Shade is on everyone’s mind, according to Margueritte Ramos, owner and sales manager of ShadeFLA. The Miami, Fla.-based company designs and installs shade products ranging from awnings and canopies to retractable roofs and tension sails. Lately, the phone hasn’t stopped ringing.
Through the adversity and setbacks of the pandemic, silver linings continue to emerge. Requests to shield outdoor amenity spaces at high-end residential and office buildings have increased, along with tension sail projects for hotels and country clubs, Ramos says.
“A lot of clients used the time they closed to start construction projects they had considered for a while,” she adds. Her team has also helped several restaurants shelter temporary outdoor seating areas.
With so many shade providers experiencing a similar surge, business has accelerated for wholesalers, like SHADAZON in Phoenix, Ariz., as well. Workforce shortages, whether caused by employee illnesses or work-from-home orders, drove many of SHADAZON’s partners to outsource canopy production to them. A client in Florida, for example, shut down for a month but had already installed columns for a canopy project, so SHADAZON manufactured more than 20 canopies to complete it. “No one saw this outsourcing spike coming, though in hindsight, of course it makes sense,” says Joy Whitfield, managing director.
To increase internal capacity, SHADAZON invested in a production software program that helped employees create more efficiencies and less waste, and cross-trained everyone. “Quality-control team members learned to sew, pattern makers learned quality control—you name it. It’s a good practice anyway, and it sometimes takes a situation like this to make you do it.”
Whitfield witnessed several service companies develop creative ways to stay in business. A chain of animal clinics that moved treatment rooms to parking lots needed a shade system, as did a bank that set up an outdoor area for employees to help customers make transactions on electronic devices. “When people see what other businesses are doing to stay operational, it resonates with them and they start thinking of ways to apply it to their own business,” Whitfield says.
Because these nontypical clients had little to no experience acquiring permits for outdoor spaces, SHADAZON took on an additional consulting role it typically wouldn’t. “Local governments were short-staffed like everyone else, which delayed the permit process even more, so we reviewed clients’ submittals to ensure they’d get their applications right the first time,” Whitfield explains. “It was a win-win situation; if we could help them get their permits faster, we’d earn their business and projects get done faster.”
This trend of stepping in to fill unexpected gaps extended to the supply shortages that are still disrupting the entire textile industry. “We haven’t felt the pinch as much as others, but the only way through it is to work together,” Whitfield says. SHADAZON was able to provide a few rolls of fabric to other shade providers in need, but a lot of time was spent helping clients choose alternative fabrics—or in one case, new types of fabric-friendly heaters for a New York client enclosing an outdoor area.
“We won’t benefit from the heater business, but a big positive that I’ve seen across the industry is people reaching out to help others they normally wouldn’t engage with,” Whitfield says.
William Morse, president of Ohio Awning & Manufacturing Co. in Cleveland has made clients the ultimate decision-maker on whether to wait for a specific fabric or choose a replacement. “After getting stuck a couple of times, we told clients to have a backup choice because the time frames for availability of their first choice can be so unpredictable; the demand is just so high,” Morse says.
In addition to new restaurant seating enclosures, residential projects soared for Ohio Awning during the pandemic, though strained by two not-so-new challenges: a labor shortage and unreasonable client expectations around what a product can do and why custom-fabricated projects can take as long and cost as much as they do.
To help address common misconceptions, Morse is planning to redesign the company’s website to focus more on solutions than products. “We need more people to understand how fabric can be used to solve their problems,” he says. “Whether it’s restaurants or people currently working at home who will start to go back to the office, a big challenge we’ll face is keeping the momentum going to invest in outdoor spaces—and making sure they’re turning to fabric.”
Ramos anticipates that the trends will continue. Her team holds regular “lunch and learns” with local architects to keep them educated and engaged. At a recent meeting, the principal of a large architecture firm predicted that outdoor space will be integrated into every design going forward. “It’s the way of the future,” Ramos says, “especially here in Florida; I can’t imagine a new office or condo building without it.” With more people moving to Miami from northern states and people across the country anxious to travel again, Ramos expects to see more whimsical colors and elaborate shade structures in high-end markets, such as the four- and five-star hotels she often consults.
Entertainment centers will likely continue to incorporate outdoor space as well, adds Whitfield, who is working on a project in Seattle that was originally going to be completely indoors but will now be 70% indoors and 30% outdoors.
“I’m really optimistic about 2021,” she says. “We’ve had a huge uptick in requests for quotes in the last few months, which is a great sign. We’re all learning to work in this new environment, and I see a lot of people taking projects off hold and looking
to the future.”
Holly Eamon is a business writer and editor based in Minneapolis, Minn.