After a hiatus in 2020 due to the pandemic, the American Rental Association’s (ARA) annual Leadership Conference — one of ARA’s premier invitation-only conferences — was back as a live event Nov. 18-20. To the industry volunteers who gathered at the conference, it was a welcome return to a forum where they could gain skills and make connections to enhance their service to their respective ARA chapters.
The conference, held at the Loews Chicago O'Hare Hotel in Rosemont, Ill., welcomed more than 50 ARA state and local leaders — many of whom serve as presidents, vice presidents and officers of their state chapters. In addition to these, current and incoming members of the ARA Board of Directors were in attendance to lend their insights on association leadership.
The event opened Thursday, Nov. 18, with a presentation titled “Develop Your Comic Vision,” by Tim Gard. Gard, a member of the Speaker Hall of Fame, delivered laughs through his message that focused on harnessing humor as a skill to prevent or cope with stress.
The conference continued Friday morning with opening comments and association strategic updates from ARA CEO Tony Conant. Attendees then heard from guest speaker Tim Dixon, who launched into the first of four leadership-themed sessions held during the conference.
With a master’s degree in sports psychology and 13 years of coaching experience — including time spent at the U.S. Air Force Academy — Dixon brought with him the credentials to provide a high-energy and challenging, yet good-humored, message that offered a perspective on leadership on a variety of personal and professional levels.
Updates on ARA initiatives — including RentalU, industry economic research and government affairs — also were provided Friday by ARA staff members between Dixon’s sessions, as was a greeting from conference sponsor ARA Insurance.
Friday afternoon concluded with a presentation from special guest Karen Layng, national president of the Girl Scouts of the USA. As a tie-in with ARA’s Women in Rental initiative, Layng discussed the many rental-related professional roles for which involvement with the Girl Scouts prepares girls and encouraged ARA leaders to partner with local Girl Scouts chapters to introduce rental as a viable career path for girls and young women.
Friday evening, all were invited to participate in a networking session that featured a dueling-pianos show starring talent from Chicago’s “Howl at the Moon” venue.
The conference concluded Saturday, Nov. 20, with a final leadership session from Dixon and additional ARA national updates, including a look at the consumer-facing, professionally produced media commercials that are part of ARA’s rental marketing campaign and progress made in the workforce development arena through the ARA Job Board.
First-time conference attendee T. J. Hermesman, owner, Ted’s True Value Rental, Durango, Colo., who serves as ARA of Colorado treasurer, is glad he went.
“I was impressed. It was great — really awesome. Besides the information from the presenters, I was able to work with others who are operating in the same type of business that I am in. Everyone shared their different experiences. There was good stuff to be learned from everybody who was there,” he says.
Hermesman thought Dixon did “a really great job facilitating and tying his presentation to the ARA information and into our industry. He did a great job of getting everyone involved. One of the big things that he brought up was finding the gap — figuring out where you are and what you want to be. I have seen my dad struggle with this. My dad is a kind of guy who can’t turn his brain off from the business stuff for very long. He would sit at home and come up with a really big plan. He will have an idea Sunday night and will want Mount Everest moved by Monday afternoon. It won’t happen, and it can overwhelm our guys because it is such a big plan that no one knows where to go. I received good ideas on finding out where we are, where we want to be, looking at what steps we need to do today and develop those strategic plans to make sure we are taking the right steps to guide us to our eventual goal. That was helpful because you can look at Mount Everest all day, but if you don’t know the steps for how to move it, it won’t move. I can apply this to my business and the board. With the board, we can look at a goal of trying to get more people involved socially and how to achieve that goal,” he says.
Hermesman plans to bring all these ideas back to the ARA of Colorado board. “I think there will be really good stuff to talk about. Getting involved in these conferences helps you come back with ideas for moving forward,” he says.
Fellow ARA of Colorado board member and first-time conference attendee Meagan Priest, manager, Chair Rental, Englewood, Colo., who serves as vice president of the state chapter, was initially “more interested in the networking and just being around like-minded individuals who had all gone through the same type of year that we have had. I wanted to get in other people’s heads and see how they survived this past year and a half,” she says.
