Building relationships: The secrets to working well with event planners
Building relationships: The secrets to working well with event planners
08/30/2012

Marketing your business to event planners means putting your best foot forward from day one, being ready to be a consistent team player and, in general, setting yourself apart as a business partner who cares.

Event planners can be the best friend of an equipment rental company, but also can thwart revenue opportunities, which makes building a strong relationship a necessity. The first step is communication.

“In the very beginning, we reach out to event planning clients with the idea that we are there to help them and make their jobs easier,” says Jason McClure, event designer, All Occasions Party Rentals, Knoxville, Tenn. “We try to build a friendship first and foremost. A lot of these relationships start at networking meetings and local bridal shows.”

“We work with event planners regularly,” says Kenny Puff, president and CEO, Westchester Tool Rentals/Party Line Tent Rentals, Elmsford, N.Y. “The first thing I do is listen to them and then let them know we’re team players, that is we play well with others. We stay consistent and follow up. If we say the tent will be up Tuesday, it’s up Tuesday.”

Many rental stores also invite event planners in to use their space to meet with customers.

Laura Page, CERP, who does outside sales for Marquee Event Group, Austin, Texas, says event planners are encouraged to come in. “Our showroom is not your regular showroom. Our tables are not preset — they are blank canvases to throw linen on, set dishware, glassware or flatware, and basically create your own event. With new planners, we often invite them to tour our facility and warehouse. That helps them get a sense of our inventory and capabilities with events. We can show them what we can offer and what we can customize for them. That gives them confidence in our abilities.”

All Occasions invites event planners to use their showroom as an extension of the planner’s office. “We have free Wi-Fi available as well as having different showcase tables set up for them to see. Hopefully these tables offer inspiration and visual stimulation for both the planner and their clients. They can try out different linens and tabletop pieces in our showroom as well,” McClure says.

The next step is to show event planners your track record, says Steve Kohn, president, Miller’s Rentals, Edison, N.J. “Event planners want to work with companies that have a long and current history of successful events. The best way to show them this is through social networking such as Facebook, testimonials on your websites, a great marketing kit when making sales calls and good follow up procedures after an event, which can help you gather photos and comments to use for promoting your company,” Kohn says.

After plans have been made, the work really starts. “It’s the service after the sale that counts,” Puff says. “For us, that means being available. If you call between
7 a.m. to 7 p.m. any day, someone will answer the phone. We have our cell phones on 24/7. We have mechanics who can fix anything
and we have a parts inventory on hand. Customers and event planners also have the option for one of our experienced and knowledgeable technicians to be on site for the event. It helps when customers don’t have to worry about equipment.”

Another way to impress event planners is to always try to say “Yes” to the customer. “We never say, ‘No’ to a request,” Page says. “We always will find a way to create whatever event setup or vision a client has. We are willing to build what a client may need, make it if it is a custom linen or source it as needed, and we charge accordingly. This actually drives and builds up the inventory we can offer.”

Susan Southerland, president, Just Marry! and The Susan Southerland Secret, Orlando, Fla., says she likes working with equipment rental companies that have a strong commitment to customer service and that work with her as a partner.

“If one of my clients needs sample linen to try out at their reception site, I like to work with a rental company that will loan me one at no charge. If one of my client needs several meetings, I like to work with a rental company that doesn’t make me feel as though that is a burden,” Southerland says.

An event can be a deal-maker. “I like to work with a company before I begin to build a long-term relationship with it,” Southerland adds. “Not only do I like to see the product that the company delivers, but I like to see the service that the staff gives to my clients. So the relationship begins from the moment we do an initial brainstorming session. The long-term relationship begins after we work together.”

After the event is over is the time to build on the work you’ve done by continuing contact.

“After events, we place follow-up calls to get feedback on the quality of our rentals, our delivery drivers or any other staff that helped them,” Page says. “We send thank-you notes, host our own Marquee events to keep them in touch with us and host a biannual wine tour for all of our planners to spend the day networking with them, in addition to many other fun events to keep in touch.”

“We have learned to do an ‘event planner profile,’” Kohn says. “We keep notes on all our experiences with them and try to anticipate changes that might happen. When things go great, you can count on continued patronage, but if things go wrong, be prepared to do what it takes to make the planner happy. They are not the easiest clients, but they can be the most lucrative. It’s important that your sales people meet with event planners on a regular basis, even if events are not happening. Lunch and dinner dates are very effective. Phone calls and emails can only go so far.”

