Special Events
In Hand Or Online?

In Hand Or Online?

WHAT'S the best place to display party rental inventory — in a printed piece or on a speedy Web site? Here we take stock of differing opinions:

HARD ONLINER

Michael Berk put the rental inventory of his Chicago-based M&M The Special Events Co. online last year and says the site now brings in 99 percent of his business. He has a litany of reasons why: “It allows us to update instantly with new items, offer promotions, jibe pictures and details, and offer our online ‘build a party’ program,” where visitors create the look they want via computer with linen, dishes, flatware, chairs and even floral centerpieces. What does a printed catalogue do better? “Nothing,” he says.

Steve Kohn, head of Miller's Rentals of Edison, N.J., is equally blunt. Expensive printed catalogues “are going the way of the dinosaur,” he says. Since he put his inventory online in 1994, his printed catalogue has shrunk in half, he reports. Potential clients now receive a mini-compact disc, which displays inventory along with moving graphics and music. “It's much more effective than an expensive book-type brochure,” he says.

The No. 1 benefit of an online catalogue, operators agree, is efficiency. Celebration Party Rentals of Lee's Summit, Mo., pulls in 80 percent of its business online, according to vice president Steve Weaver. “We put a lot of good information up there, such as how many glasses you need. This in turn generates additional sales that we don't always have time to ask about during the busy seasons,” he says.

PRETTY IN PRINT

But many rental operators continue to complement their online catalogues with printed pieces. Denver-based Butler Rents has been online for a decade, and in that time “our printed catalogue has gotten bigger, not smaller,” notes president Barry Reynolds.

Butler's online listings give customers pricing information immediately and help them “window-shop and make some decisions before they place their order,” Reynolds says. But the printed catalogue, which is updated annually, plays an important role as well. “It puts pricing and products directly into {clients'} hands,” he notes. “People seem to really like and want both online and catalogue books.”

Broadway Party Rentals prints such a beautiful catalogue — a full-color, 156-page book on high-quality paper — that customers who receive a copy ask, “When should I return it?” notes Rob Skriloff, partner in the New York-based company.

But Skriloff is content for his clients to keep the book close at hand; indeed, at 9 by 9 inches, it was designed to be “purse-able,” as Skriloff puts it. “Our clients use that book as a daily tool. It's a lot easier to go through the book than go online. The book helps them — whether they are planners or caterers or whatever — to market themselves to their clients.”

REPRINT RUN

Cleveland-based Event Source went entirely online in 2005, only to bring its printed catalogue back the next year. “Many people are off-site with their customers and don't have access to the 'Net,” notes president John Bibbo Jr. The Event Source catalogue can be downloaded as a 52-page full-color PDF document.

Ironically, the event business moves at such a brisk pace now that some rental operators say it's a challenge even to keep a Web site current. “Creating new inventory is an extremely important part of the event rental business these days,” notes Jack Luft, head of Niles, Ill.-based Hall's Rental. “Since we have new items arriving nearly every week, it is difficult to keep even our online list up to date.” Much of Hall's customer base is repeat business, “and the majority of them need a paper copy to work with,” Luft says, estimating that online orders account for only 30 percent of his business.

POST PRICES?

The biggest debate for online catalogues is whether or not to post prices. Three-fourths of rental operators interviewed by Special Events Magazine do include prices while the remainder do not.

“At first we thought that posting prices would drive away clients who were just shopping price,” says Rusty Parr, head of AV Party Rentals in Newhall, Calif., which launched its Web site nearly 10 years ago. “But it seems to have increased client response. It also seems to cut down on the chitchat of ‘how much for this’ and ‘do you have a photo of that.’”

But not all operators agree. Minneapolis-based Apres Party & Tent Rental has displayed its inventory online since 2003, but does not post prices. “We feel that getting potential clients on the phone gives us a better opportunity to gain their business by explaining and walking our customer through the rental process,” notes Apres special event consultant Michael Feldbaum.

Theresa O' Connor, events manager with General Rental Sales & Service of Avondale, Pa., agrees. “If an online customer wants prices, we have a PDF file we can e-mail them,” she says. “We want that initial contact with them so they know they are getting so much more here than just a rental product.”

There is one item for which even many fervent online operators don't post prices — tenting. “Tenting has so many variables it's hard to list a 40-by-40 tent without all the things that need to go into the job,” explains Megan Jones, CERP, head of Flemington, N.J.-based Celebration Party Rentals.

And whether online or in print, no beautiful image can take the place of touching luxurious linen or holding a sparking flute. So the rental showroom itself remains a great sales tool. David Higgins, vice present of finance and administration for Toronto-based Higgins Event Rentals, notes, “Many people still prefer to visit the showroom to touch and feel the products there than read the online or printed catalogue.”


Apres Party & Tent Rental, 952/942-3399; AV Party Rentals, 661/259-2151; Broadway Party Rentals, 718/821-4000; Butler Rents, 303/388-5971; Celebration Party Rentals (Missouri), 816/525-8568; Celebration Party Rentals (New Jersey), 908/735-7368; Event Source, 216/901-0000; General Rental Sales & Service, 610/268-2825; Hall's Rental, 847/929-2222; Higgins Event Rentals, 416/252-4050; M&M The Special Events Co., 630/871-9999; Miller's Rentals, 732/985-3050; Select Event Rentals, 301/604-2334

RESOURCES

The printed catalogue from Laurel, Md.-based Select Event Rentals (pictured at right) won an American Graphic Design award last year, thanks to help from graphics design firm Six Ink. The Baltimore-based designers also worked on Select's Web site — weparty.com. Here, Six Ink principal Judy Lichtman gives the dish on good design, whether online or in print:

DESIGN OF THE TIMES

Shoot straight. Good photographs are “key to the whole thing — both in print and online,” Lichtman says.

Pretty has to be productive, too. A Web site can be beautiful, but if it isn't functional, then forget it. “If visitors can't figure out how to navigate your site, they will just leave,” Lichtman warns.

Create a ‘keeper.’ For companies planning to invest in a printed catalogue, Lichtman advises, “Make it a coveted item, something that people want to hang onto and use. You don't want it to end up in the trash.”

Make a fabulous first impression. As potential customers search rental sites, they will make snap judgments about your company based on how your site looks. A homely site might make a client say, “‘Maybe this rental company isn't as high-end as I thought,’” Lichtman says. “You will see fewer and fewer bad Web sites as online operations grow.”

Six Ink can be reached at 410/385-9975 or www.sixink.com.

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