By Sarah Lapping, ETI Director of Sales and Marketing – InTents magazine | October 2014

Launching a new tent rental business? Use these strategies to ensure that your initial investment positions your company for growth.

After nearly 10 years working in the tent manufacturing industry, one of the most rewarding benefits for me has been helping get new tent rental businesses off the ground. I’ve assisted companies whose initial purchase included one or two tents to grow into robust, full-service rental providers with a diverse offering of tents in their inventories.

What motivates a person or group to launch a new tent rental company? I’ve seen a range of people with different motivations enter the industry: firefighters and police officers looking for extra income, young entrepreneurs investing in the inflatable rental business, event and corporate planners looking to expand their range of services, and event professionals who have subcontracted tent rentals and realized they could increase their revenue by owning and renting their own equipment.

While there is an endless number of questions that any new business needs to answer—How many employees? Where should we locate? Frame tents or pole? What size warehouse will we need?—ultimately three questions need to be answered from a tent manufacturer’s perspective:

  • Who are my target customers or market segments?
  • What tents and accessories do I need to get started to serve those markets?
  • How do I figure out what to budget for my first tent order?

“New companies can learn so much by attending trade shows. Take advantage of educational and training seminars. Don’t be shy! Trade shows such as IFAI Tent Expo 2015 are the perfect location for networking with other industry professionals. I’ve had many customers who have met each other at shows and ended up doing business together, referring jobs or sub-renting inventory. Mix business with pleasure. A big part of networking includes attending the welcoming or kickoff receptions, brunches, dinners and other social events. While attending these functions, take the opportunity to ask people around you which seminars they benefited from and which booths or exhibits they’d suggest for a visit.”

“I attended the American Rental Association show for two years before I jumped into the tent business,” says Moss Duvall of Pelican Tents & Events, Shreveport, La. “My goal was to visit with as many manufacturers as possible to see who I felt most comfortable with. Who was willing to work with someone with zero tent experience? I was also looking for a superior product without breaking the bank. I also would rely on people already in the business. Ask them questions to see what they would do differently if they had to do it all over again.”

Hit your target

Everyone’s ideal customer is a low-maintenance client with a high budget. I’ll tell you right now that those clients are rare! The successful companies that we see find their niche customers and jobs and take us along for the ride—that’s what makes this such a great industry.

Some companies prefer high volume events with time constraints such as fairs or festivals, others prefer high-end weddings and some focus on backyard parties. Each company needs to determine what works for its specific situation and focus on that market.

“My preferred customer is my regular customer who calls me every year or every other year and says, ‘Hi, this is Sally Jones. Last year I rented a tent for my husband’s 40th birthday party. Can you give me the same tent package for my son’s birthday party?’” says Sean Scheidle, owner of Valley Tent Rental, Park Ridge, N.J. “Regular customers throwing backyard parties are our bread and butter. There are very few headaches or issues with backyard parties. We do a lot of fundraising events and festivals as well.”

Choose a tent style

Defining your target market will help direct your decisions regarding what types of tents you’ll want to stock. It will also come down to your company’s initial skills and abilities and the goals of the new business. When deciding what’s most important, consider inventory cost, ease of setup, learning curve, labor requirements and what styles you need to fill a particular niche market.

“When first deciding what direction to go with tents, we wanted to choose a tent that gave us the most flexibility since we would be starting with a limited inventory,” says David Spata of Big Tent Events, Carol Stream, Ill. “We found that frame tents gave us that flexibility with setting up on grass or hard surface. It was also going to give us peace of mind in starting up that the frame tents had a faster learning curve due to pole tents requiring to be squared and staked more precisely.”

Spata also went online to research tent styles. “Most of the research we did was getting references to the largest tent rental companies and asking them, ‘If you had to start from scratch again, what tents and what manufacturer would you standardize on?’” he says.

Traditional-style pole tents require the tensioning of fabric over a series of one or more center poles, which creates obstruction within the interior of the tent. Frame tents have the fabric attached to the frame with both straps and buckle or catenary tension with ratchets. The rigid framework allows the tent to be freestanding and also allows for an unobstructed interior space. While both tents require anchoring, frame tents require a smaller overall footprint for staking.

Standard widths for pole tents include 10-foot wide to 60-foot wide or greater. Frame tents are typically limited to 40 feet in width. However, both styles are expandable in length.

Initial investment

I’ve had some new rental companies start with one 20-by-20-foot tent—these are great for backyard parties. Then the company will call me back the following week to order one or two more, and over time they will continue to add tents. Other new companies go straight for the 30- or 40-foot tent for weddings or major events. It depends on budget, labor capacity and what kind of events the company is going after.[/two_third_last]

“We backed into a number by determining how many orders we knew we could do and how many more we thought we could get and then set a target number,” Spata says. “We then had to guesstimate what sizes and types of tents, and how many we would need of each to reach that goal.”

Look for a system with flexibility that can grow. A system with high quality and consistent parts will allow you to utilize individual parts over several sizes of tents, giving more flexibility with inventory and lowering start-up costs. For example, some systems allow legs, ridge poles, corners, side castings and peak connections to be the same across several different sizes. You can then buy additional parts and fabrics to diversify your inventory without having to buy whole tents. This creates cash flow while still offering an expanded inventory.

Keep in mind that with your first tent order you will need to purchase accessories to complement your tents. You can go many different directions by adding inventory to give you a competitive edge. Tables and chairs are a given, but that’s just the beginning.

“We are also now a full service lighting company, staging company, with photo booths, chargers, dance floors and we have a massive inventory of these things and a lot of other items that we knew are needed in our market,” says Darrin Shifrel of Orlando Wedding & Party Rentals, Orlando, Fla.

Do a market analysis, see what the competition is charging and position yourself accordingly, knowing you are providing new equipment. And be sure to keep it looking new—maintaining your equipment will give you the most return on your investment. John Tokar at The Tent Factory, Ridgeland, S.C., values a great inventory storage system and cleaning process to keep tent tops in peak condition.

“I kept seeing my competitor’s dirty tents going up and knew that’s where I could get an edge up,” he says.

It’s exciting to see customers grow into tent sizes they never dreamed they would own one day. Along with larger size tents, companies can expand into a variety of styles: tension tents, sailcloth tents, keder track systems or clearspan.

“For the first six years or so we dealt strictly with 20-foot-wide or less frame tents,” Scheidle says. “I always swore I would never get bigger than 20-foot wide. We eventually got into 30-foot wide, then 40-foot wide, and now we are looking at bigger structures.”

Sarah Lapping is Director of Sales and Marketing, Economy Tent International, Miami, FL.  Photos provided by Prestige Party Rentals, Key West, FL