Special Events
THE BRAVE NEW WORLD OF PARTY RENTAL

THE BRAVE NEW WORLD OF PARTY RENTAL

Ask most party rental operators what they predict for 2002 and they have a two-word answer: Who knows?

After a robust 2000, the economy started to sag in 2001, culminating in the Sept. 11 attacks — and the hard-charging party rental industry stalled. But based on interviews conducted last month by Special Events Magazine with party rental professionals internationally, business appears to be stabilizing. Despite a competitive marketplace, most expect some growth later this year.

GETTING BACK TO BUSINESS

For two weeks after 9/11, “it was total panic,” recalls Michael Stern, president of El Segundo, Calif.-based Regal Rents. “But people are starting to spend again. Our business is good.”

Jim “Smitty” Smith, general manager of Orlando, Fla.-based Kirby Rental Service, agrees. “From what we're hearing in the trade and what we're seeing, the conventions are starting to come back pretty strong,” he says. “The local business is coming back. Everything is pointing in the right direction.”

“My guess is that revenues will hold steady, perhaps go up a bit if we're lucky,” says Keith Klarin, head of Perfect Party Consulting Services of Palm City, Fla. “The financial pundits claim that we are already undergoing a recovery. Therefore, increased second-half sales should overcome a slow first half.”

For many party rental operations, profiting in 2002 will require a shift to Plan B.

The sharp falloff in corporate business after 9/11 threw a monkey wrench into the strategy of M&M The Special Events Co. of Carol Stream, Ill. “Five years ago we made a calculated decision to emphasize corporate business,” says president Mike Berk. “Now we are trying to resurrect some of that social business by targeting weddings, bar mitzvahs and other social events.” M&M has boosted its outside sales force and is “marketing aggressively,” he adds. “Since we are a virtual one-stop shop, we can package a party and the net cost will be significantly less than the individual components. In this business climate, you have to work on dollars, not percentages. You can't make payroll with percentages.”

Indeed, shifting into an aggressive sales and marketing mode is the No. 1 business-building strategy for most party rental firms.

SOUPING UP SALES

“Our budgets for sales, advertising and marketing are all increasing 10 percent to 20 percent,” notes John Schlueter, vice president of Karl's Party Rental, Oak Creek, Wis. Backing up the sales effort will be a strong company staff, thanks to a 50 percent boost in the company's training budget.

“In 2000, our market was primarily focused on cities within a 250-mile radius of Washington,” notes Joe Valente, sales director of Arlington, Va.-based DC Rental. The Sept. 11 attacks forced the company to go beyond those boundaries, which the company does with advertising.

“We have actively been advertising in publications that reach national markets,” Valente notes. “Our trucks can go anywhere in the United States.” The advertising is paying off: “Clients who never knew we existed are now curious about what they see in our ads and call us or visit our Web site to find out more,” he says. “Our Web site visits have increased tremendously since we began advertising.”

Abbey Event Services of Burbank, Calif., is now unveiling its new “communication kit.” Replacing the traditional catalogue, the spiral-bound notebook holds 12 pockets stuffed with more than 75 easily updated half-sheets that cover everything from price lists to details on tent wind loads to a linen-sizing chart. The kit will function as a “party planner's Franklin planner,” notes marketing consultant Marley Majcher, because planners can easily customize their kits with photos and swatches. Further, the kits give Abbey's sales staff ongoing opportunities to reach out to their clients by providing updated information to tuck into their kits The kit's edgy graphics are part of an integrated identity overhaul for the company that will include its Web site and advertising materials.

Investments in marketing and staff cost money at a time when many businesses are under the gun to cut prices. But most party rental operators are determined to hold the line.

Countryside, Ill.-based Chicago Party Rental relies on “‘smart pricing,’” says Debra Shipper, director of marketing and public relations. “The rental industry has matured enough to where people are starting to feel comfortable charging for services that were previously complimentary.” To hit its target of 10 percent growth in 2002, CPR will pursue clients who entertain at home and add new services such as event decorating for private residences, Shipper says.

WHICH WAY IS UP?

The industry is braced for a year that may shake out the weak and challenge the strong. “In the past month, I have received more calls from owners wishing to sell than in the past five years,” says John Moran, head of Classic Party Rentals, which has four operations in California. “Strong companies will continue to focus on service and invest in maintenance of equipment and new equipment.”

But many operators are optimistic. “There are many indications that special event rental will prove to be the fastest growing, most stable segment of the rental industry over the next three to five years, and one capable of delivering superior return on investment,” says Terry Turner, general manager of HSS RentX Special Events, based in Denver. “The past 12 months have demonstrated just how resilient this business can be. Despite what could have been a disastrous set of economic and psychological circumstances, our industry finished the year on a stable and healthy note.”

RESOURCES: Abbey Event Services, 818/569-3838; Chicago Party Rental, 800/322-5868; Classic Party Rentals, 310/202-0011; DC Rental, 703/671-7300; HSS RentX Special Events, 303/512-2000; Karl's Party Rental, 414/831-7000; Kirby Rental Service, 407/422-1001; M&M The Special Events Co., 630/871-9999; Perfect Party Consulting Service, kklarin@yahoo.com; Regal Rents, 310/535-3660

WHAT'S NEW FOR 2002

Color my world: “We are adding dance floors in 12 new colors and bars in 12 new colors.”
Tom Gifford, Abbey Event Services

Sit here, s'il vous plait: Already popular in Great Britain, the Paris chair is an “instant home run” in the U.S., along with Royal Doulton china and Michelangelo crystal.
Terry Turner, HSS RentX Special Events

Linen luxury: “We are providing a greater selection of specialty linens to satisfy client demand. Coordinates — linens of same color but different pattern — and tone on tone — same pattern but different shade of color — have been well received.”
John Moran, Classic Party Rentals

Easy elegance: “Skirtless tablecloths and 36-inch, five-branch candelabras with a modern design” are making news.
John Schlueter, Karl's Party Rental

Glass with class: In just six months, “We've rented our Delano glassware three times more than we anticipated.”
Michael Stern, Regal Rents

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