THE BRIDE-TO-BE rushes into your rental operation. She has plenty of pretty pages from glossy magazines to show you what she wants her wedding to look like. There is only one problem: She has no grasp of the costs she will incur or the work involved to make that dream come true.
Managing client expectations is crucial for any business. But it's particularly tough for party rental operators, who are in the hot seat for emotional, once-in-a-lifetime events such as weddings.
“Expectations for such grand events sometimes are not helped by Hollywood movies that always glamorize the setting but very rarely ever show all the detail involved to create the atmosphere,” notes Dan Hooks, president of Charlotte, N.C.-based Party Reflections. “Unfortunately, a great number of brides in our area of the South wish to invite more guests than their budget can accommodate. This plays more of a factor in the budget than anything else. From a rental perspective, the total cost of the event is a direct reflection of the number of guests and activities planned either under the tent or inside a facility. A beautiful reception could be planned for the backyard based on 100 guests, but when the budget has to stretch to 250 guests, many of the brides have to sacrifice decor or amenities that make the tented event special.”
To help brides make ends meet, Party Reflections works to offer alternatives. If a bride sets her heart on the priciest chairs and china in the showroom, “We try to be creative with their space and turn their idea of a full sit-down dinner into buffet situations where fewer tables are necessary for seating,” Hooks explains.
SELLING A STEP ABOVE
Michelle Crumbaugh, owner of The Party Patch in Independence, Mo., makes getting a grip on the budget her first task. “I also like to find out as much information as possible regarding style and design; what picture do they have painted in their mind that this event is going to look like,” she says. “Like all sales people, I like to sell at the edge and a step above. I wouldn't try to sell a customer our most expensive linen and overlay if it was not feasible on her budget; I would show her options within her range and then wow her with something a little extra. I would offer her the best her budget would allow, then point out what might be overlooked, including options along the way that would enhance the look of her event.”
The Party Patch makes setup and takedown run smoothly by giving customers usage information sheets that explain requirements and penalties, such as an extra charge on flatware and chafers that are returned with food debris. “Coordinating delivery times, setup and takedown is essential,” Crumbaugh adds. “We don't want to slow down another vendor and be the fall guy for any problems.”
Crumbaugh also makes sure that her clients go beyond the showroom. “We will allow a client to be taken into our warehouse to look at equipment,” she says. “I think it builds trust. They don't just see the quality equipment in the showroom; they can also see what's in the warehouse and how we handle it.”
Budget issues of a different sort arise with veteran event planners — the professionals.
“The market is very competitive, and event planners know they can ‘ask’ vendors if they can produce within the budget,” notes Jim McManus, executive director of sales for Teterboro, N.J.-based Party Rental Ltd. “It is natural in these competitive times for people to want more for less and try through bids to be efficient. It is the responsibility of the salesman to communicate when the expectation is off base and offer solutions that allow the vision of the client to be achieved.”
When developing a proposal for his client, McManus goes through a three-step process. “After speaking with the client, I recommend a first draft that brings all elements into the proposal,” he explains. “Afterwards the line-item-veto pen comes out to formulate the budget.” Once those adjustments are made, McManus continues to pose questions to the client to refine exactly what the must-haves are for that particular event. “I try not to make assumptions about what they feel is most important in how the budget breaks out,” he says. “Many times people are willing to splurge on a detail that fits their vision. The tool that works best is a detailed estimate in writing that spells it all out, with alternative suggestions available upon request.”
In order to make sure that the client understands the delivery, setup and takedown process, Party Rental Ltd. stresses communication. Company policies are published in brochures and price catalogs; these policies are reiterated to the client at the time the order is placed. Any special charges are included in the estimate and faxed to the client for approval. “Never try to add on charges after the quote without client approval,” McManus cautions.
In the end, it takes experienced, professional party rental staff to manage customer expectations effectively, McManus says. “We hire good people with hospitality experience and train them,” he explains. “A great personality goes a long way in managing clients. Policies and systems never seem to cover every situation, and we all have to make judgment calls that seem right for the moment.”
Party Patch, 816/254-0700; Party Reflections, 704/332-8176; Party Rental Ltd., 888/774-4776