August, Lubas says his company received an unexpected rush of business when schools, colleges and universities began planning for fall terms with outside facilities.
“At one point, we had 137 tents up in 90 different locations,” says Lubas. He does note, though, that because most of the tenting is done without the usual event accoutrements, his revenue is still down 75 to 80 percent for the year.
Tannenbaum, whose New York Tent does numerous music events and other large public events, says companies such as his are anxious to get back to “normal.” But beyond the spread of COVID-19 slowing, there are other things that have to happen before events begin to resemble any sort of norm.
“Insurance is going to be the big issue,” says Tannenbaum. “Even if event producers could just break even on events, they would likely do it to keep market position and offer something for people who want to get out of the house,” he explains. “But that won’t happen if there’s no legislation stopping someone who attends a music festival from suing the organizer if they get sick.”
“It’s not just what the government says you can and can’t do,” he adds. “These events are businesses, and the dollars and cents need to add up before anything is going to happen.”
“Liability exists and businesses can’t afford those risks,” adds Dietz. “Whether it’s professional sporting events or corporate events, some form of liability protection is going to be needed for these businesses to support large-scale events.”
“I feel for those in the special event world that don’t own the assets that tent companies do,” New York Tent’s Tannenbaum concludes. “At least we’ve had a resurgence with the restaurants and hospitals and schools. But it’s been crazy. A real whirlwind.”
Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer from Minneapolis, Minn.
SIDEBAR: Cold weather blues
Many tent rental companies spent autumn trying to figure out what will happen once winter hits and the tents they’ve erected for restaurants and other businesses suddenly need heat.
“We’re fielding six to eight calls a day for heating tents, mostly from New York City restaurants,” says Scott Weisberg, co-owner and president of Staten Island, N.Y.-based Everything Entertainment. “Basically, there’s no good method for heating.”
“We’re already seeing some restaurants installing umbrella-type patio heaters under tents, which is extremely dangerous,” says Brian Richardson, president of L&A Tent & Event Rentals, Hamilton, N.J. “And it’s against code because it puts an open flame directly under the tent.”
“The only way to properly heat a tent is by closing it in,” says Weisberg. “And the only way to keep these places ‘COVID-free,’ supposedly, is to open them up. So what do you do?”
Propane heating is prohibited in New York City, he explains, and “using electricity is impossible because of the amount of power that’s required. You can’t use kerosene either for tents that are heated for ‘comfort.’”
“Heating tents in cold weather areas for four to five months is next to impossible,” adds Michael Lubas, co-owner of Vermont Tent Co. in Essex Junction, Vt. “I can put a floor in a tent and babysit it if it snows for maybe three days, but that’s about it.”
“It’s going to be a long winter,” says Lubas. “Not just for me, but for everybody in the industry.”
It doesn’t help that Lubas’ company moved into a new facility last year, doubling its space. “Great move, but bad timing,” he says.