As providers and efficient installers of the equipment that propels live events, such as tenting, flooring, power generation, catering supplies and more, event rental professionals are among the first-call experts when natural or human-made disasters strike.
Those in the industry who have successfully navigated the critical field of disaster and emergency response know that it takes a special mix of relationship building, inventory capability and fast flexibility to meet the tight deadlines and often grueling demands associated with relief campaigns.
Jimmy Parks, vice president, structures division, Arena Americas, Orlando, says that the first key for successful event rental company involvement in disaster relief projects is to develop relationships with base camp management companies.
“These are the companies that will do a total overlay of a vast relief site,” Parks says. “Because with these sites, it is more than just finding a field and throwing up some tents. There is a whole process that is involved. Base camp management companies work for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) or one of the government facilities directly, handling everything from the tents, floors, food, laundry and shower trailers, on-site safety, layout and flow. Those are the companies that we really like to work for because they are managing the full project. We come in and provide the services that are really in our wheelhouse and be the best partner for them that we can be. We try to stick with what we have and what we know — that’s tents, floors, lights and doors.”
Arena Americas has worked on disaster relief efforts since 1992 when Hurricane Andrew tore through South Florida and Louisiana. Since then, the company has been involved in some capacity in almost every named storm to make landfall and cause significant damage. Parks — who recalls setting up the tents at the Central Florida Fairgrounds under which linemen dined during Arena’s first hurricane project — explains that it takes certain, specific characteristics for an event company to make an impact on the disaster relief scene.
It all starts with having plentiful quantities of the right kind of inventory at the base camp managers’ disposal.
“Because we are the largest supplier of clearspan structures in North America, it makes us the perfect partner for full base camp management companies,” Parks says. “Not every special event business is set up to do this. It takes a deep inventory and a large staff that can muster in hours and have hundreds of thousands of square feet of tents and floors up in the matter of a few days and sometimes hours. Some of the challenges are inventory availability. If you have jobs on the books that the inventory is already taken for, you have to work around that, be creative and make it happen. Fortunately for us, we have a design and manufacturing department and are able to turn gear around pretty quickly.”
Regardless of a rental company’s size or service area, Parks recommends that striking relationships with local authorities is an important first step for those interested in throwing their hat into the disaster relief ring — but he also offers a word of caution.
“For someone starting out, they should try to stay as local to their facilities as possible,” he says. “This gives them the best chance of landing, performing and retaining the business. They should check with local municipalities and power companies. Companies should also remember that disaster relief work is a very reactional marketplace. I’ve seen a lot of companies try to put all their eggs in one basket with disaster relief, then you go two to three years without a large storm or natural disaster — that’s where people start running into trouble. For Arena, disaster relief isn’t our core business — we are a temporary structures company. Disasters are something that we’re able to do when the need arises.”
From hurricane projects along the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard to earthquake relief efforts in Haiti in partnership with the United Nations, Mike Holland, CERP, president, Chattanooga Tent & Event Solutions, Chattanooga, Tenn., has a significant amount of emergency response experience under his belt. While he appreciates the rewards associated with facilitating the sheltering, feeding and other needs of those impacted by and helping to clear up disasters, Holland also is frank about the challenges that involvement in these efforts pose to independently owned rental companies such as his.
To those who feel motivated to help in times of disaster, Holland says to be ready to commit your staff and inventory to instant deployment to meet the expectations of relief organizers.
“I will caution that it is not all glamour,” he says. “There are a lot of demands, many are sometimes unrealistic. Unless you are sitting around waiting for the phone to ring [for disasters], it’s difficult to respond. You may get that call in your busiest week in September saying, ‘I need you to be here in 12 hours.’ You have to know how you’re going to do that, how you’re going to price that and how that is going to affect your inventory. With a FEMA camp, you may have 72 to 96 hours to complete the camp once given notice to proceed. If you’ve got to travel from Chattanooga to Baton Rouge, La., that’s 11 of your 96 hours to get that camp up and running. It might take you five to six days to put up a certain square footage for a customer under regular circumstances, but in a disaster, you might have to put it up in three days. So, you’ve got to have double or triple the labor and work all night long — you have to figure those costs in when you’re pricing it. It’s a difficult industry to play in. Those who’ve got it figured out and are doing it right have put many hours in learning what to do.”
Holland adds that although an event rental company’s services may be needed post-disaster, the company’s own survival is critical, too, and it is important to know when to say “no” in order to retain access to your staff and assets when local weddings or festivals call.
“There was a time when mine and a lot of other companies were pursuing disasters as a line of business. Plenty are still doing that, but we kept finding it hard to respond when disasters hit. We were saying ‘no’ a whole lot. I had to say ‘no’ for four years, from 2016-2019. We just did not have the staff to do much of anything,” he says.
Although he admits that jumping through frustrating hoops is a near certainty with disaster relief work, Holland acknowledges that players in the rental industry are the ones with the know-how to do the work the right way and should perhaps have more control in the preplanning process.
“Whether it’s an equipment or event rental company, we’re all in live events, and I think if people in the live events industry were given more control over doing some of the things that need to be done in pre-planning emergency response, it would be done a lot faster and more efficiently because we know how to work on tight timelines,” he says.