ASK RENTAL SUPPLIERS what's the biggest headache in the special event industry and they will doubtless agree with Lonny Eggleston, partner/owner of Unique Tabletop Rentals.
"Inventory control is the single most problematic issue-it's enough to send us screaming out the door," says Eggleston, who has offices in Washington, D.C., and Bellflower, Calif. "It's tedious and burdensome, yet it's also critical to success. The rental business is data-driven, and you have to know what you have on hand and what's available."
"Put it in writing" is the simple inventory-control advice given by Deidre Dockman and Angela Klodnick, who last year joined forces to turn 15 years of special event experience into their own Cleveland-based business, L'Nique Linen Rental. Some recent events handled by L'Nique include press conferences for the Cleveland Browns football team, a National Inventors Hall of Fame induction ceremony and the "Howl at the Moon for the Zoo" benefit.
SIGN HERE "When we discover anything missing on-site, we ask somebody to sign for it, acknowledging that the item is missing," explains Dockman. "Then we come back to the store and double-check while the client is doing the same at the event location. If the item doesn't turn up within 48 hours, we bill the client for a replacement." Often, she says, the culprit is more than one rental vendor at an event picking up the wrong material by mistake. Adds Klodnick: "It's essential to tell your customer about the discrepancy within 24 hours; don't wait weeks to make your review."
"Make your damage waiver specific as well," notes Dockman. "What about candle wax dripping onto the linen? Burns? Are hand cuts or tears in the material considered damage? Fortunately, we deal in only one rental commodity-linens. But from year to year, it does seem to get more difficult to try to control loss and damage."
Having a trustworthy, accurate driver really matters, Klodnick says. "Use someone who will note any changes from the original order in writing when he makes the delivery, someone who will take the time to compare the original reservation order with the pickup slip and the items on the delivery slip."
PHONE HOME Susan Kidwell, client services manager of Stuart Rental Co. in Sunnyvale, Calif., says her company goes one step further. "Our drivers count the inventory in the field. We equip them with radios to immediately alert our customer service department if large quantities of anything are missing," she explains. "This way we can contact the client diplomatically to acknowledge if, in fact, there's a problem or if something's simply been misplaced in the cleanup process. Before, it used to take as long as 48 hours before we assessed what was missing. By that time, the client's mind is on too much else." In business since 1946, Stuart is a full-service rental concern handling special events ranging from the San Francisco Symphony Opera Ball to the Napa Valley Wine Auction.
The solution for Unique Tabletop Rentals, which specializes in everything used at the event "above the linens"? Insisting that accurate data is entered into the company's custom software program, Eggleston says.
"Salespeople are looking at the computer to tell them availability, but the computer won't show that you've input wrong return data of your equipment," he says. "There's nothing worse than getting ready to pick up an order from two months ago the night before the event and discovering that you're short due to inaccurate data."
COUNT CAREFULLY Eggleston counts the loss and damage on every job on a daily basis, complemented by a hand inventory scheduled every three months. "If you start by missing one or two pieces of something a day," he cautions, "your inventory can by off by 300 to 400 pieces by the end of the year. It really adds up."
Absolute Amusements Rental Co. of Orlando, Fla., also uses a custom software program to track the more than 3,000 games in its special event inventory. Accurate labeling of the inventory sent out to the client is essential, says company president Dave Peters.
"We have categories and names for every part in our inventory, because one game alone-such as our virtual fishing game-has as many as 150 parts," Peters says. "Also, we can track maintenance. An air-hockey table has to be flushed every 10 times, and a generator for running outdoor power may need an oil change. The computer picks this up and alerts us that maintenance is due.
"Load sheets are one of the most important elements of inventory control, so you know the items that must go back onto the truck," he adds. "They cut the man-hours necessary to account for everything when the event is finished."
Peters also uses inventory tracking as a marketing tool. "We learn what's working and what's not," he says. "The right software system tells you how many times an item goes out-is it a piece you should own more of? It also should allow you to rent the same item the same day and to measure your return on investment by unit." His company, which has supplied games for events ranging from the National Restaurant Association trade show to Motorola meetings, opened a division in Las Vegas in February, thanks to information supplied by its inventory control system. Explains Peters: "We turned our inventory data into marketing data and discovered that Las Vegas would be an excellent second location for us."