Women gain top spots in event rental

Mar. 20, 2022

The signs are everywhere: More and more, women are ascending to top-echelon leadership positions in the event rental industry. Some recent examples include the naming of Jennifer Gullins as president and CEO of Boston-based PEAK Event Services and the promotion of Kim Taylor, CERP, to CEO of TCS Event Rentals and Piedmont Portables, Burlington, N.C.

These women and others who serve in similar leadership positions are blazing a path in roles that in many cases have been male-dominated since the event rental industry came into its own in the 1980s and 1990s. 

“This is a male-run company for the most part,” says Tricia Schmitt of the landscape at AFR Event Furnishings, Pennsauken, N.J., the nationwide furniture rental company for which she serves as chief revenue officer. Although she oversees sales within all the company’s residential, commercial, event and trade show segments, Schmitt says she is “the only woman who sits on the C-Level and the only woman at an executive board meeting. It does present challenges for me.”

Jennifer Gullins
Jennifer Gullins

In many cases, event rental companies grew out of party supply departments that were part of a general tool or construction company. Often, the wife of the business owner would run the department, but not the entire company. As the event rental industry evolved, more men ran the operations — but that is changing. 

“I think a lot of that has to do with the physical nature of the work we produce,” Gullins says. “Many [event rental] businesses began as small, independently-owned businesses with a construction and tool rental aspect. Like any small business, when you’re starting off you tend to wear a lot of hats, and there’s a physical nature to constructing and putting up tents. Ownership in those smaller companies were often men and I think it leaned that way because of the physical nature of the job. I don’t know that we will see women as a majority in leadership in our industry because of that physical nature, but we are definitely seeing a lot more women in the driver’s seat every day.”

Delores Crum, CERP, president, Premiere Events and Party Time Rentals, Austin, Texas, and the American Rental Association (ARA) Event Rental Shared Interest Group chair, says that while there are many routes women can take to achieve leadership roles in the industry, a select few stand out as the most common.

“I started out where I am, as an owner. I have seen women for whom it was a family business — my daughter Angela’s story is going to be that family story where we started the business and one day she’ll be in charge. Then I’ve seen the model where women have spun off, as was the case with Party Time, a company we bought from Patricia Scarmardo. Her father had a general rental, then they started doing a little bit of event rental and Patricia spun off the event side while her brother kept the equipment side. In recent years, women have done the corporate route. They started through their expertise and expanded their influence, built their resume and their capabilities. There’s nothing peculiar about rental that makes it not possible to follow that path as you do in other companies,” Crum says.

What factors are contributing to the emerging prominence of women as captains of the event rental industry? According to those in the know, it comes down to being intentional in a few key areas:

Shifting mindsets. “Traits that are attributed to good leadership can come across as negative when they’re displayed by a woman,” Taylor says. “When you see a man display those same traits, he’s seen as go getter, someone who is really going to get people going in the right direction and bring the team together. But it comes across negatively with women. There were times I heard, ‘You need to be a little bit nicer, a little kinder.’ Even though I have been given opportunities, there were still conversations around being a softer version of a leader. I think this is attributed to a lot of stereotypes that are out there.”

Taylor says she is seeing this paradigm shift with the attitudes of new generations in the workplace.

Kimberly Taylor, CERP
Kimberly Taylor, CERP

“I think generations have changed the way that we think about our work, our careers and our families,” she says. “You go back to the stereotypes where it was just expected that women stay home, take care of the children and go back to work after their children got to school age. I’m right at that age where the people that are coming up behind me are not having children as early as I did, and even I had them later than my parents. Those generational changes have made a difference throughout the industry, even though I don’t think we’re at 50 percent representation. There are still many places where we fall behind, from political representation all the way up to even Hollywood leadership roles. I think that is because of those biases about the lack of flexibility of women in the workplace. We can change those when we have women who are fearless about getting in there and voicing for those changes.”

Gullins points to a gender-biased comment she once received — and her script-flipping reply — to illustrate how women can shift the focus away from stereotypes and onto what women can contribute.

