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Riding out the crisis

Tent and event rental leaders share tips to survive—and thrive—during uncertain times.

Feature | November 1, 2021 | By: Sigrid Tornquist

Select Event Group built this semi-permanent structure for the Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Md. Photo: Paul Corgan, Select Event Group.

Tent and event rental companies have weathered tough times before. Most recently in 2008 when the economy tanked, the industry dug deep to keep afloat as clients cut back expenditures and events were canceled. And now, in the midst of an ever-evolving pandemic, resourceful leaders are finding ways to be relevant and solvent by analyzing market shifts, bending to meet current demand and restrictions, and restructuring internal practices to attract and keep employees. 

Immediate response

In March 2020, as COVID-19’s stronghold began to be apparent in the United States, tent renters and manufacturers joined other industries in an effort to protect employees and clients, while as best as possible, meeting existing demands. “We made changes from the start,” says Fred Tracy, owner of tent manufacturing company Fred’s Tents & Canopies Inc., Waterford, N.Y. “We shifted from running two shifts every day to running one shift for two weeks and then bringing the other shift in for two weeks after that. We did that for the first few months until we felt it was safe to start running two shifts again, with temperature checks and full masking. In July 2021, we allowed non-masking for employees who were vaccinated.”

On the revenue side of things, tent rental companies shifted from installing sports, music, corporate and wedding events to site testing, hospital units and eventually vaccination facilities. “We were fortunate to have been hired for the state testing and vaccination sites,” says Kenny Puff, chief executive officer of Party Line Rentals, Elmsford, N.Y. “That helped with the onslaught of canceled and postponed events, and gave us an opportunity to maintain our inventory that much better.”

Select Event Group in Laurel, Md., had a similar experience. “We were fortunate to receive a contract from the State of Maryland to build 100 surge hospital units throughout the state,” says Alex Corgan, president of Select Event Group. “This contract came just two weeks after the shutdown in early March, and it gave us the ability to retain our staff and focus on that significant project along with other priorities internally.”

One of several tent sites Party Line Rentals installed from Albany to Long Island, this site at Jones Beach in New York was a long-term rental that began as a testing site and eventually became a vaccination site. Photo: Party Line Rentals.

Labor shortages

After a rough 2020, events have been rebounding in 2021. Weddings are back—both those that had been postponed and those newly planned. And music and sporting events are not restricting capacity, though proof of vaccination is still a factor. But alongside the rising numbers of events comes a shortage of skilled labor. “Mostly all markets are back and people are happy to be together again,” Puff says. “But we are actually turning work away [due to the labor shortage].” 

The skilled labor shortage isn’t unique to the tent and event rental industry. Virtually every industry is experiencing the challenge, resulting in stiff competition and pushing employers to think creatively about how to attract and keep a skilled workforce. “You can’t expect people to set up a tent and get paid the same as working at a convenience store or washing dishes. You just can’t do that,” Tracy says. “So, we’ve actually bumped up salaries for labor—and we offer more perks.”

Fred’s Tents typically hosts quarterly picnics for employees and Tracy is growing a community garden to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to employees every day when they work during the summer. “You have to set yourself apart as an employer when there’s so much competition for employees,” he says. 

Other soft benefits employers are offering come in the form of a work-life balance—something that due to the nature of the tent and event business can be hard to deliver. “As a company, we have been working actively for a number of years to create more work-life balance for our team. We have been implementing policies for a few years to slowly minimize weekend work, after-hours installs and create more predictable schedules,” says Matt Mutton, president, owner and general manager of Mutton Rentals, Fort Wayne, Ind. “2020 really put us ahead on that goal as there just wasn’t as much work to do. When annual events came back around in 2021, we just explained the new policies and that tearing all of a client’s stuff down at 6 p.m. on a Saturday was no longer something we could offer. It has been amazing to see how much flexibility people have with scheduling when you tell them ‘no.’” 

Just 60 days before their daughter’s wedding, clients decided to change the venue from indoors to a backyard tented event to make guests feel more comfortable gathering in August 2020. Mutton Party and Tent Rental took on the project. Photo: Mutton Party and Tent Rental.

Supply chain challenges

“I think manufacturers would all agree that one of the hardest things we’ve had to deal with through 2021 is allocating supplies,” Tracy says. “Steel went up 300 percent and aluminum is more than double what we were paying a year ago.

“A sheet of plywood we use to build a door crate went from about $18 to $54 at its highest,” he continues. “Cardboard went up. Skids went up 50 percent. Those are increases you don’t necessarily think of in manufacturing but you need them to get product out the door.” 

Beyond increased prices, lead time and availability are also factors affecting the supply chain—and most tent and event rental companies have begun over-ordering and ordering early. “We typically order linens almost weekly based on overbookings two weeks out,” Mutton says. “After a few hiccups in the spring we made the decision in June to order every overbooked linen needed for the entire year. We also implemented new procedures for finalizing head counts and numbers with our clients.”

Select Event Group began fabricating some of its own products. “Our team here is also resourceful in overcoming obstacles and were able to find the equipment we needed at every turn,” Corgan says. “Our partners throughout the country have also been there for us when we’ve needed equipment.” 

To make up for some of the increase in costs, Fred’s Tents added a surcharge of 8 percent an all orders placed after July 1. The company also doesn’t fully quote a price until the time of the order. “We’ll give an estimate and then when it’s time to place the order we’ll check current market prices and adjust accordingly, whether it be up or down,” Tracy says. “Basically, we’re bidding time and materials, which isn’t typically the way the tent industry has worked. Previously there would be predictable cycles that products would go through, and it might change by 3 percent one way or the other. But now, products vacillate 10, 20—even 40 percent. It’s impossible to predict.”

For many tent rental companies, installing drive-in COVID-19 testing sites such as this one by Mutton Party and Tent Rental helped fill at least some of the gaps created by canceled events. Photo: Mutton Party and Tent Rental.

Planning for the unexpected 

Shifting circumstances, such as demand, labor shortages and supply chain variations all make it incredibly difficult for tent and event rental professionals to make plans. “There has been so much uncertainty and unpredictability, which has made it difficult to stick with a plan and work ahead—which is our preferred method of doing business,” Mutton says. “Based on this latest uptick in COVID, I make no predictions but that doesn’t make me as nervous as it did a year ago. 

“Our company was blindsided in 2020 with a 39 percent decrease in sales but we adjusted and maintained profitability. Tent rentals were still in demand through all of COVID but just for other purposes. So as of today, we survived the world falling apart and would like to believe that we would do the same no matter what happens next.”

Corgan agrees that COVID-19 brought some silver linings for the tent industry. “Not only are we seeing event work return, but the lessons learned from COVID have made temporary structures and tents a new norm for restaurants, venues, weddings and more,” he says. “In any area that used to use tents, the demand is through the roof. Everyone learned that they are a viable option, and that it is more about who you work with than what you pay when it comes to the success of your tented event.”  

Sigrid Tornquist is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minn.

SIDEBAR: Labor: Where to look?

When it comes to skilled labor, tent manufacturers and rental companies agree—supply is down and demand is up. Fred Tracy, owner of Fred’s Tents & Canopies Inc., shares some ideas about where to look to fill those labor gaps. 

“Police officers, corrections officers and firefighters are usually on a 20-year retirement plan so they’re often retiring in their 40s, and are very knowledgeable and fit—and could be great crew leaders or manufacturing leads. Also, people who have fallen on hard times and are coming out of the system might need a job. I would check churches and corrections facilities for recommendations. Refugee populations are often in need of work as well.” 

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