Event Central focuses on efficiency for safety and success
Many equipment manufacturers practice lean manufacturing, creating ways to reduce wasted effort. At Event Central Rental & Sales, Mechanicsburg, Pa., owner Scott Woodruff also is dedicated to systems that reduce labor and increase safety in his party and event rental business, albeit on a smaller scale.
“It’s about systems,” Woodruff says. “There are different opportunities to make money. One is when you write the contract and set prices. The other is when you deliver it. The man hours you spend to produce the job has everything to do with the success. You can eat up profit if you didn’t charge enough or if your man hours get out of control.”
On a chilly spring day earlier this year, Event Central’s warehouse was a beehive of activity. The company had just completed hosting an event for the Mid-Atlantic Tent Renters Association (MATRA), including a luncheon in a tent erected on a stage that extended from the company’s loading dock.
“For this event, we didn’t have space for what was needed, so we put up a Granite stage and then placed a 30-ft.-by-60-ft. Olympic gable-end tent,” Woodruff says. “Because of that, our crew has two days’ worth of pickups not offloaded yet and they want the dock back.”
Some employees were working to load a truck with tables for an upcoming job at a ramped entrance, while others were taking down chairs, rolling up carpets or dismantling the tent.
Event Central has 16 full-time employees year-round and starts increasing staff members in the spring to usually reach a peak of 28 with temps used as needed during the busy season.
Woodruff is understandably proud of the warehouse organization, some of which is based on his experience working in the air cargo business before he decided to open a Taylor Rental in 1987.
“We started from scratch as a new store with a small inventory and built from there,” Woodruff says. The company joined the American Rental Association (ARA) in 1988.
The company evolved into a split between party and event rentals and equipment before holding an auction in 2001 and redirecting efforts into party and event only, offering customers tents, tables, chairs, dance floors, stages, linen, dishes, glasses and flatware for rent.
“We were 75 percent party and event revenue at that point already, so it made sense to make the change,” he says.
The company eventually ended up in Mechanicsburg in a building owned and run by a construction company, which has presented some benefits as well as challenges, such as a lack of signage.
The entrance area includes mostly office space with desks and chairs. A small portion of the warehouse is set aside as a showroom with some table settings on display, but the company does not depend on walk-in traffic. “Less than 5 percent of our customers, by dollar, come to our store,” Woodruff says.
Key customers are local universities that often rent chairs from Event Central for graduations. As a result, the company has an inventory of more than 22,000 chairs, some of which were loaded in March on two trailers for setups scheduled for the second week of May.
“Universities are the one customer segment we worked the hardest to get into, but it evolved almost by happenstance,” Woodruff says.
“The closest university to us sought us out for chairs at a time when we didn’t have a lot of chairs. They said they were not comfortable with the quality they were getting and wanted to know if we were willing to make the commitment to help them raise the quality. In that process, we ended up purchasing a fairly large inventory of chairs. We also ended up getting a stage and stage cover and from there, it started to build,” he says.
“The college we were working with had a relationship with another college for some of their support services and we were recommended. From there, it blossomed into eight universities that we do business with. One always is a bid and the rest are regular contracts. Universities are demanding in the service level they expect, but they will pay a fair price and they are very loyal once they are with you,” Woodruff says.
As for the demands, Woodruff says a typical graduation setup at a university is 6,000 chairs that are delivered the night before the ceremony, taken out of the truck in the morning and then placed within six hours.
On chairs, Woodruff says most rental stores don’t have the same challenge he has with “tall” orders. “A trailer leaves here with 6,000 chairs and it is as high as it can reach in order to get density, so that you only need one truck. If you need a second truck for a three-hour drive, what do you charge? Who makes money?” he says.
“What makes the difference for this company is material handling. The reason is because at our size, you usually are not in this type of building. You’re usually in a space with a 16- to 20-ft. ceiling and don’t have forklifting operations. Ours was somewhat out of necessity and some from that I’m from the equipment side and I love to put together systems. I was more willing to spend money on material handling, racks, forklifts and whatever in hopes that I can reduce my labor in the process. It ends up at a certain size that is the critical mass that keeps you going and growing,” he says. The ceilings in the building are 32 ft. high.
“We don’t get into decorating, props, audio visual or decorative lighting. Those are the things people in our business sometimes are in and sometimes are not. We opted out because there are specialists for those things. We do the basic house lighting and can lights for weddings and then subcontract for specialty lighting from two or three different companies depending on what the requirement is,”
Also as part of the efficiency push, Event Central’s trucks have crew cabs. The company also has moved from a magnet board to an off-the-shelf computer-based dispatch module to track jobs, crews, pickups, deliveries and more.
