Special Events

Building a Cyber Showroom

MIKE BERK, president of Carol Stream, Ill.-based M&M Party Rentals, knew two years ago that he needed a new way to reach out to customers. "As our business has expanded, 90 percent of it is done on the phone," he explains. "We can't get customers-let alone prospects-to drive out to our showroom."

His Web site (www.mmpartyrent.com) not only describes his product line with text and photos, but displays the themed decor packages available from M&M. An expanded site will debut this month, including a "virtual tour" of the M&M warehouse and a "virtual swatch book" of linens.

Although Berk is sold on the value of his Web site-"It's my fervent belief that this will replace brochures and direct mail," he says-the process has had its troubles. At one point, he wondered why the site wasn't getting hits, only to find that a sloppy Web-posting company had lost track of 30,000 visits. "Someone tried to contact us and we never knew it; that's worse than their never seeing us at all. You have to stay on your toes for that."

Celebration Party Rentals of Flemington, N.J., developed its Web presence by chance. "A townwide business association built a Web site and offered us a page for less than $30 a month," explains president Megan Jones. But the reaction was strong: "People started calling us, saying, 'Wow, I saw your site up on the Internet.'"

When the community site went out of business, Jones developed her own (www.celebrationpartyrental.com), including photos of themed decor packages and past events using the company's products.

Jones says her site brings in a slightly more affluent customer than her Yellow Pages advertising. "The Yellow Pages bring in homeowners," she says. "The Web site costs a lot less and brings in about the same number of leads."

Although users can order off the site, Jones tries to discourage it: "Personal contact is still the best. You need to get a feel of who they are and what they want."

Debra Shipper, marketing mana-ger for Chicago-based Chicago Party Rental, knows that its Web site is paying off. "Our lead-to-sales ratio from our Web site is 55 percent," she says.

The site (www.chicagopartyrental.com) gives specs on the company's product lines, describes the services CPR provides (including event layout and setup) and lists employment opportunities at the company. "The site is a value-added benefit for our customers," Shipper says.

Unlike most companies, AA Party Rentals of Seattle designed and maintains its Web site (www.aaparty.com) in-house. The credit goes to systems administrator Jeff Treece, who has been a salesman there for 19 years. The self-taught computer nut says, "I looked at different sites and used the things I liked."

The detailed site displays prices and photos for many items. Also featured are maps directing customers to the company's three Seattle-area showrooms. AA's site links to other useful sites (including one with tips for planning small weddings) as well as funny ones such as "etiquette hell," describing "tacky wedding toasts."

Since the site went up two years ago, Treece has pared down some graphics. "They were too slow to load," forcing customers to wait too long to see the images, he explains. In the works is a plan to add an e-mail form so customers can order online.

The reach of the Web is amazing: "I just got a request for chafer dish prices from Kuwait," Treece laughs.

What does it take to set up a Web site? Here's the advice of Bob Bell, a "Webmaster" (programmer/designer) for Intertec Publishing, parent company of Special Events Magazine. Bell designed and maintains the magazine's Web site (www.specialevents.com).

1) What costs can a party rental company expect to pay to set up and maintain a basic site? * Working closely with a Webmaster to build your site - $2,000.

* Leasing a domain name (e.g., acmepartyrental.com ) from Internic.net - $70 for two years.

* "Hosting" (renting space for) your site on a server computer - $30 a month.

* Having a Webmaster update your content once a month - $300 a month.

Total to get into the game: $6,000 for your first year.

These are basic costs. Fancy sites can cost as much as $10,000 to design. Having an in-house Webmaster to update your site constantly will run about $2,500 a month. Only big online companies (such as auction house eBay.com) need to have their own servers. The rest of us can rent space on a server. If your site is elaborate and gets lots of "hits" (visits), you will require more "bandwidth" (the spectrum of broadcast frequencies required to transmit a signal without distortion or loss of information). Then, the monthly server charge could go up to $200 a month.

2) What elements should a site include? Think of a Web site as an interactive brochure. You want your content to be organized and to sell your services by making them look as attractive as possible with the use of photos and text. Most sites include a "home page," which has information about the company and serves as the table of contents for the site. You may also want Web pages on your site describing your inventory, listing company staff, directing people to your stores and helping Web-surfers contact you via e-mail.

3) What resources should a rental company devote to maintaining the site? The average Web site requires only that staff is there to monitor its content or feedback during normal business hours, even though the site will be "open" 24 hours a day. Different sections of your site may require different update intervals.

4) How can the company measure its return on investment? Monitor how much you are paying for Internet-related expenses compared with how much you are making from online purchases. Software programs can tell you the exact number of hits you get each month, from what countries, at what time of day, and so forth.

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