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Small tents make a big impact

Feature, Industry News, Markets, Tents | May 1, 2013 | By:

Scaling down on size can offer more options—and better economy—to customers in the tent market.

Small frame tents and canopies that have dominated the tent rental business for years are getting a makeover. Innovative designs that improve on style and setup, yet offer stability and durability, are replacing traditional pole frame tents, providing a greater return on investment for rental companies and opening new end user markets. Tent manufacturers are also capitalizing on the demand for customized graphics that help end users differentiate and promote their brand. These trends could contribute to a prosperous future for this industry segment.

Value and convenience

Wen’s Phoenix USA in Corona, Calif., saw opportunity in the market for small tents that has yet to mature, says owner Robert Lin. The event furniture company decided to get into tent production a few years ago, primarily to meet the needs of the event rental industry, but also to serve areas in the end user category.

Lin says rental customers are seeking the most long-term value for their tent and fast, easy setup. They are also demanding more secure structures that have a cleaner, more elegant look. Wen’s Phoenix produces a line of cable frame tension tents that are popular for their high peak style and ease of assembly that cuts construction time in half.

“If they set up 1,000 tents a year—and the setup time is now 10 minutes instead of 20—you save 500 tents of construction time a year. When you [multiply] that by the minimum wage that you have to pay a person, that’s a lot of money,” says Lin.

Tent manufacturers are also integrating keder systems typical of large tents into smaller tents to meet the demand in the rental industry. The ability to set up a more secure structure with a cleaner, more elegant look is also attracting end users, adds Lin. He believes the hospitality industry is one area that has room to grow. Hotels and resorts will set up a tent by the pool or near areas that are used for weddings and events, but they also want something that is easy to move around the grounds for various uses.

Olympic Tent in Tacoma, Wash., was the first to market with a slide track system that boosts structural stability and makes assembly easier with fewer parts. Its Maxi Litetrack™ provides the same cost-effective installation benefits of the slide-in fabric tops for smaller 10-foot to 30-foot wide tents, without adding weight. Olympic also designs its small tents with gable ends so they can be installed as an extension to a larger tent or a building.

“It’s a much more aesthetically appealing approach to solving the connection between two tents,” says Scott Sutherland, president.

The popularity of the high peak style tent has been driven by rental companies and has caught the imagination of party and event planners, he says. They require fewer parts, meaning less inventory, and they are faster to set up with a center pole that rests on cross cables that hook from corner to corner. Rental companies like them because they offer a good return on investment.

Renters have also told Sutherland that they like the slide-in frame tent product because it’s much stronger than pole tents and high peak tents. “I didn’t get those comments 15 years ago. Now there’s a growing trend and concern for liability. I don’t even make a pole tent anymore,” says Sutherland. “Every time a tent blows down it gets our attention, whether you’re a manufacturer or a rental guy. If someone is injured, that really gets our attention. Even though small tents aren’t regulated, a stronger tent with some wind resistance is important. The guys with the bigger tents have a keener business sense for liability so they tend to be even more careful about the smaller tents.”

Olympic Tent stocks standard sizes of its product in its inventory. After Hurricane Katrina, it sold a huge number of small tents that were set up inside larger tents to offer people more privacy. It also works with large corporations like Boeing and Starbucks to provide custom tents and special projects.

Innovative designs

Damien Vieille, CEO of Vitabri Canopies in Huntington Beach, Calif., predicts the traditional pipe and fitting tent is going to go away completely, especially the smaller sizes. Vieille says this has already happened in Europe. They usually require two people for setup and a big truck for all the pipes and fittings, which isn’t practical in today’s economy.

The company invests in research and development to create pop-up tents that are compact, light, aesthetic and innovative in ease of use. “We came up with a brand new design that is stronger, but still uses the pop-up system. You can put 15 tents in a pickup truck and they set up in 30 seconds compared to 20 minutes,” he says.

