Down, but definitely not out

Overcoming the impact of COVID-19 in California

At the end of 2019, Kendra McMasters and her sister, Rayna Hess, were set for a great 2020. As co-owners of Chairs for Affairs, Concord, Calif., they had built their niche business into an integrated one-stop shop for event coordination, design and rentals. Then the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit and everything came to a screeching halt.

“It has been so difficult — so profoundly disappointing,” McMasters says. “You feel like you have built up your career and your business to something you are so proud of. It really takes off and is a product of your hard work, and then in an instant you are at the beginning again.”

As California and the rest of the nation shut down, McMasters and Hess didn’t technically shutter their operation.

“We have a phone system that allows us to work remotely. We obviously had to lay off most of our staff, and then my assistant manager and I worked from home and answered the phones from there. For the first two weeks that we were all locked down, no one was at the shop. After that, we came back, cleaned and did maintenance with my guys wearing masks. My assistant manager continued to work from home. We didn’t really close and were able to do things safely where no one was in contact with each other. We stayed operational even though we had very little business,” McMasters says.

This was a stark contrast to what had been happening just a few months earlier. The sisters, who always knew they wanted to work together, joined forces in 2013 when they started Eventfully Yours Event Designs, an event coordination and design business. This was really Hess’s baby. “I just did the paperwork and was still otherwise employed at a pet supply chain where I did employee education, product development, and store, warehouse and inventory management,” McMasters says.

As Hess’s business began to grow, they knew they needed to expand. When they

learned that Chairs for Affairs in Martinez, Calif., was for sale, they jumped at the chance. McMasters quit her job at the pet supply company. She and her sister dove headfirst into the new venture.

“We took ownership on June 1, 2015, at the height of the company’s busy season. We purchased it to allow Rayna to be better equipped to do what she does. Having a rental company gave us staffing and allowed us to purchase inventory. It gave us more buying power, which we needed because my sister was doing high-powered corporate event planning and a lot of purchasing for our clients,” McMasters says.

That became the most profitable year the business had experienced up to that point. “It is nothing we did. It just was a great year for us. We were really busy,” McMasters says.

That banner year gave McMasters and Hess the capital needed to move to a larger facility that would triple their warehouse size.

“Initially, we were in a tiny space and our inventory was in storage containers behind the store. We had to get out. It was very inefficient. We moved to Concord in April 2016. We found a building that had the right access points, warehouse and yard space. Now everything is housed under one roof. Eventfully Yours had an office in the back of our warehouse, and I worked in our nearly 1,800-sq.-ft.-attached showroom,” McMasters says.

They even hired their mother as sales manager. “Who is going to sell your business better than your mom? She has been working in sales and hospitality her whole life. She had become such a force for our business. When Rayna or I would go to a chamber mixer, people always asked us where she was,” McMasters says.

Fast forward to a few months after the lockdown.

“Slowly we were able to get some corporate jobs, such as supplying tents, tables and chairs for businesses that were trying to provide outdoor space for their employee meetings and trainings. We also did a few COVID-19 testing sites, but we didn’t do a lot of that. We initially couldn’t compete with companies that were drastically reducing their prices and knew that if we did, we would lose necessary inventory without making money. We made the choice to stay steady with our pricing. That has worked for us. We had just enough of those long-term tent rentals to cover the loss of some of our inventory and still provide cash flow. It was enough to allow us to stay afloat until things started opening up in July,” McMasters says.

In July “we started seeing a wave of small outdoor parties and weddings at homes. Most all the venues in our area were shuttered, and all our festivals and corporate events were canceled. We sustained ourselves on tiny parties. That is how we got through most of the year, with tiny weekend business and some long-term rentals — barely making enough to pay the bills,” she says.

They were able to secure both rounds of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding. “The first round was not super helpful because they hadn’t put any of the rules in place and basically told us that we had to spend it in eight weeks. It ended up that we paid a whole bunch of people to stay home, which hurt our reserves more than it helped. Had we known initially, we would have just sat on the money and made it last for 24 weeks. The second round has been helpful because it is coming during our slow season. When we are running at a deficit and not making enough to pay the bills each month, the money is a huge help. We think it will get us through because we are starting to pick up again now,” McMasters says, adding that they also received an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL), “which we haven’t touched yet.”

As the months progressed, McMasters saw more positives, thanks to solid relationships with two wedding venues that can accommodate outdoor ceremonies.

“We are one of the only companies that work with these two beautiful wedding venues that are in a more open county. They are in remote areas and can operate all outdoors and spaced out. They will have weddings every single weekend and we will have consistent rentals and coordination with them. Our coordination team is booked up,” she says.

While McMasters is handling the operational end, her sister is training and overseeing the new coordination team.

“All of our previous coordinators were on the wedding side. Rayna and one of the ladies worked primarily on the corporate side. She didn’t have to oversee the wedding team because we had experienced coordinators who handled all of it, with just a little bit of checking in from Rayna. Now she has lost a couple of experienced coordinators and has a much younger team, so she will be doing many of the weddings herself this year, which she hasn’t done in several years. She is back doing that so she can train a fresh staff with several new hires,” McMasters says.

The American Rental Association (ARA) has been a trusted resource throughout this time. “I sat in on the first PPP webinar and completed the Clean. Safe. Essential. program. I also spend a lot of time on the ARA Event Rental Facebook page. That has been helpful. I get so many great ideas from that page and can post questions or search for previous posts. The people on there are very helpful,” she says.

While it has been a devastating emotional and financial hit, McMasters says that she and her sister have learned a lot during this time.

“We’ve learned that we are both very good at adapting and pivoting. Early on we tried all sorts of things — sanitation stations, hand washing stations, changing our website to include pandemic tenting solutions, etc. I think we are good at adapting and scrambling. This has been a learning experience. It also has allowed us to refine our ordering procedures and our charging policies and fees. We have revamped everything because we have had the time, which has been beneficial. I feel like when we start operating again, we will have different procedures in place. I also have reorganized the warehouse and our tools now. We are doing a lot of things that we usually don’t have time for, such as mildew prevention on our tents and tent repairs and reorganizing. It is still a work in progress and a never-ending job,” she says.

As far as what McMasters foresees during the rest of the year, “I suspect that 2021 is going to be a wedding and backyard party year. Usually, a large part of our business is big graduations, fairs, festivals and corporate events. I don’t expect that to open in 2021 in this area. All of our festivals have rebooked for 2022. We are seeing people book small weddings at their homes and at the outdoor venues that we are working with. With that, I don’t suspect that we do more in 2021 than just paying the bills — just break even. We won’t make money this year. I hope I am wrong,” she says.

Neither McMasters nor Hess has given up hope on their business.

“If we can just limp along, then come 2022 we will have a lot of business. I do feel positive about that,” McMasters says. “Our business might look different. I don’t necessarily see the corporate business operating on the level we were at pre-pandemic for some time. We may focus in other areas, develop relationships with venues that we haven’t had relationships with — and try to pivot more toward weddings — until the corporate builds back up. Then we will have that business when the corporate comes back. I think we can be successful moving forward. My sister and I are still young and can rebound. Our goal is to be the last women standing.”

By Connie Lannan
Connie Lannan

Connie LannanConnie Lannan

Connie Lannan is special projects editor for Rental Management. She helps plan, coordinate, write and edit ARA’s quarterly regional newsletters, In Your Region. She also researches, writes and edits news and feature articles for Rental Management, Rental Pulse, supplements, special reports and other special projects. Outside of work, she loves to bake for others, go for walks with her husband and volunteer for her church and causes she believes in.

Other articles by Connie Lannan
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