The palletized storage area has 9-ft. aisles with floor to ceiling racks with full pallets of stage, chairs and tables, which are serviced by stand-on forklifts with reach lifts. The rest of the shelves are set up on 5-ft. aisles where the employee travels up on an order picker to pull material by hand as though it was at the floor level.
“The challenge in our business is most of the inventory items lend themselves to being picked at hand level, so with the order picker, we can hand pull thousands of feet of shelves without pulling pallets down. Generally, anywhere in the building, there is a rolling cart somewhere doing something. We want it to be easy. All glasses are on carts made for that purpose,” he says.
“Most inventory moves on wheels or are on a pallet. It’s all about getting it close to the truck. What you can’t automate, you have to store close to the truck. We have 20 60-ft.-wide center poles on a pipe rack next to the dock so that you can use a forklift to pull them down and unload in 15 minutes onto a truck. You also can quickly put back all poles and frame parts, so that the heavy poles are all sitting here ready to go out,” he says.
“Then you get into these little design things. The poles are color-coded, but if the color has rubbed off, you know it is in the right spot if it hits a spacer at the right length on the rack. We wanted to make it foolproof with no chance of putting it in the wrong place because of what happens if you pull the wrong thing for the next job.”
In addition, there are visual aids with photos of parts on bins. “When you package out, the packing list has a bin location and employees can figure it out based on descriptions. Usually it takes three people two hours to pack a big two-truck wedding. When unloading returns, however, you have a physical piece and you to figure out what it is because you don’t have a bin location. We may have temps working, so the photos on the bins are a way for people to know where to put things when they come back in,” Woodruff says.
Event Central also has a tent washer and a special drying system with racks that is a combination of trusses, pulleys and cables, which are raised and lowered by a single motor/gearbox, which rolls along a track. Woodruff says they can produce 3,500 sq. ft. of washed tents and put them up on the truss where they sit for three days to dry before being stored or returned to the owner.
“We have labeling for tents because there are different companies we do tent cleaning for. In the winter, we do a tremendous amount of tent cleaning for other tent rental companies in this bay. With our washer, a typical load from another rental company is 15,000 sq. ft.
We’ll wash about 3,500 sq. ft. a day, four loads, then put them on the rack system to dry. It’s a constant process of turning it over and getting it dry and folded and picked up. That’s winter cash flow for us,” he says.
On the tent side, Woodruff says the company carrys a variety of sizes and subcontracts for structures or tents larger than 60 ft. wide.
“We have 10-ft., 15-ft. and 20-ft.-wide frame tents by Economy/Anchor. The 30-ft., 40-ft. and 50 ft.-wide larger frame tents will be Olympic tents with a slide-in system. We also do all gabled-end tents with decorative walls as a way of differentiating ourselves in the market. On pole tents, we do 30-ft., 40-ft., 50-ft. and 60-ft. wide tents,” he says.
“Our market is made up of commercial, university and residential consumers. Of that, universities account for about 23 percent of our business. Graduations are the core, which has to do with renting chairs, but that also brings you the rest of the business. Corporate work is about 50 percent of what we do and the balance is direct with consumers with weddings and other events,” he says.
Event Central offers customers three gable patterns with frame tents, which Woodruff says gives more of a structure appearance and functionality that reduces labor and handling compared to hip ends.
The company has several hundred round tables in two common sizes and about 350 banquet tables to help support tented events.
Woodruff also developed a form from scratch with a concrete company to create concrete ballast weights that are 500 lbs., 1,000 lbs. or 2,000 lbs. in size.
“Because we do so much with frame tents and because we do so much with corporations and universities, we are prohibited from putting stakes in the ground a lot, so we developed a weighting system,” he says.
The form creates concrete squares with a slot that allows the weights to be moved by forklifts and pallet jacks.
“Now, we can take a flatbed trailer truck out, go into an empty parking lot at night, drop the weights in one spot with a piggyback forklift and then move them with pallet jacks when we set up the tent. When we take the tent down, we leave the weights in a consolidated area and we pick them up,” he says.
Woodruff also is an advocate for tent safety, often writing blogs about the issue and posting photos of safe and unsafe practices on Facebook. He developed his own written statement to address the responsibility of the tent customer with recommended emergency plans for tented events, which led to his participation in a work group formed by ARA and ARA Insurance to create the Statement of Best Practices of Emergency Evacuation Planning for Tented Events unveiled at The Rental Show in Las Vegas earlier this year.
“I have a blog and try to educate who I can and track things that happen on a Facebook page for educational purposes. I can show the good, the bad and the ugly, so that installers and customers alike are educated. These are ways for me to give back to the industry,” he says.