The dinner fork has been popular since 1700, the knife and spoon far longer. Many staples of party rental haven't changed for years, but other aspects of the business are changing by the minute. Special Events Magazine spoke to top operators to find what high-tech tools make their lives easier.
SOIREE SOFTWARE Computer-aided design software tailored for the event planner "is probably the best thing that's happened on the sales front in the last few years," says Dave Painter, owner of Chantilly, Va.-based Chantilly General Rental.
Painter uses PartyCAD 2000 from Hufnagel Software of Clarion, Pa. The program comes with 1,500 pieces of 3-D "furniture," enabling event designers to create detailed floor plans in various configurations, with top, side and front views.
"Most people planning a party don't do it every day," Painter says. "You can describe a 30-by-40-foot tent, but unless they walk it off in their own back yard, they probably don't have a feel for it. So the more sure they are that they can get what they want, the happier they are."
But the detailed layouts also help the planning pros. "I use them extensively with caterers," Painter says. "I have a library of event sites around town with floor plans. I can create a drawing in minutes, then fax or e-mail it to the caterer so they can put it in their proposal to the client. Also, the drawings help on-site; when the caterer's people arrive to set up, they know where everything goes."
The program requires some skill to use it effectively. "You have to commit and learn to use it," Painter says. "And if you don't also have a good idea of what the space requirements are, it won't do you a lot of good." But Painter believes it gives him an edge over competitors who don't use it: "If a potential client isn't sure if he needs a 40-by-40 or a 60-by-60-foot tent, and the rental guy down the road says, 'Call me back when you're sure,' that's the person I can turn into a client."
HOLD THE PHONE With a work force always on the move, many party rental operators count on combination digital cellular phones/digital two-way radios/text-and-numeric pagers, serviced by the Nextel network, headquartered in Reston, Va.
"In the beginning, we had 67 units; now we're up to 80," says Tom Gifford, general manager of Burbank, Calif.-based Abbey Event Services. "With a truck fleet, they're really helpful and handy, because you can always reach someone. Even if the cell phone goes out of range, you can use the radio. But the problem is, someone can always reach you!"
Gifford is also a fan of his company's rental management software package: Automated Rental Manage-ment, available from San Antonio-based Business Computer Systems.
"We have a very sophisticated inventory management system," Gifford says. "On top of that, our system generates reports that we upload into FoxPro [a database manage-ment program] to give us inventory turnover and ROI analysis."
Gifford likes the system because it helps him make decisions based on facts, not impressions. "You may think you are renting an item all the time, but you find you're really not," he says. "I may think we need 100 new white wood chairs, the manager says we need 125-but the system tells us how many we really need."
The rental management software used by Todd Murphy, general manager of Camargo Rental Center in Cincinnati, "incorporates everything we do," he says.
Camargo uses the rental package from Systematic Computer Services of Guelph, Ontario, Canada. It generates reports on inventory value, depreciation, delivery and pickup, and outstanding contracts and reservations, Murphy says. "It does our accounts receivable and payable, all back-office end-of-day reports, work orders, inquiries. It helps ensure accuracy and record keeping in our day-to-day flow of business." On top of all that, he says, "we have our employee time clock on it."
WHAT'S COMING? Party rental operators can expect more innovative high-tech tools.
Solutions by Computer, a Springfield, Mass.-based developer of party rental management software, will be adding a new credit card-processing feature to its package.
"Lots of party rental business is done over the phone, so there's no credit card to swipe," explains com-pany president Jack Shea. "So the rental operator has to key in the credit card number, which results in a higher processing rate charged by the credit card processor." Shea's firm has been able to negotiate a far lower rate, he says.
"Our system will also start offering a debit card feature, with a flat 32 cents per transaction," as opposed to a 2 percent charge, Shea adds.
James Lolley, president and general manager of Systematic, predicts that party rental firms will move from simply displaying their products on their Web sites to true e-commerce.
"Over the next 12 months or so, we will see Web-based ordering, with customers paying their invoices over the Internet," he says.
Although it's not on the horizon yet, Painter says that party rental management software must begin addressing the labor quotient.
"The software now does a good job of managing reservations and inventory. But at this point, none of them manages the biggest expense, which is labor," he says. "In party rental, labor is one-third or more of total revenue. Software now will alert you when you're overbooking tables or linens, but not when you've overbooked your manpower. No one is writing that software, but it will be the next big trend."
Many in the party rental industry are waiting to see if and when Evansville, Ind.-based Anchor Indus-tries will release its own event design CAD package. "Our market test is still in progress," reports Anchor advertising and marketing manager Mary Ann Mays. "We will probably make a decision in January or February."
Although a fan of high-tech, Gifford sounds a note of caution. "Technology is great, but it's expensive," he says. "People must be trained to use it, and you must have someone to maintain it."
Tom Gifford will be hosting "Meeting of the Minds: What Caterers and Planners Want from Rental Companies" and "No-Holds-Barred Management Meeting" for party rental operators at The Special Event 2000, sponsored by Special Events Magazine, Jan. 12-15 in San Diego. For more information, call 800/288-8606; or visit: www.specialevents.com/tse2000
Resources: Abbey Event Services, 818/569-3838; Anchor Industries, 812/867-2421; Business Computer Systems, 800/882-6705; Camargo Rental Center, 513/271-6510; Chantilly General Rental, 703/378-2255; Hufnagel Software, 814/226-5600; Nextel, 703/433-4000; Solu-tions by Computer, 800/950-2221; Systematic Computer Services, 800/361-1233 or 519/836-7073