A series of grand openings for a superstore chain included a fashion show at each of its 100 new locations. For each show, Richard Taylor-technical director and event specialist for Best of the Best, a special event rental and prop company based in Fountain Valley, Calif.-had the challenge of coordinating the installation of risers and a sound system.
On a quest to locate rental companies in each of the 100 locations, Taylor wasn't sure where to start. Instinct drove him to the Internet. The American Rental Association's Web site (www.ararental.org) provided the contacts he needed. When he typed in each ZIP code, the site produced names of rental companies within each ZIP code.
A resourceful Taylor completed the research in a few days. "I don't know what I would have done otherwise," he says.
NETTING BUSINESS A wave of dotcom companies is looking to match potential customers with rental companies and manufacturers to source any rental product 24 hours a day.
Two such dotcom companies are Masterental.com of Asheville, N.C., (its Web site is set to debut in July) and RentalSite of Newport Beach, Calif., which operates Specialeventsite.com.
Masterental founder and president Bart Black says, "I was frustrated early on as a rental operator because I realized that a lot of my staff's time was spent telling people we didn't have what they needed." With the idea that no rental location can have everything, Black wants to create "a virtual, visual marketplace where consumers can find and rent anything they want."
Masterental and Specialeventsite aim to give customers-including event planners, caterers, lighting service companies, equipment manufacturers and event sites-easy access to rental company Web sites. In addition to rental companies, Specialeventsite lists planners, caterers, entertainers and event sites, according to founder Mike Rakestraw.
Every rental merchant can have a free listing on Masterental's site. For $100 a year, a rental company can enhance its listing by adding features such as hours of operation, a photo and a link to its Web site. Masterental also will develop a rental company's Web site for another $100 a month.
Specialeventsite offers free basic listings including links to each company's Web site. Rental companies that pay $120 a year for enhanced listings will get listed in boldface before the basic listings. A storefront listing-featuring company background, a product showcase, contact information and complete product lines-costs $400 a year.
Why can't rental companies rely on their own Web sites to bring in more business?
"Just having a Web site doesn't do more for you," Black says. "We can make you easier to find by providing a world-class on-ramp to your site."
Masterental also touts customer service as a benefit to listing on its site. "We'll send a thank-you by e-mail or fax to every customer who buys from your store," Black says.
Rakestraw says he works with search engines such as Yahoo to get good placement on searches. "We want to be the place on the Internet where event professionals start," he says. "If we do a good job of providing information, people will come to rely on us for that information."
On the dotcom company site, potential customers can browse by product listing or geographic market.
Specialeventsite launched in November. Rakestraw says 2,000 sources are listed, about 400 of them rental companies.
THE PARTY NETWORK Online listings requiring little or no investment create a level playing field for rental companies. But what if you want an edge over the competition?
North Miami Beach, Fla.-based RentandParty.com, a national party and equipment rental network launched in August, assigns exclusive geographic areas to rental companies that pay the annual fee of $499 to join the network.
"In Miami, there are about 80 rental companies," president Max Smolarcik says. "The one who is a network member will get all the business from our site."
Each company's catalog, including photographs, gets posted on the RentandParty Web site. "When customers visit our site, they enter their ZIP code, and we show them what company is available in that area," Smolarcik says.
Currently 45 rental companies from metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, New York and Chicago have signed on with RentandParty. The coverage radius for each company depends on the population of each city. In rural areas, the radius can cover all ZIP codes within 100 miles.
Smolarcik estimates between 25,000 to 30,000 items are inventoried on his site. Instead of linking to the individual Web site of a network rental company, "customers place their order with us, and we confirm it with the member store, " he says. A fee of 10 percent is taken from every sale that comes through the Web site.
TAKING RESERVATIONS Atlanta-based RentOnTheDot.com is another national dotcom company that launched last year to service the rental industry.
The company's selling point is the ability to reserve equipment in real time, according to Brian Spilak, manager of business development.
RentOnTheDot uses a computer interface that is written to "talk" to each rental partner's in-house rental management system to obtain inventory and pricing on requested items.
When a customer chooses a rental company and makes a rental reservation, RentOnTheDot sends it electronically to the rental partner's in-house rental management system.
"For the rental company, everything is done for it except supplying the product," Spilak says.
Like RentandParty, RentOnTheDot charges a transaction fee for each sale. However, it does not assign exclusive territories to rental partners. All of the rental partners that can provide the requested equipment will be listed as potential suppliers. "It is at this point the customer will have the choice of which supplier they want to deal with," Spilak says.
Other features of the company's Web site include the Builder's Forum, a resource for industry members to communicate with each other through chat rooms and online seminars.
Resources: Best of the Best, 714/ 953-2121; Masterental.com, 828/254-2928; RentalSite LLC, 949/719-1440; RentandParty.com, 888/770-6096; RentOnTheDot.com, 877/868-6318