“We really invest in our clients, because that’s how you get their loyalty and their repeat business,” McClure from All Occasions says. “We may take them out to lunch or dinner. We even took one of our vendors to The Rental Show. The more events they do with you, the more they trust you. They take your ideas into consideration and it becomes a working relationship, rather than filling an order.”

Kate Kovalick-Patay, former event planner and current executive director of sales, Creative Coverings, Sparks, Nev., agrees. “As a planner I always tried to build the relationship prior, as if you have good rapport with a reputable company, I find they are willing to go that extra mile should anything last minute arise. Speaking from the rental company side, we work hard to be a true partner with the planner, so that they know they can count on us to deliver as promised and exceed expectations with our service.”
 


Who’s in charge?

Within an event, there are several players. The person in charge of the event will likely be one of two people: The customer whom the event is for or the event planner.

“If the planner brings a customer to us, the planner is in charge and they become the client. If the client comes in first and says there is a planner on site, the customer is the client and we run everything through the customer,” says Jason McClure, event designer, All Occasions Party Rental, Knoxville, Tenn.

“We also support customers in their relationships with planners. For instance, just because they hire someone with a business card, the customer may find out the planner is not necessarily an experienced professional. Ultimately, we support whoever the event is for. We want that event to go off without a hitch,” he says.

Sometimes, however, it’s difficult to figure out who is in charge, period. “If there is overlap, we’ll communicate with both the client and planner, and see who is in charge of what,” says Laura Page, CERP, sales, Marquee Event Group, Austin, Texas. “A client may come in to the store by themselves and the planner may find out after, so we handle all that carefully. It’s a case-by-case basis. The planners we work with are great at setting the tone and guidelines for the process, so that works well.”

Kate Kovalick-Patay, former event planner and current executive director of sales, Creative Coverings, Sparks, Nev., says that as a rule, it’s usually the planner who is in charge of the event.

“Going back to the relationships we create with them, many planners are comfortable with clients coming to us direct, as they know we will not step on their toes, quote pricing or try and make a sale behind their backs. I’d rather work with one planner 30 times in one year than get a one-time client that could potentially jeopardize the relationship I’ve spent so much time cultivating,” she says.

Susan Southerland, president, Just Marry! and The Susan Southerland Secret, Orlando, Fla., says it’s important to discuss who is in charge right away. “With the way I run my business, sometimes the client is in charge and sometimes our planners are in charge. We discuss this upfront with the rental company prior to the first meeting,” Southerland says.

“If the rental company is working through me, I like them to work through me throughout the planning process. Sometimes one of my clients might drop into the rental company’s warehouse. I expect the company to service the client, but once the client leaves, I like the rental company to inform me about what happened during the meeting. I always expect the rental company to keep pricing information confidential,” she says.

Working with the client directly when an event planner is on hand is rare, says Steve Kohn, president, Miller’s Rentals, Edison, N.J. “If the event planner wants us to work with the client, we will, but that would be highly unusual. If it’s the event planner paying the bill, then it’s the event planner we will deal with. Many times the event planner will have us leave emergency contact numbers with the client, such as the numbers for drivers to arrange for pickups if the event should break early or run late,” Kohn says.

“Sometimes the event planner wants you to talk to the customer, sometimes they don’t,” says Kenny Puff, president/CEO, Westchester Tool Rentals/Party Line Tent Rentals, Elmsford, N.Y.

“If you communicate with the customers, they know what they are getting and who we are. The more the customer knows the vendor, the more comfortable they are. It also helps us build the order — sometimes the customer will research us and make requests to the event planner for additional rentals,” he says.

“Our favorite event planners have a schedule set up, complete with contact information for each vendor and a little blurb about what’s expected from each vendor,” Puff adds. “It’s very helpful for everyone. We now ask all event planners to create a schedule for the event, so everyone knows what’s going on and when.”


Event planning versus event rental

The line between event planning and event rental can get blurry, what with do-it-yourself brides taking care of an event for 200 on their own and corporate event budgets smaller than years past. Many say rental stores need to set boundaries with their clients and customers as to what the rental company will and will not do, but it’s not easy.

