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Pandemic creates new customers to help tent rental companies avoid collapse

  • Customers in Hanover, N.H., are served under tents at Lou's Restaurant, right, and Murphy's on the Green on Thursday, July 30, 2020. Due to the pandemic, the restaurants have outdoor seating with shelters rented from Blood's Catering & Party Rental. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Tara Tucker, site coordinator, talks with Patrick Ryan, 10, of South Royalton, Vt., during the South Royalton One Planet summer program on Thursday, July 16, 2020, in South Royalton, Vt. Due to the pandemic, the camp uses a tent rented from Blood's Catering & Party Rental. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 8/1/2020 9:20:58 PM
Modified: 8/1/2020 9:20:56 PM

HARTFORD — Call it shelter from the storm.

With the summer wedding season all but called off in the coronavirus pandemic, tent rental companies in the Upper Valley are finding opportunities with restaurants, hospitals and schools to help prop up business.

Tent companies, a key component in Vermont’s estimated $164 million wedding industry, saw their principal source of revenue dry up as couples began postponing their 2020 plans into the following year. That left them with millions of dollars in idled equipment — tents, tables, chairs, table settings, glassware, lights, power generators, trucks — and few opportunities to deploy it.

“I’d say 1% of our inventory is out right now,” said Perry Armstrong, owner of Rain or Shine Tent and Events in Randolph, one of Vermont’s largest tent rental companies with $4.5 million in equipment. “And that may be a stretch.”

But Armstrong said the pandemic has also opened up new customers who have moved services outdoors, such as the Vermont Food Bank in Barre, a COVID-19 testing clinic at Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin, community recreational centers in Randolph and Waterbury, and “some pop-up sales events and a few socially distanced funerals.”

Still, with the exception of the Berlin medical center, Armstrong said the rate he can charge for tent rentals to business customers and nonprofits that are themselves financially strapped during the pandemic is nowhere near what he could charge during a typical wedding season.

“We’d normally for a month (tent) rental get three times the daily rate, but we’re not getting anywhere near that. But it’s helping the community and helping us a little bit. Enough to cover the loan on the truck,” Armstrong said.

(The cost of a tent and party rentals for a wedding typically runs about $40 per person on the low end, but Armstrong said the average runs between $75 to $100 per person and he’s had some hitting $500 per person, excluding the food and drink bill.)

One potential source of revenue that tent rental companies are watching eagerly is education, as many schools are exploring the use of tents to hold classes outdoors to reduce the risk of contracting the virus.

“The phone started ringing about two weeks ago. I’ve had eight inquiries for outdoor classroom space,” said Luke Knapp, owner of Undercover Tents in Bradford, Vt., identifying Bradford, Lebanon, Montpelier, Newport and Monroe, N.H., as communities that have called him about the availability of tents.

Still, Knapp said, he is waiting on the slow machinery of government aid and school budgeting.

“No one knows what they are going to do yet. They are waiting to see what’s going to happen with the second stimulus from Washington. But even if all eight schools came to me and rented tents through Dec. 1, that wouldn’t anywhere near make up for lost wedding revenue,” said Knapp, who normally does 50 to 60 weddings each summer and estimates his business this year will generate 25% to 30% of the income he generated in 2019.

But one school that’s already committed to tents is Thetford Academy. The 300-student seventh- through 12th-grade school has purchased three 20-by-40-foot tents at about $5,000 apiece to serve as outdoor classrooms, lunch tables and break areas, Head of School Carrie Brennan said.

Brennan said the school is looking to offset the unexpected outlay by seeking grants, philanthropy or making “spending adjustments.”

Thetford Academy will resume classes on Sept. 8, per Gov. Phil Scott’s statewide school start date executive order last week, and has adapted both on-campus and remote learning components to accommodate different comfort levels of families, according to Brennan.

“Not all the students will be experiencing on-campus learning. We’re still going to rely on remote learning to accommodate students who opt to stay at home,” Brennan said.

In Hartford, Tom DeBalsi, superintendent of schools, said the district is considering tents but not yet committed.

“We are still not sure if we will need tents,” he said via email. “The idea has been discussed and some principals indicated an interest initially. However with some families asking for a remote learning model, there may be no need for the additional space.”

Brendon Blood, owner of Blood’s Catering & Party Rentals in White River Junction, said he’s been finding new uses for tents — Blood’s has supplied the coverings for outdoor dining at restaurants in Hanover and Lebanon and has set up the tent for on-campus COVID-19 testing at Dartmouth College — but tent rental is not the cash cow it might appear to be.

“Food, tables, chairs, lighting, alcohol are the big moneymakers, but we’re not doing much of that,” he said. “Tents cost so much in labor to put them up that they are not the most profitable part.”

Blood’s has already supplied six tents to the White River Valley School District this summer, and Blood expects those tents will continue as classrooms this fall. The company has also supplied tents to The Haven, Willing Hands and River Valley Club, and Blood said he expects to rent out more tents at Dartmouth in the fall to distribute to-go meals to students.

“What I’m hearing from others in the business is that none of us has small tents for September or October,” which Blood defines as tents covering 600 to 800 square feet, as smaller sizes better accommodate their needs than the large party tents covering thousands of square feet that are used for large weddings and school and college graduations.

“I was pretty discouraged a month ago,” Blood said. “But I’m pretty much getting booked already.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.




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