The early months of 2020 were shaping up to be another banner year for the equipment and event rental industry. There was a sense of optimism at The ARA Show™ 2020 in Orlando, which was held in February, and many industry members were preparing for another year of growth in their businesses. Then came the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
While the past 15 months have brought unprecedented change to the industry, rental operators in the U.S. are beginning to feel like the worst is in the rearview mirror, which has them beginning to look ahead with optimism.
“I’ve been optimistic from the very beginning,” says Dan Hooks, CERP, president, Party Reflections, Charlotte, N.C., and American Rental Association (ARA) president. “I think that’s been some of the hardest parts of this because I kept thinking, ‘Another month and this is going to straighten up. Another month and this is going to straighten up.’ I finally stopped saying that, but I do feel like there is light at the end of the tunnel. I do believe these vaccines are going to make a huge difference.”
Even during the toughest of years, rental operators have remained strong to find positives to take away from the pandemic. For some, including Andrew Heesacker, president and CEO, Arvada Rent-Alls, Arvada, Colo., and ARA Region Seven director, it has been technology options and delivery improvements that have been established this past year.
“I do think the pandemic really spurred those options to get more and more common with paperless contracts and e-signatures. We have curbside service set up at both of our locations. Most likely, those things wouldn’t have happened without COVID, so I’m going to be an optimist and say it did spur some of that development to institute some of those processes that might not have happened without that,” Heesacker says.
The pandemic is holding onto a tighter grip in Canada where a recent third wave of COVID-19 infections and lack of available vaccines have put recovery on hold. Even without a rosier outlook in the short term, Jill Holtsman, CERP, managing partner, Hub City Display, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, has found diversification is a key part of the business moving forward.
“I was really fortunate we don’t only do rentals in our business. We set up store displays for electronics companies and tobacco companies, so we were able to go into those stores and set up displays for them. Before COVID, they were kind of an annoyance. You would get these phone calls, and it would interrupt your week of scheduling with rentals. We never turn anything away, so when the rentals stopped, we were very happy we were still continuing to work for these companies,” Holtsman said. “There were some months where our rental revenue was down almost 100 percent and the only money trickling in was from these. We also have storage for trade show booths and luckily that money was coming in too.”
Another pandemic positive for Holtsman was one added right before the pandemic began but has paid off enormously during the past year.
“Right before the pandemic hit, we went to cloud-based software. Even though we were at home for the first four to six weeks, if a customer called, because we had some long-term rentals go out at that time, they didn’t know I wasn’t in the office. I could do my orders and pull up pricing all from home. We gave the perception of being fully open. We’ll always be operating that way,” she said.
For Hooks, major positives he sees coming from the pandemic include where event rental fits into the events industry as a whole and having time to reevaluate how you do business.
“If you don’t learn anything from this to better your company and to change things for yourself then you’re kidding yourself if you just think, ‘It’s all going to come back to normal, and I’m going to do business the same way I did it before the pandemic.’ Everything has to change,” he said.
The changes these rental operators have been through could be just the beginning. Changes made during the pandemic will continue to grow and it gives them more confidence additional changes could happen quickly in the future.
“I think it was a good lesson in being able to be dynamic, quick to act and to be nimble as a company. Absolutely I think it’ll be helpful into the future,” Heesacker says.
Listen to full interviews with Dan Hooks, CERP, Andrew Heesacker, and Jill Holtsman, CERP, about their experiences with the pandemic and thoughts on the future. Click on their names below to hear what they had to say.
Dan Hooks, CERP
Jill Holtsman, CERP