“I was having dinner with some people, and we were talking about our careers. I said something about my son, and one of the men at the table said, ‘I didn’t know you had a kid. How do you do your job and have a kid?’ I replied, ‘Would you say that if I were a man?’ I told him I wasn’t upset; I was just making a point. He was immediately white faced. He said, ‘I would never have said that if you were a man. I can’t believe I just said that.’ So, it’s more of a shift in thinking — a mindset change. It’s less about women’s roles as parents or as a contributing part of the family and more about this shift in thinking about what women can bring to the table,” Gullins says.

Seeking mentorship and peer support. “If you’re looking to grow your career, you need to find some kind of peer mentorship,” Schmitt says. “I never felt that I was treated unfairly, but AFR is run primarily by men. In order to find the support I needed, I applied to be a part of Chief, an organization that supports women in executive level positions. It’s been great for me. It’s all about women communicating with each other, being passionate for each other and sharing their stories. You have monthly meetings with your core group, and you work through some difficult topics, like balancing work and life. You need to connect with other women and support each other.”

Taylor agrees, and praises ARA initiatives like Women in Rental that support networking among women in the industry.

“ARA is doing a really good job at putting focus on and being intentional about women in the workplace and in leadership roles,” she says. “Good leaders create other good leaders. When you can relate to and build a mentor relationship with someone who is after the same goals as you, you’re forging a way to equal out the playing field between male and female roles.”

Stepping up boldly. Taylor has had two tenures with TCS Event Rentals. Her initial run was a learning curve, where her natural inquisitiveness made her familiar with the operations of an event rental company. After a 10-year hiatus working in sales for another company, she was recruited back to TCS as part of its sales team. Right away, Taylor noticed several operational growth opportunities within TCS’s grasp. She was bold in her willingness to pursue these for the company and was duly rewarded with a position of higher scope.

“The things I had learned in my history with TCS and my knowledge of the inventory — it all came flooding back after my 10 years away,” Taylor says. “There were things they wanted to move to the next level, like new software, and some changes were in place, but there was a lack of someone to take it and run with it. I just took the bull by the horns and did what needed to be done. And getting support from the owner the entire way was very important. My role quickly changed from just sales and director of business development to more of an operational manager type of position.”

Coming into the company as a former customer also has given some women a leg up in advancing their positions as they bring in an informed outsider’s perspective on customer service and operational efficiencies.

“I had worked with Rentals Unlimited [later folded into PEAK] for years as a customer and was very familiar with their operation, products and staff,” Gullins says. “I find that a lot of our employees that come from other parts of the hospitality industry really excel in event rental because most of them were either former customers or interacted with the product and understand how the product is best used by customers. It really helps to develop a customer-centric approach to what we do in the event rental industry.”

Tricia Schmitt
Tricia Schmitt

Schmitt’s path as a customer recruited into the event rental arena was similar. “Before I started with AFR, I was a customer for 10 years with two different companies on the residential furniture side. I was recruited by the company through that avenue. I came on board as a trainer and a marketing person. Because I was a customer, I knew exactly what the customer wanted,” she says.

Promoting diversity to reflect the marketplace. “I think the conversation is even beyond women and more about diversity in general. The different types of people that you have coming together in leadership roles only adds to your strategic planning. Now you have all these different perspectives, whether it’s a cultural perspective or a gender perspective. You’re more in touch with your consumers if you’ve got diversity at the table instead of having a narrow view in your thinking,” Gullins says.

As they become more commonly practiced, factors like these are having a visible impact on the number of women landing take-charge roles across the event rental industry and in related professions.

“I have experienced a growth in seeing women in the roles that traditionally I did not see in this industry,” Taylor says. “There absolutely were more males in event planner and catering roles even 15 years ago. Even at the university and corporate level, the facility maintenance-type people — I had a list of male partners that we worked with, there were very few women. I could probably count them on one hand. Now I find more women taking on all those roles.”

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