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Rental Essentials: Groupthink Tank

Last month, Rental Essentials looked at three software programs that help party rental operators work more efficiently. This month, we focus on how a group of party rental operators is taking the lead on developing software that meets unique party rental challenges.

IMAGINE SITTING DOWN with your competitors to share problems that plague your operation, and then turning that information over to a potential vendor whom you pay to solve the problems.

This scenario is pure craziness to some, but pure common sense to one group of party rental operators. For the past three years, some 15 party rental operations have been working with a software company to develop software that meets the industry's distinctive challenges in what one member calls “a rare win-win proposition.”

The party rental operators, known as an “affinity group” because they share many of the same business challenges, sprang out of a classic dichotomy in the rental business, explains member David S. Painter, head of Chantilly Event Rentals in Chantilly, Va.

TOOL VS. PARTY

Party rental suffers from “an identity crisis,” he says. “Tool rental and party rental operate differently. But there are a lot more tool rental companies than party rental companies. So the software developers lean toward developing software for the tool rental side, leaving the rest of us out in the cold.”

Not for long. Bill Veneris, head of software development company Alert-IMS of Colorado Springs, Colo., listened to the complaints of party rental operators during his company's annual users' conferences.

“[Veneris] said to us, ‘Let me put together a price to develop software, and you can decide if you want to fund it,’” Painter recalls. Members of the party rental affinity group would get first crack at software tailored to their specific needs.

Chantilly said yes, as did operations including Canton, Ohio-based Canton Chair Rental and Carmel, Ind.-based Party Time Rental. Using an annual face-to-face meeting at the users' conference augmented by phone calls and e-mails, the affinity group works with Alert programmers to come up with modules that solve problems unique to party rental.

“This isn't beta testing,” Painter notes. “We are determining what software he writes.”

MISSING MANPOWER

For Chantilly, a critical component has been management of labor. “All software does a really good job of managing inventory,” Painter says. “But the other programs totally ignored our biggest cost item, which was manpower. We run out of manpower assets before we run out of equipment.”

To solve the problem, Painter worked with Alert to write a module that tracks how much manpower Chantilly commits to with each order. Now, instead of turning away business when a delivery date is booked, Chantilly can work with the client to shift delivery schedules in order to permit as many deliveries as possible. Although he can't measure a specific payoff, “We find that the operations manager doesn't breathe fire quite as often at sales, and vice versa,” Painter says.

Another member's biggest headache was getting incomplete delivery addresses from sales staff, leading to delays for drivers. A refinement in the Alert software now verifies addresses and even automatically maps the most efficient delivery routes.

Canton Chair Rental pushed for a software enhancement that creates special load lists that help load trucks more efficiently, as well as an order-intake system that prompts counter personnel to ask important questions of customers.

STAFF SUPPORT

To participate in the affinity group, members pay an entry fee of $2,750 and then an annual fee depending on how sophisticated the software being developed is. Alert-IMS supports the group by hosting development meetings, enlisting additional Alert clients to join the group, and providing programming staff resources to assist in the design and programming of new features, an Alert spokesman says.

Some features developed and funded by the party affinity group are eventually integrated into the basic Alert EasyPro system, meaning that operators who didn't invest the time and funding that affinity group members did can still benefit from their work. However, “This policy also helps the group members since features integrated into the baseline products are then more widely supported and are automatically integrated into future versions of Alert software,” the spokesman adds.

The commitment to the group is “a year to year thing,” Painter says. “But it's hard to opt out because you keep getting the developments you want. We're driving the direction of things.”

Isn't it risky to share too many details about your business with competitors? “Tool rental, where we came from, is very open,” notes Canton Chair Rental's Tim Maloney. “Party rental overlaps, and no one wants to educate new people and then have them open up down the street. But we think a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Painter adds, “Any time you get in the same room with other people in the same business as yours, it's impossible to come away without a better idea.” The affinity group works because “It's easy to be successful when your customers tell you what they want.”

RESOURCES: Alert-IMS, 800/530-8050, www.alert-ims.com; Canton Chair Rental, 330/477-7719; Chantilly Event Rentals, 703/378-2255

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