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MASTERS OF DISASTERS

JERRY NEHUS, PRESIDENT of Los Angeles-based L.A. Party Rents, remembers well the magnitude 6.7 earthquake that rocked L.A. on Jan. 17, 1994 — that's how he became president of L.A. Party Rents.

The quake didn't break any china but did break a water line, flooding the operation with water 3 feet deep. “The president and vice president came in here, walked out and never came back,” Nehus recalls. Then-general manager Nehus stepped up to the plate. “Just about every event was canceled,” he notes, but he put a call out to the city emergency relief department, which contracted L.A. Party Rents to install five tent cities in badly damaged areas. Although the emergency work turned into installs that ran 28 hours straight, “It helped morale here,” Nehus says. “Instead of being a victim, we were out there helping. It turned everybody around.”

JUST DROP IT

A long history with hurricanes has taught Kirby Rental Service of Hames, Fla., to take proactive steps to protect both its customers and its own inventory.

When Hurricane Andrew — which blew gusts of more than 170 mph across south Florida in August 1992 — was two days out from landfall, “we started dropping tents,” notes general manager Jim “Smitty” Smith. “We would have lost them if we didn't. We have had to drop complete golf tournaments, right before the tournament, because of impending hurricanes.”

But not all disasters are thoughtful enough to give two days' notice. The 1994 ice storm dubbed the “storm of the century,” which caused $1 billion in damage in the Southeast, “took everyone by surprise,” Smith notes. “It wiped out the Bayhill Invitational [golf tournament] on Saturday, and we were back completely by Sunday evening. The storm destroyed most of our tents, but we opened our sewing shop and repaired the tents and reinstalled them.”

The fickle nature of storms has taught the Kirby team that “we can't control the weather, but we can be prepared,” Smith says. “We learned from that to use heavy-duty truck straps. That saved some tents when plain ropes were breaking.”

TRUST THE TEAM

Selfless teamwork saved the day — and the event — when the great blackout of 2003 hit Toronto and a wedding serviced by Toronto-based Chair-Man Mills.

At 4:10 p.m. on Aug. 14, 21 power plants in northeastern North America failed in just three minutes, affecting some 1 million customers in major cities including New York, Cleveland, Detroit, Ottawa and Toronto.

Chair-Man Mills was in the midst of preparing for a high-end wedding in a municipal art gallery for more than 200 guests when the power went out. Even though power was back on by late evening the same day, city fathers declared that all “nonessential” power use was banned — which postponed the wedding a second day. Stymied by the series of delays, the event team moved the wedding to a golf club the following night. “We had 1H hours to move everything from the art gallery to the golf club,” notes Mary Crothers, Chair-Man Mills president.

The saving grace of the event was, ironically, the team spirit forged in Toronto by the SARS crisis earlier that year, which walloped the event and meetings industry. “We were all on board; we really wanted to help,” Crothers says. “Nobody took advantage of the situation. We all said, ‘Let's make it happen.’”

WHAT DISASTER?

Although widespread disasters grab the headlines — and persuade clients to forego their event plans — several event rental pros note that a small, local disaster can bring even more challenges.

Hurricane Floyd, which caused more than $1 billion in damage to the Eastern seaboard in 1999, was only a news story to many of its clients in New York. Yet the storm piled up 8 feet of water in the loading dock of Teterboro, N.J.-based Party Rental Ltd., notes executive director of sales Jim McManus. “We had an 800-person event that was supposed to be delivered on Thursday with all day Friday to set up for a function at 3 p.m. on Saturday,” he recalls. Thanks to the wall of water at its hub, “We got there on Saturday at 2 p.m.”

Such experiences have taught McManus “not to sugarcoat the problem,” he says. In a true disaster, “You have to give everyone who is involved time to produce a contingency plan, and if you wait too long to communicate the issues, they might not have time to produce [one].”

He credits strategic alliances with other vendors — even competitors — as a lifeline in disasters. “You have to look at the big picture,” he explains. “If you give [the client] enough opportunity to solve the problem, you might lose the event, but if you lose their respect, you will lose the client for life.”

SAYS WHO?

Steve Kohn, president of Edison, N.J.-based Miller's Rentals & Sales, recalls his own local disaster, which involved just one 4,000-square-foot tent plus two auxiliary tents.

The client had insisted that the Miller's team install the tent in the street in front of his house, assuring Kohn that the local police chief, a personal friend, had approved it. Instead, “I got a call from the chief of police at 1:30 a.m., telling me I had one hour to get the tents out of there or he would have them bulldozed,” Kohn recalls. “I asked if we could wait until morning, but he said no. The bottom line was we hadn't been paid yet, so now I had to pay for time and equipment and overtime to get those tents out — it took until 6 a.m.”

While his disaster never made headlines, it taught Kohn a lesson, he notes. “If the job requires a permit, get the permit,” he says. “You can't listen to your clients all the time. If you know the rules, you have to follow them.”

RESOURCES

Chair-Man Mills, 416/391-0400; L.A. Party Rents, 310/785-0000; Kirby Rental Service, 407/422-1001; Miller's Rentals & Sales, 732/985-3050; Party Rental Ltd., 888/774-4776

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