While she received so much from the networking, she also ended up getting far more. “ARA did such a fantastic job. The two speakers could not have been better. It was so fitting for the time. The first speaker was comedy. It couldn’t have been more perfect for what we needed. After 2020, all you can do is pivot and be flexible. To put a spin of comedy — being optimistic and making people laugh — it was something we all really needed to hear. I have already shared with my management team what I learned from Tim Dixon, particularly his discussion of supportive leadership,” she says.
“There is a very fine line to draw between what our employees bring from their personal lives to work. As a person who considers my employees family, it is hard to draw that line. If someone is going through a hard time, you sit with that person in it. You let them talk about it. I wanted to share that with my other managers. Right now holidays are tough and we have some employees who are going through some hardships. Being able to sit with them and have them talk and vent, and make sure you leave the meeting looking for the light and positive note, I think will change the dynamics and how our employees are feeling at work. It is about being empathetic to the situation and making sure they are being heard, appreciated and seen,” Priest says.
She also sees how that can apply to her board service. “Being a supportive leader is so important. I am very empathetic to a lot of situations. When it comes to the board, I want to make sure that everyone is being heard — that the different reasons why they are here are being brought to the table so everyone feels part of the solution. We all have goals we want to achieve by being on the board. We need to make sure we are not losing sight of that and ensure everyone is being listened to,” she says.
Priest plans to join Hermesman in sharing what she learned with her fellow board members. “I will be talking with them for sure,” she says.
Mandy Martin, senior event manager, Pride Group, Chandler, Ariz., who serves as ARA of Arizona vice president, also found the conference beneficial. “It was amazing. This was my first Leadership Conference. We had comedy relief the first night and even learned how to play the nose flute, which helped everyone. Then we talked about the different styles of leadership. Tim Dixon gave us ideas for our toolbox,” she says.
One of those tools includes breathing work. “Resetting your mind to where you are and not letting the emotions get to you. We also went through our own plan of what we wanted to take out of the conference and implement when we returned home — and they told us to designate a person who would be responsible for holding us accountable. I want to implement the breathing resets/exercises to help control emotions, step back when things are getting stressful or having something that is making me emotional and remembering that it is only temporary. Also, there is leaning into the discomfort and not just staying in our comfort zones, trying to develop our skills and be better leaders as well as employees, partners, parents and everything else,” she says, adding that this technique will be helpful with her board duties too.
One thing Dixon said especially resonated with Martin. “The quote he shared that really made me think was ‘You don’t rise to the level of your goals, but you fall to the level of your systems.’ Everyone has these big dreams of how the company can be better, but until you put those systems and procedures in place, you can’t dream it and make it happen. You have to start with the foundation,” she says.
For Martin, the chance to network with others in the industry and learn tools from the speakers provided just what she needed to move forward with confidence and positivity. “It brought me up to a level where I want to keep growing and learning and passing on the skills I have learned to the younger professionals. I want to keep growing the industry,” she says.
Maureen Wendelberger, sales/marketing manager, Event Rents, Phoenix, who is the new ARA of Arizona president, also received a lot from her first Leadership Conference.
“It was really fun. I love that they made people mix it up. Every day and every dinner and networking opportunity they said to go sit somewhere else, go meet someone new and introduce yourself to a new table of people. I am always trying to drive that at the local area. It was great to see that work and learn that everyone has the same pain points. Like-minded businesses have been struggling and succeeding in many of the same avenues and arenas,” she says.
She, like the others, found the speaker presentations helpful, particularly Layng’s presentation about the Girl Scouts. “She was phenomenal. I learned about the Gold Badge, which is harder to get than being an Eagle Scout. She explained a lot about it and how to recruit more women. That always has been my mission. We have to participate in these local Girl Scouts chapters. One of my sales managers is a troop leader. I told her to keep doing this. I also see the ARA of Arizona getting more involved at the local level,” she says.
She also enjoyed learning more about ARA’s resources. “It was great learning about the advertisements they are doing, the safety programs we can customize to our teams and the job board information. If anyone is like me and my organization, we didn’t know all the benefits of membership. I think if we address that in one of our state meetings, people will learn something and get more out of their memberships,” she says.
Overall, the conference allowed Wendelberger to “gain skills to build up and reflect on my leadership abilities. It is always good to reflect on why you are the leader you are. I really like that. The one takeaway for me to continue to do is centered around the concept of ‘I hear you. I see you. You matter.’ Listening is something I can always work on. I am a salesperson, so I talk a lot. I can always listen better. That was a great takeaway for me to keep working on,” she says.