ALTHOUGH Seattle-based Abbey Party Rents serviced 19 cities on tour with the Rolling Stones and U2 last year, the biggest challenge for the company's truck fleet is its own hometown.
"We have gone to automatic transmissions, because it was such a hassle for clutches with Seattle's hills," notes company manager Eddie Redman.
"We do a lot of events on the islands in the Puget Sound area, which can be a logistical nightmare," he adds. "One client held a party on a deserted island, and we needed a landing barge to bring a truck in." For another island party, Redman had to call in a farm tractor to haul out a truck that had become stuck in the sand.
Redman's fleet of 10 trucks runs the gamut from pickups to tractor-trailers. "We purchase all the small vehicles and lease all the large vehicles," he says. "Our smaller vehicles usually go a lot more miles than many leases allow. Once you go over 12,000 miles, it's cheaper to buy it than to pay the [lease] penalty."
FIND A MR. FIX-IT Stan White, president of Memphis, Tenn.-based Grand Rental Station, has found the best way to maintain his fleet of just over 20 trucks is with a mechanic on staff. "The mechanic is all over this place; he can pretty much fix, build or repair anything," he says. "We used to send a bobtail truck to the shop for a $75 oil change. We've already cut that cost in half."
Barring breakdowns, Grand Rental Station drivers are assigned to the same truck each trip. "If you swap drivers all the time, you'll never find out who put the ding in the truck. It makes them accountable," White says.
He also casts his drivers as company representatives. "The customers may never see me, but they see the driver and that's the impression they get. We preach that if the customer asks for something, it's 'yes, ma'am' and 'no, ma'am.' We want repeat business. And if someone doesn't do that, we find out really quick."
Jack Luft, vice president of Hall's Rental Service, Lincolnwood, Ill., agrees that proper maintenance is crucial. "Make sure you have a really great mechanic or a really reliable towing service," he says.
In the Hall's maintenance program, a mechanic comes to the premises to check the fleet of 25 trucks twice a week. "He checks all the trucks-the oil, fluids, tire pressure, lights. For anything major, the truck goes to the shop," Luft says. "Driving in downtown Chicago makes it easy to knock out a light."
SAFETY PAYS Another way Luft has managed to keep fleet costs lower is by keeping accidents down. His "safety bingo" game awards cash prizes to workers for the most accident-free days. "I'm amazed at how low our insurance is, and it's because we have a good safety record," he says. He gives credit to his stable work force of drivers: "They've been here a long time; for many of them, this is the first job they had after school. This is what they do; they know how important it is."
For party rental trucks, the outside of the truck is just as important as the inside, because a truck can be a rolling advertisement.
Two of Chicago-based Tablescapes' 18-foot trucks are covered with dra-matic, beautifully detailed close-ups of table settings available from the com-pany. And co-owner Kathy Ruff has evidence that her rolling billboards are paying off: "When we ask callers how they heard about Tablescapes, 80 percent say they saw our trucks."
Ruff's truck artwork is basically a giant decal. "You put the image in the computer and out it comes," she says. "You don't need thousands of trucks to justify [the cost]."
VEHICLE VISIONARIES New technology is making vehicles more efficient, safer and even more comfortable for drivers.
"Driver comfort and convenience are very important, because it's hard to attract and retain drivers," says Tom Moore, editor of Fleet Owner Magazine, sister publication to Special Events Magazine. Ergonomic seating and "easy in and out" doors make trucks today "more like a home on the road." New electronic engines improve fuel efficiency and ensure more "uptime-the time that your units are on the road."
Party rental companies may be forced to boost their fuel efficiency, or even start using alternative fuels. "When you're operating in urban and suburban environments, it's easy for local governments to regulate that," Moore notes. Some local governments are already requiring new garage construction to include charging stations for electric vehicles. "We will see more and more businesses fall under regulations like this."
Resources: Abbey Party Rents, 206/362-3222; GE Capital Fleet Services, 612/828-1000; Grand Rental Station, 901/366-0670; Hall's Rental Service, 847/982-9200; Tablescapes, 312/733-9700.