“We don’t do event planning, but occasionally we do get customers who expect it with their rental,” says Kenny Puff, president/CEO, Westchester Tool Rentals/Party Line Tent Rentals, Elmsford, N.Y. “Then there are times when customers with smaller events
don’t think about getting an event planner. They don’t budget for the event planner and they think, ‘I can throw a party.’ The next thing they know they are in over their heads.”

So where is the line? Jason McClure, event designer, All Occasions Party Rentals, Knoxville, Tenn., says it stops at event production. “As a general rule, we don’t do planning, but we will sit down and do a party CAD layout with them. We’ll help them with their colors. We’ll let them bring a florist, but we don’t go to the event and oversee the event production,” he says.

Laura Page, CERP, sales, Marquee Rents, Austin, Texas, agrees and says there is a very important reason for not providing planning services — competition. “We do not act as the planner. We do not want to compete with our planners,” she says. “We are there to support them or, in the event a customer wants us to act as a planner, we then refer them out to the planners who we do business with.”

Kate Kovalick-Patay, executive director of sales, Creative Coverings, Sparks, Nev., says that, as a former event planner, she appreciated rental companies that preferred to do rental only. “I did not work with rental companies that offered planning as an option, as that was in direct competition with what I was doing and many could not take off that ‘planner’ hat they were wearing when I brought a client in,” she says.

Susan Southerland, president, Just Marry! and The Susan Southerland Secret, Orlando, Fla., agrees. “I don’t work with rental companies that do event planning. I think that it is a conflict of interest,” she says.

As a result, many rental companies will refer clients to their planner contacts if it’s appropriate. “We may refer a client to a wedding planner, if they are floundering,” McClure says. “For instance, if I ask specific questions pertaining to logistics, like ‘Where will the cars be parked?’ or ‘When will the florist be arriving?’ and the response is, ‘I don’t know, I hadn’t thought about that,’ that’s a signal that they may need a planner on site.”

Puff agrees. “Everybody thinks it’s easy. There’s a lot more to it than most realize. We will get asked upon delivery to stay at events, and to manage the timeline of deliveries and to organize equipment. If we didn’t arrange the situation upfront, we have to say no. It’s about knowing your boundaries,” he says.

Page 2

Talk versus text

Event planners need information and you need to provide it. You need to send photos, CAD layouts and documents to clients. How do you do it? Many depend on email or smartphones, but some say in-person contact
still reigns.

“Weddings tend to start with calls or walk-ins. Corporate event clients tend to stick with email, as they still like to bid out events,” says Jason McClure, event designer, All Occasions Party Rentals, Knoxville, Tenn. However, he says more brides today are using texts and emails.

“All of our business cards have our phone, fax and email, and all sales personnel have cell phones available. Our business hours are extended on Saturday. If the client is setting up on Saturday morning, they have until 1 p.m. if they ‘freak out’ and need to come and get what they need. We have full-time staff that works 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and we have five cell phone numbers that customers can call after hours,” McClure says.

“The addition of iPads and iPhones to our sales tools have helped immensely,” McClure adds. “We can use drawing apps and we try to stay up to date as much as possible. However, we are flexible. I had one client that asked to have something faxed and that was the first time in three years I’ve used a fax machine. I also use snail mail to send catalogues and to send thank-you cards after the event.”

“Event planners do not work on a 9-to-5 schedule,” says Steve Kohn, president, Miller’s Rentals, Edison, N.J. “They want answers immediately and they expect you to deliver on your promises. It’s important to be very detail-oriented when working with event planners. They like schedules, diagrams, timelines and details, even on the crews doing the work. We provide as much of this in advance as possible. Email and smartphones are a must, and Dropbox, a free online service for sharing files, is a plus.”

Laura Page, CERP, who does outside sales for Marquee Event Group, Austin, Texas, agrees. “Most planners, because they are repeat clients, have developed their own spreadsheets and such with our products listed that they just fill in when they want to coordinate an order with us. Many times a lot of the same basic items are requested,” Page says.

