When Sarah Crews, director of sales and marketing for Miami, Fla.-based Economy Tent International (ETI), started going to outdoor trade shows 13 years ago, she didn’t see many women attending the events. Tent rental companies headed by women were even scarcer. But over the years that situation has changed, says Crews (formerly Lapping).
“As the years have gone on, I’m so happy to see so many women-owned businesses at the shows,” she says. “Women are participating and getting involved in our industry.”
It’s no stretch to say that the tent rental profession remains dominated by men. But as more women become aware of what the industry has to offer, they’re stepping into new areas and are thriving in the process—even if, like Liz Davis, they were initially somewhat indifferent toward tents.
Davis, vice president of operations at Bethpage, N.Y.-based PTG Event Services, admits she didn’t know much about the business when she started.
“I didn’t view it as an industry at first; it was just a job,” she says. “At 19 years old, I was answering the phone and doing administrative work, which was a traditional role for a woman. But I took pride in being organized. I liked puzzles and challenges and I understood how to use space effectively. The gravitation to the tent rental part of our organization was inevitable.”
Challenge and opportunity
Inevitable perhaps, but not easy. Because she didn’t get started as a tent installer, Davis had to work very hard to become credible, she says.
“I logged long hours at the warehouse, at installations, studying products,” she says. “Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of different tents was essential for me to be successful. But I think if I didn’t feel like I had something to prove, I might not have learned as much as I have over the years.”
Davis describes her organization and market as progressive, and as such, says she hasn’t bumped up against any significant roadblocks within her immediate circle. But outside of the organization, her experience has been a bit more challenging.
“It’s not uncommon for a man to ask to speak with my boss about a technical question, assuming I wouldn’t understand,” she says. “I’ve found some ways to work around that politely . . . although not always as polite as I would like, especially if it’s clearly because I’m a woman.”
Elizabeth Wilson, president of All Occasions Event Rental, Cincinnati, Ohio, says she’s had no issues with vendors or clients. However, permit inspectors can be another story; sometimes they can be a challenge, Wilson says. However, rather than gender, she’s inclined to partially attribute whatever concerns they exhibit to the fact that they’re generally used to working with construction companies rather than tenting and event operations.
“There are more men than women,” Wilson says. “And it can be a bit of a boys’ club, but being a woman in this industry is unique and that has been more of a positive than a negative. There is some novelty being a woman in a male-dominated industry.”
Jennifer Rodriguez, general manager and sales director for Marianne’s Rentals in Oklahoma City, Okla., grew up in the business—her company was started by her mother, Marianne. As early as high school she was on the payroll as a part-time employee. So although she also describes the industry as “definitely a good ole boys’ club,” Rodriguez says it has often been her age, rather than her gender, that has been an issue. But it was a different story for her mom.
“Marianne was the first woman to bring tents to Oklahoma,” Rodriguez says, “so she had to deal with gender more than I did. By the time I came into the picture, vendors, clients and employees were used to dealing with women from our company. And my crew in the field is used to me being around on certain sized events.
“What we do get from time to time are clients who aren’t happy working with a woman,” she continues. “This seems to come out on our site visits. If I take our operations manager on a site visit to review tenting needs with a client, I notice [the client] will talk directly to him the entire time and not at all to me, which can be frustrating.”
Her strategy? Rodriguez stays involved in the conversation and continues to contribute. Because clients end up working with her after the site visit, the gender issue is typically resolved over the course of the project.
The situation was different for Kara Lawrence and Mary Crosslin. The two are co-presidents of Alert Management Systems Corp., Colorado Springs, Colo., a supplier of Windows-based rental management solutions. Lawrence also serves as CEO of the company; Crosslin as COO. The partners purchased the existing business in 2016, making Alert a woman-owned rental software company. However, even though both had been longtime employees before buying Alert, there was a bit of trepidation.
“With the rental industry still being such a male-dominated industry, I did have concerns about how our purchase of a male-owned software company would be handled by our clients and prospects, to the point that I actually made some calls in advance of the purchase to get honest feedback from some of my closest friends in the industry to see what we’d be up against,” Crosslin says.
That worry proved largely unfounded, Lawrence says. The response and support from clients, vendors and other companies serving the industry was overwhelmingly supportive.
“One note in particular stands out,” says Crosslin. “It was from one of our rental store owners who said that as the dad of a daughter, he was so excited to see us set this example for her and other next-gen business owners.”
It’s not that Crosslin and Lawrence haven’t stumbled across some disparities; however, these certainly aren’t limited to the tent rental industry. There is still a wage gap—although as the owners, they’ve ensured none exists at Alert.
“And there are still some old-school people who are threatened by empowered women,” says Lawrence. “But we work on that one relationship at a time. We work with any number of successful women in this industry, either business owners or empowered employees, and feel a kinship with like-minded women. We help each other thrive.”
As the tent and event rental industry has matured, there are plenty of opportunities for women looking for a career path.
“The rental side of the business is so much more educated than when I started,” Crews says. “To succeed in it today, you need expertise in so many areas, like permitting and code standards, safety, warehouse and transportation logistics, labor and installation logistics, and equipment maintenance, just to name a few.”
There are plenty of less traditional roles available for women, Davis says. Although many women end up in administrative and sales roles, women are occupying positions such as logistics, warehousing and management.
“It encourages me when I see women succeed in these roles,” Davis says. “The more it happens, the less gender is a limiting factor when deciding on a career.”
Positioning for leadership
Moving into a leadership role requires a broad understanding of the operational hows and whys, Davis says, which is why she urges her largely female sales team to spend time at installations and in different parts of the business.
Rodriguez also emphasizes that women interested in leadership must be willing to work hard in all areas of the business. And because all potential leaders need a comprehensive understanding of the business, she suggests regularly stepping outside the daily routines to consider the company as a whole—where it’s going, why certain things are done and if there’s a better way.
“Remember, just because you’re in the tent industry doesn’t necessarily mean your position is on the front lines raising tents into the air,” she says. “Your position as leader goes beyond that. You must understand what it takes for your crews to work the front lines. But your value in leadership is what you bring to the entire team.”
Becoming involved in industry organizations and attending trade shows and other events are also essential steps for anyone wanting to move ahead. Crews began working with the Tent Rental Division (TRD) of IFAI about 10 years ago, helping with contacts in nearby Orlando for Tent Expo.
“As the years went on, I became more involved with the planning and membership committees for IFAI’s TRD,” she says. “I now sit on the steering committee as the second woman to ever sit on the board. I’ve also been involved in MATRA [Manufacturers and Tent Renters Association Inc.] for four years now on the education committee. Getting involved has really helped me in my position at ETI.”
Education and knowing your craft make it hard to dismiss a woman’s contribution, Davis says. “If you’re knowledgeable and competent in whatever capacity you serve the industry, it’s much easier to remove being a woman from the conversation,” she explains. “It just becomes the new normal.”
Lawrence’s advice to women in the industry is not to fear speaking up. “Don’t be afraid to ask for what you deserve and don’t be afraid to put yourself first when making career plans,” she says. “Opportunities are abundant, but sometimes you have to create them yourself. So go out on a limb and take some chances. The old adage that nothing good comes easily couldn’t be more true.”
Pamela Mills-Senn is a Long Beach, Calif.-based freelance writer.