Tales from the road
By James Auerbach

Tales from the road

Visiting ARA event rental members

In April 2021, I decided that there was absolutely no way I would let the coronavirus (COVID-19) keep me “grounded” any longer. It was an emotional decision to leave my family and start traveling again, especially with so many unknowns. But after almost a year at home, it was time to get back on the road.

Why risk it? This one is easy to explain. I needed to see with my own eyes what event rental operators were going through to save their businesses after more than a year of lost revenue due to pandemic-mandated shutdowns and gathering restrictions. We could talk about it all day on Zoom video calls, but that removed a lot of the emotion of meeting face to face. I wanted to truly understand how event rental members had survived the past 12-plus months. I wanted to hear firsthand about the sacrifices they had made, but more importantly hear from them directly, and in person, what they needed to keep pushing forward in these uncertain times.

In addition, I was fully vaccinated and confident that I was following all current guidelines. I had no problem wearing a mask when required or requested. And after many years of weekly business travel, airports and endless hotels, I already was a bit of a “clean freak” and “germophobe.” There was no turning back.

Chronicling the member visits. During these monthly trips, I kept an ongoing journal. I wanted to remember the feedback and emotions I experienced when talking with American Rental Association (ARA) members. What follows are some of the highlights from the past six months.

April: Lexington, Ky. At the Peer Executive Group Owner Meeting, I met with an incredibly motivated and active group of event rental operators. Each had vastly different experiences over the past 12 months navigating through the COVID-19 lockdowns and loss of business. What really stood out from our conversations was the “resiliency” they all spoke about. Resiliency not only to remain open when the phones completely stopped ringing and there was no money coming in, but also to keep paying their key employees without question, even if it was money directly out of their pockets.

The other big takeaway was an increased focus on analyzing specific areas of their businesses differently than they had in the past. As a group, there was great interest in exploring available tools or resources available to positively impact various departments of the business.

May: ARA of Louisiana meeting and annual crawfish boil in Lafayette, La. The multiple decades of event rental experience represented by those I was able to meet with during this trip was staggering. In some cases, I met third-generation event rental owners who had been on job sites setting up tables when they were still in diapers.

What was abundantly clear from almost everyone I met during this trip was an overwhelming amount of pride. These people have pride in what they and their families had built over many years, pride in the fact that they had weathered many challenges in the past and pride in the knowledge that the pandemic might have slowed them down a bit, but there was no question that they would survive and emerge even stronger.

As we consumed more than 250 lbs. of crawfish, I was able to meet more than 50 ARA members and many of their employees. We spoke about sacrifices that had been made over the past 12 months, but never once did I hear a complaint or an excuse.

It was impressive to learn about how many ARA members had quickly pivoted and found success with alternative revenue sources and how others had creatively repackaged their existing inventory to generate income. Finding labor was a universal challenge for the members and we spent a lot of time reviewing the new ARA Job Board, which had just launched, and other available resources.

June: Texas Rental Association (TRA) Roundup, Kalahari Resorts & Conventions, Round Rock, Texas. They say everything is bigger in Texas and this year’s TRA Roundup proved that once again. The weather was perfect and the turnout for the annual event was huge. Having the ability to meet so many event rental members at one time over a few days was wonderful.

Employee training was the hot topic during this trip. Available resources to successfully and safely onboard new hires was constantly part of the discussion. Positively, many members in Texas had recently completed ARA’s new Box Truck Training program that had been created specifically for the event rental industry. The program is a good start, but more targeted skills training was a regular request that was heard loud and clear.

After the meeting, we spent two additional days visiting event rental members at their facilities. The hospitality and information shared could not have been more valuable. The operations were all clean, safe and busy. The best way to describe the week in Texas for me was “impressed.”

July: The Special Event conference and trade show, co-located with Catersource, Miami. You know it is going to be a good event when John Bibbo, CERP, from Event Source & Panache Events, Cleveland, is in town. And it was. But what really made this trip exciting was the special event industry coming together to showcase the creativity and passion the segment is known for. With many ARA members in attendance, the show was a chance to reconnect with some longtime colleagues and make some new connections.

The most memorable part of the trip was the overwhelming swell of excitement about the future and the escalating return of live events. The excitement could be felt on the convention floor throughout the week and every night at the evening networking events.

Were there stories about hardship from the past year? Yes, many. But repeatedly, people I met stressed that they would not be giving up anytime soon. They would never leave the special events industry. They were ready to be producing amazing events again. It was inspiring to have event rental companies, social event planners, corporate event planners, florists, caterers, live entertainment acts and many more all together again.

Takeaway from the week: We must keep pushing very hard to give the event rental industry a voice in Washington, D.C. Our efforts at the ARA are being noticed, and we are starting to be heard. But there is a lot more work to be done.

August: Hotlanta in the A-T-L. Atlanta lived up to the hype in August. Over a packed three days, we visited seven ARA event rental members and attended an ARA of Georgia axe-throwing event geared toward young professionals in the industry. What I remember most about Hotlanta was the overwhelming energy and excitement we felt in every business we walked into.

I can still hear the phones ringing. They were ringing pretty much nonstop everywhere we went. Employees were smiling, laughing and enthusiastically talking to customers about upcoming rental requests. It was just awesome to almost feel like we were back to “normal.”

While event rental operators in Atlanta were experiencing a high volume of new incoming orders, there also was the underlying concern about the immediate need to increase headcounts on the operations, warehouse and delivery sides of the business. The orders were coming in fast and furious, but no one wanted to exceed their capacity and potentially have delivery failures and damaged business relationships. This was another reminder that sourcing labor and hiring was still top of mind for our members.

Looking back and ahead. During these trips, I listened to countless ARA members explain that the last 12-plus months had been the “physically hardest” and “most gut-wrenching” year of their lives. I sat with them and saw the raw emotion on their faces and pain that was still fresh for many. But there also was something else more powerful that I saw firsthand repeatedly: They knew they were going to make it and would not allow their businesses to fail.

What was clear to me by the end of the summer was that the feelings I felt in each location were resonating across the entire industry. First, we felt unnaturally grounded in 2020. The unknown future at the time led to indecision and fear, but the event rental industry quickly rallied and showed its resiliency.

Whether it was a creative pivot or the short-term reimagining of the business, they would survive. In many cases, it was “back to basics” with owners and managers driving trucks to deliver tables and chairs or out with crews putting up tents. With a renewed sense of pride, everyone battled through the toughest year they had ever experienced. It was a year full of leaner operations and new learnings with each passing day. Through it all, everyone pushed forward. The energy of the event rental industry and those who operate in it only became stronger. It is that energy that will provide the strength to persevere and make memories for the thousands of customers the event rental industry serves for many years to come.

James Auerbach

James AuerbachJames Auerbach

James Auerbach joined the ARA in November 2020 after spending the past 25 years in the event rental, event planning/production, and hospitality industries. During his career, he managed businesses of various sizes from small owner-operated companies to large corporate or private equity-owned businesses. When he’s not working to support the event rental industry, Auerbach loves spending time with his wife, two kids, and two small dogs — Bella and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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