Kate Kovalick-Patay, former event planner and current executive director of sales, Creative Coverings, Sparks, Nev., says it’s important to be open to the client’s preferred method of communication. “We will email, call and even send direct mail, but we take notes as to which medium we get response to so that we know to utilize that first when communicating. Once we establish a relationship with a client we will know what form of communication he or she wishes to use. At times there are even those tech-savvy clients who wish to use social media platforms, instant messaging or even converse via text messaging,” she says. “As much as we are a web-based society, I find it really goes a long way to pick up the phone to make that personal connection at times.”

McClure agrees. “Despite all the technology available, the spoken word is often still the most powerful,” he says. “There is still a lot of face-to-face and verbal is a lot of it. Eye-to-eye contact is still my preferred method.”


Meeting with event planners and clients

The amount of time you’ll put into an event includes meetings with the customer and event planner. How many times you meet or communicate can depend on the client and their comfort level.

Susan Southerland, president, Just Marry! and The Susan Southerland Secret, Orlando, Fla., says the number of meetings she has depends on the complexity of the event and the client’s personality. “Some of my clients don’t require any meetings and rely on my expertise to pick out rental items,” she says. “Others require several meetings before they are comfortable with their decisions.”

Kate Kovalick-Patay, former event planner and current executive director of sales, Creative Coverings, Sparks, Nev., agrees. “When I was planning I would speak with the rental company twice — once to place the order and once to confirm the counts. Putting my rental hat on, we are open to meeting with a client one time or as many times as they need to feel comfortable with our products and service. Once we’ve worked together a few times, the frequency of meetings tends to decrease, as they know what to expect and trust we will follow through with their rental needs.”
 


The general tool factor

Event planners may not seem like tool rental clients, but regardless of the type of event, they will need some type of heavy equipment. Skid-steers and attachments are needed to drive in and pull tent stakes, lifts help raise larger structures and transfer pallets of items, and light towers help illuminate the job site and event.

Most events also need generators for power and pressure washers to clean up the site before and after. Those are elements the event planner and end-user client may not think about, but for rental companies, tool rentals for an event can be an opportunity as well as an installation necessity.

Jason McClure, event planner for All Occasions Party Rentals, Knoxville, Tenn., says he has the benefit of a Sunbelt Rentals located down the road that used to be the party and event rental company’s tool division.

“We rent construction and tool equipment when needed,” McClure says. “A lot of times, if we’re doing an event in the field, we need tower lights, extra generators or a front loader for the very large pole tents. One example was a wedding in April. We started putting in the stakes for a tent and we hit a layer of
rock. We had to rent a drill to get the stakes in. We do keep a small amount of tool equipment here for our personal use. We also use a rental company for portapotties or the mobile restroom trailers.”

Sub-renting tools is another option. Laura Page, CERP, who does outside sales for Marquee Event Group, Austin, Texas, says they have rented generators, fencing and restroom trailers, among other items, for events.

“We try to have all or as much as possible under our umbrella to emphasize the fact that we are full service. The fewer vendors the client/planner has to contact, the easier that makes their job and the more resourceful and valuable it makes us,” she says.

Steve Kohn says his company, Miller’s Rentals, Edison, N.J., partners with many companies for specific events. “Let everyone do what they are best at. If you try to focus on too many tasks, the odds of a failure are increased. It’s not uncommon for us to bring our partners to pre-event planning and post-event meetings,” he says.

Even if you partner with multiple companies for all the client’s needs, it’s important to keep the billing simple, says Kenny Puff, president/CEO, Westchester Tool Rentals/Party Line Tent Rentals, Elmsford, N.Y.

“We operate under two different names and equipment is rented from both companies, but it is all billed on one ticket,” Puff says. “People like clean, simple bills. We rent a great deal of equipment for events, including generators, lifts, forklifts, light towers, blowers and pressure washers to clean, and scaffolding for sound towers. We handle all the logistics of an event, if we can, to control trucking. I’ll tell you, it really opens the door for us, because when the customer learns we can be a one-stop shop, it makes the deal happen. It’s a lot less complicated for the event planner to work with one vendor and it’s easy to control with good time management.”

Kate Kovalick-Patay, former event planner and current executive director of sales, Creative Coverings, Sparks, Nev., agrees. “If one company can supply everything, then I will tend to use them. If they are sourcing items to keep the entire order together, I want to make sure they are sourcing from a trusted source. Often times I’ll request it be through a company whose products and service I am familiar with,” she says.