Raising the bar from tent rentals to event services partner

Dan Nolan III expands services to bring clients what they need and want.

“We don’t want to plan your event; we want to support your event,” says Dan Nolan III, managing partner of Tents Unlimited Inc., Marietta, Ga., and chairman of IFAI’s Tent Rental Division. “We offer turnkey services so clients don’t have to deal with multiple vendors—and that appeals to them.”

As a third-generation member of a tent rental company, Nolan expected that he’d work in the business after he graduated from college, although he couldn’t be sure that he’d have a place at the helm. “It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I was going to be running things,” he says. “Any of us who wanted a position in the company had to earn it.”

Recognize opportunity

Nolan’s uncle and father opened Tents Unlimited in 1992 as a precursor to the 1996 Summer Olympics—after being a part of, and in collaboration with, Chattanooga Tent in Chattanooga, Tenn.—the company Nolan’s family founded in 1934. Nolan joined his father at Tents Unlimited in 1994, after graduating with dual degrees in business management and human resource management.

The opportunity opened doors for Nolan, both in terms of working in the newly developed business and in learning the scope of what the business could encompass. “The Olympic experience exposed me to big budgets and what can really happen when you get creative people around a tent structure and what they can do with it,” Nolan says. “I saw what was possible—from the smallest profile things like putting up tents at every welcome station in Georgia to putting a tent on the roof of a building for Nike. I took a lot of what I saw and brought it back to running an everyday business.”

One notable tent installation that expanded the way Nolan thought about the business was a project he worked on during the Olympics in 1996. The installation—a Chattanooga Tent project—was for Nike, on the roof of a building in Atlanta, Ga. “It was like nothing we’d ever worked on before for a couple of reasons,” Nolan says. “For one thing, it was installed on the roof of a several-story-tall building. And the other was that Nike came in and did an excellent job of transforming the tent’s interior. That’s where I started to get a sense of what we could do from a turnkey perspective.”

Implement the plan

Once Nolan started thinking in terms of making Tents Unlimited an event infrastructure rental company, as opposed to solely a tent rental company, he had to pitch the idea to his uncle and father, who at that time were partners in the business. “They were cautious about the idea,” Nolan says. “They had so much experience and business savvy and weren’t sure we could gain enough support in the market to offer all the products that we needed as a turnkey provider. So we started slowly—first regionally and then nationally.”

Selling the idea to the clients was no problem. “We were already on the jobs,” Nolan says. “We basically went to the customers and said: ‘You’ve already got us here and you need someone to manage that part of the event—and why not us? We can provide the caterer a kitchen to cook in, the designer a palette to work in, the guests a place to go to the restroom—and we’ll take care of all the permitting.’”

Knowing how to manage the permitting process is one of the value-added options the clients appreciate. Again, it was the experience Nolan gained from doing installations for the Olympics that gave him a leg up in understanding how to work with code officials. “The city of Atlanta looked at every installation under a microscope—as you would expect it would for a high-profile event like the Olympics,” Nolan says. “We had to have all our documentation in order and hire engineers—things that, at that time, tent companies didn’t typically have to do. We saw where the market and regulations were moving because we had experienced it firsthand—and it put us almost 20 years ahead of the curve.”

There are several things to look for when managing subcontractors, Nolan points out. Do they have insurance? Do they maintain their equipment? Are their clients satisfied with their work? Nolan’s company visits all its subcontractors before hiring them—sometimes unannounced and sometimes scheduled. “Typically how people live in their businesses is how they work,” he says. “When you get a look at how they organize their warehouses and properties, you can get a pretty good sense for the kind of business they run.”

Structure success

In 2006 Nolan began to segment the business, creating separate entities with separate corporate structures based on the products and services—under one parent company. “There are a few reasons we’ve structured the business this way,” Nolan says. “Separating the companies shields us from liability; it also helps us serve the customer better. The mentality of the service staff differs for the different products. Delivering tables, chairs, flatware and glassware is clearly distinct from delivering a clearspan tent with floors, lights and doors. For the first, the crew delivers the product, counts it and gets out. For the other, the crew is on site for days.

“Dividing the companies also helps us understand what our product mix is and how it’s performing,” Nolan continues. “And if there’s an area that’s underperforming, we can more easily cut it out without affecting the entire organization.”

Two years ago Dan bought out his uncle, Andy Nolan, and partnered with Sam Wodetzki—a fourth-generation tent expert from American Pavilion, Danville, Ill.—and Arnie Seyden, who over the last ten years helped build the businesses. As the group strategizes the company’s future, the focus is on broadening the scope of products and services they can offer clients. Nolan attributes their ability to do that to the experience and business savvy of those who have contributed to the business over the years. “When I came into the business there were 55 years of experience preceding me, and seasoned family members around to teach me how to do things the right way,” Nolan says. “That’s an education you can’t pay for.”

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance author and editor based in St. Paul, Minn. She is also the associate editor of InTents magazine, a publication of the Industrial Fabrics Association International.

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