WHILE SOME EVENT rental operators put their tents and events where they want, when they want, others complain about a problem with a capital P: permits.
Pulling permits has grown so burdensome for Tempe, Ariz.-based Prime Event Group that “we have one person in our company solely dedicated to the process,” notes sales manager Murray Hamilton.
Not only is the permitting process today eating up more time, many operators say, it is also eating up more money. “Unquestionably, the time we spend obtaining permits for customers has gone up at least 25 percent in the last two years,” notes Andrew Sutton, vice president of sales and marketing for Stuart Rental Co., Milpitas, Calif. “Further, compared with five years ago, our permitting labor expense has probably doubled.”
Mike Schwabe, operations manager for Torrance, Calif.-based Aztec Tents & Events, agrees. “Most cities and counties I deal with have raised fees substantially,” he notes. “Some have tripled what they used to charge. In addition, cities that did not have fees for permits in the past now have them.”
But most maddening of all, operators agree, is the crazy quilt of local regulations, where no two municipalities agree on what permits are needed. In some towns, “it's as easy as a flame certificate,” notes Steve Kohn, president of Miller's Rentals & Sales, Edison, N.J., while “other towns require load reports, engineering studies and detailed site plans.”
Compounding the mess, even agencies in the same jurisdiction may flatly contradict one another. James “Smitty” Smith, general manager of Kirby Rental Service in Orlando, Fla., gives this example: “The fire code says, ‘No cooking in tents.’ But the health department says, ‘You must provide screened walls in tents that you cook in.’ Zoning says, ‘Your tent must be 15 feet away from any other existing structures.’ But then Parking says, ‘You can't occupy any parking spaces needed for existing structures.’ Try to work with a caterer and a special event company, take rain, hot weather, cold weather and wind, make everyone happy, and still be in ‘code compliance.’”
Doing business in such a maze of contradictions — described in a recent ARA newsletter as approaching “distinctly Monty Python-esque” proportions — has led some rental operators to start gaming the system.
“The trend is ‘beat the permit process,’” Kohn says. As an example, his company was recently contracted by a client to install a 30-by-120-foot frame tent. “The client was told that any tent larger than a 30-by-30 would require a permit,” he recounts. “The client then asked us to install four 30-by-30 tents rather than one 30-by-120 tent — no permit required.” The story leads Kohn to ask, “Which is safer in a blistering wind? If they [the regulators] had any knowledge of our industry, they would understand that the larger tent, if correctly installed, would fare much better in this scenario.”
PAIN TO PERSIST
Observers predict that the permit problem won't go away anytime soon.
First, budget cuts coupled with the public's resistance to taxes have driven jurisdictions to scramble for ways to raise funds, and user fees are an easy fix.
Further, regulators tend to react to disasters by drafting more-stringent safety rules, and disasters are never in short supply.
The event industry is still fighting the specter of the Hartford, Conn., circus tent fire of 1944, notes Spencer Etzel, owner of SEC Sales Group in Wilsonville, Ore., and a frequent speaker on tent code compliance. The tragedy killed nearly 170 people and convinced fire marshals nationwide that tents burn, “when today, you couldn't set a tent on fire,” he notes. The Rhode Island nightclub fire of 2003 has focused more attention on flame-retardant furnishings, and the spate of hurricanes in Florida this year will lead to tougher wind-load codes, he predicts. “It doesn't matter that a disaster wasn't in a tent,” Etzel notes. He adds, “Most of these codes are things that have been on the books for some time, but have never been enforced. They've been brushed under the carpet.”
Many event professionals bemoan the fact that regulators are too quick to apply rules designed for buildings to the world of special events. But since the event business rarely lobbies for its own interests, Etzel says, the code officials fall back on the rules they know best. “And in most cases, the code officials don't have enough information in front of them to make a good, logical decision to make a good tented event,” he notes. “So as a way to save themselves, they adopt new additions to the present code that make for new restrictions.”
But that may change. The Industrial Fabrics Association International, based in Roseville, Minn., has launched a code standards committee addressing a range of fabrics including awnings and tenting. The association hopes to have a voice in codes developed by the International Code Council, a Falls Church, Va., nonprofit group that works to develop a single set of comprehensive, coordinated national model construction codes.
For now, operators who pull permits can only grit their teeth and watch as certain competitors — taking a chance that neither regulators nor bad luck will catch up with them — skirt the process and undercut their bids.
Even so, some rental operators defend the permit process. “We've never regretted getting a permit,” says Edwin Knight, CERP, head of Celebration Rentals in Pipersville, Pa. “If everybody abided by the permit process, safety details wouldn't be missed, events would be safer, and the industry would benefit.”
Aztec Tents & Events, 310/328-5060; Celebration Party Rentals, 908/735-7368; Celebration Rentals, 215/766-2700; Kirby Rental Service, 407/422-1001; Miller's Rentals & Sales, 732/985-3050; Prime Event Group, 480/820-3144; Regal Rents, 310/535-3660; SEC Sales Group, 503/570-8700; Stuart Rental Co., 408/856-3232
Permits Gone Wild!
“For a movie premiere, I pulled all the permits in a nearby city — unnamed, so I can still work there — myself. My last visit was to the city clerk, who asked for my ‘encroachment permit’ for my red carpet or she wouldn't sign off. Even though the sidewalk was shut down and the street was closed off, my 15 feet of red carpet was going to cost $200 additional because I would be blocking the walkway for pedestrians — who couldn't walk across it anyway because it was closed!”
— Jeff Volkman, Regal Rents, Los Angeles
“An inspector required us to stake down the tent's center poles in the event that a bear would come up, lean against them and knock the tent down.”
— Megan Jones, Celebration Party Rentals, Flemington, N.J.
“The best request I heard was from a Miami building official who wanted a ‘certified weather professional’ to sit on top of the Miami Beach Convention Center with a cell phone, ‘looking for approaching storms.’”
— Murray Hamilton, Prime Event Group, Tempe, Ariz.