The V3 High-Peak pop-up tent was introduced to meet demand for a high-peak tent in its best-selling V3 line. It is comparable to any traditional frame tent, but designed with Vitabri’s “30-second deployment” system, says Vieille. The one-piece system sets up without ever having to remove the top from the frame, which avoids contact with the ground and keeps the top cleaner. The most popular size, 10-by-10 feet, collapses down to occupy less than five square feet for compact storage, and is cost effective.

“Rental companies are always talking about return on investment. The V3 is $600 and is paid for after six rentals,” says Vieille. “This tent allows users the freedom to do all jobs with one type of tent, offering less stress for rental companies. Our customers save time and money in setting up their usual frame tents and they feel more secure for jobs that would usually require a pop-up tent.”

Vitabri is also making inroads with two best-selling European sizes—13-by-13 foot and 17-by-17 foot—offered in its new V2 line of gas spring-loaded frame tents that also set up in 30 seconds.

“It’s a great market with a lot of competition,” he says. “We have to deal every day with people who are ‘lost’ in the choice they have to make. You can buy a tent for $600 and keep it for three years with intensive usage or buy a $200 tent and throw it away after three events. A lot of our competition made the choice over the years to go cheaper and cheaper while neglecting the quality and security of their tents. We made the decision to go better, keeping in mind the best return on investment for our customers.”

German-based Skywalk is focused on the end user promotional and corporate market with its line of X-GLOO inflatable, lightweight tents that are strong and easily transported in a bag. The X-GLOO can be set up by one person in a few minutes and inflated with a manual or electric pump. Made of ripstop nylon that is waterproof, UV resistant and tear resistant, it can be expanded with a canopy and accessorized with sidewalls and banners that can be customized for various events.

The most popular X-Pert model allows customers to personalize the roof, tubes, walls and canopies with company logos and pictures, says Pamela Pichler, USA sales.

It is more expensive than a pop-up tent, but offers more branding options and a visually attractive design, which serve the promotional needs of the customer.

“We are experiencing demand from those clients who want a premium product, which offers unlimited branding options and that stands out from the crowd. We have an extremely wide variety of existing clients, from the auto industry to major sports teams, Fortune 500 companies and even small businesses that want to increase their exposure,” says Pichler.

Graphics help growth

Customized tents with logos are very popular right now, mostly among end users, notes Jenny Cole, manager at Rosholt, Wis.-based Charnecke Tents Inc. “I believe this area is growing because the more people can advertise, the better. For instance, I just sold 15 to a greenhouse that sells plants under them. Two weeks ago, we sold to a school that wanted the name of the school printed around the valance. A lot of schools use them for track events for kids to sit under.”

The printed graphics market is growing thanks to new printing technology, says Sutherland of Olympic Tent. The company will print tents with a logo or picture for a produce wholesaler or work with a marketing company that wants 20 tents with a specific logo for its traveling events and festivals. “That’s a common thing, but it didn’t exist 10 years ago,” says Sutherland, “and that’s more to do with the printing capability today.”

Joe Chunapongse, vice president of Central Tent in Santa Clara, Calif., says 80 percent of its business before 2005 was to the rental industry. “Now because of the economy, we are branching out to the promotional and end user markets that buy graphics. Today we sell 60-65 percent to the rental industry and 20 percent to promotional and different markets.”

People want to be differentiated in the marketplace, which only graphics can offer beyond the tent style and size. The company works with corporations, such as Nissan, as an approved vendor. Lead times are shrinking, however. “They want it yesterday. They don’t want to wait like before, so we have to adapt to that,” says Chunapongse.

Vitabri’s custom graphic department is the fastest growing department in the company, offering customized, high-resolution dye-sublimated or screen-printed tents. Sports and trade show industries are some of their biggest markets, says Vieille. “The good thing about the small tent industry, when you think about it, pretty much any company in the U.S. who wants to promote its name at an event needs a tent.”

Barb Ernster is a freelance writer based in Fridley, Minn.

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