FROM HER START renting her spare white wood chairs to fellow caterers in the mid-'90s, Betsy Stone built South San Francisco-based Sisters Party Rentals into a booming rental business. She sold to Classic Party Rentals in August 2003, but came roaring back in February with Novato, Calif.-based La Bella Party Rental Co., serving the area north of San Francisco, including California's famed “wine country.” Here, she talks about her beloved business — the second time around.
SPECIAL EVENTS MAGAZINE: How has the party rental business changed since you started 10 years ago?
BETSY STONE: Clients have larger budgets, believe it or not! When I was at Sisters, there used to be a 50/50 split on custom linens versus polyester — now I would say that we are probably 80 percent custom linen. It is amazing! Also, I think clients are more detail-oriented. Since I started up here [north of San Francisco], there has been such a demand to have everything matching — the custom napkins with the custom cushions. We probably send out more custom cushions to match the linens than we do the free ones.
Q: What is driving this trend — a more sophisticated planner? A more sophisticated bride?
A: I think it's all just coming together. The brides are so involved with the detail of the look. We will let them come in and set up their whole table and take pictures. It's not white tablecloths anymore. Now, they want it to look like their own china that they took out of their cupboard. They want to have that uniqueness. Some want it all matching, but others want to bring in six different plates for six different courses. Every single detail is really looked after.
Q: We hear a lot about consolidation in party rental; do you think it's a big trend?
A: To me, in the rental industry, you get a better ethic when it's owner-occupied. There are so many split-second decisions that have to be made, it's hard to go through the chain of command to ask, can we buy more 10-inch white plates? I can make that decision immediately while the customer is still on the phone.
When I was bought, they sent their accountants out from New York and for three months they went through my books, and we had the highest profit margin of any rental company. Everything I was doing was going against what the typical rental company does, but in end, I was the most profitable.
Q: So you were charging prices that reflected that level of service?
A: I have always dealt with the same customers day in and day out, and I never tried to gouge them in any way. I was just very grateful that they were calling every day. Our customers knew they could trust us, that we were going to do whatever we could to make their party work. And if they had a problem with their order, we didn't sit there and argue whose fault it was; we just immediately fixed it.
And in the end it may have cost me a little bit more that week because I had to go do something special, but the end of the year is where you tell if you are making money or not. You can't look at every incident and ask, am I going to make money on this one transaction? The margins are very slim if the customer is not there at the end the year!
Another thing that made us different from other rental companies — we treated everybody equally. We realized early on that there were probably three or four big players in the Bay Area, but there were hundreds of smaller caterers. And we really targeted the smaller caterers, and it only took four or five to turn into one big account. So we didn't care how big or small they were, we tried to give the best service that we could.
Q: Is the party rental business as much fun the second time around?
A: It's probably more fun this time. I learned so much; I was very naїve going in. This time, I have been able to learn from my mistakes. I love to meet so many wonderful people. We are all in the industry of making beautiful parties, making memories and making people happy.
La Bella Party Rental can be reached at 415/883-3003;www.labellapartyrental.com.