Matthew Smith, 37, has what is a somewhat typical story about how he became involved in the equipment and event rental industry — by accident.
“I was looking for a summer job while I was going to college. A friend, who was employed at Special Events Entertainment, brought me along as a ‘casual laborer’ for the day. That was April 2003,” says Smith, who is now logistics and facilities manager, Special Events Entertainment, Portsmouth, Va.
Smith says he “had no clue” about what he wanted to be when he was growing up, only that he liked to work hard, enjoyed making progress and having growth. “The rental industry fits both of those,” he says.
Special Events Entertainment is a diversified tent event rental company offering tents from 10 by 10 ft. up to 80 ft. wide, bandshells, stages, tables, chairs, pipe and drape, kitchen and catering equipment, lighting and inflatables.
“On any given weekend, we might do a 50-person backyard barbecue with a 20-by-30-ft. tent with plain tables and chairs at a residence while also installing a wedding in a venue with fancy linens, crossback chairs and lighting package as well as setting up 100 small tents for a wine festival with an expected attendance of 20,000 people at a city park. We try to be a company that keeps with the times and provides the most modern and trendy equipment,” Smith says.
“The best part of my job is seeing the finished product. I have the privilege of seeing up and coming jobs on the horizon, worrying day and night about how we are going to pull it off and putting together a plan. It’s extremely satisfying seeing a huge wedding or festival weekend go off without a hitch,” he says.
Michael Fitzwater, Special Events Entertainment general manager and American Rental Association (ARA) Region Two director, also has encouraged Smith to get involved in ARA.
“My involvement helped me realize that the problems or challenges that I have aren’t exclusive to me or our company. It’s nice to hear fresh ideas and get different perspectives. Also, I’m a big fan of RentalU on the ARA website,” Smith says.
Smith says dealing with the pandemic also was an education in and of itself. “The past 18 months have probably been more educational, at least from a business perspective, than the previous 18 years. When the pandemic set in, I thought the world was ending,” he says.
The lessons learned, he said, include answering the phone and responding to email because people contacting you want to do business and you need their business.
“Another lesson is that you can do more with less. It might be a little painful but teaching staff how to be efficient from the warehouse to the field is something that will be ingrained in our company values moving forward. Also, we’ve learned that the event rental business is a numbers game. I have been lucky to have a mentor who took the time to explain the company preservation steps we were taking and why. Having this exposure gave me a new perspective on how to ‘get skinny’ as a business and will serve me for a lifetime,” he says.
Since he found his career in the equipment and event rental industry by accident, Smith says he’s not sure anyone can sell a rental career to anyone without getting them through the door, which currently is a challenge in today’s labor market.
“I see people selling this as a ‘fun’ job, and it can be that, but it’s also a ton of hard work and dedication. This industry is a labor of love and either you are in it or not. We also can help ourselves by not undervaluing what we do and getting paid for our work, allowing us to offer employees better salaries. We can’t present ourselves as ‘last resort’ employment,” Smith says.
“We, as an industry, also need to work together to gain exposure. I would like to see us standing, shoulder-to-shoulder, with other industries competing for workers. Once an individual is employed, you also have to make them feel involved, develop them professionally and show them that they are part of the success so that they can see rental work as a career,” he says.