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AAA Party Rentals thrives by keeping it simple

By Brock Huffstutler

July 7, 2023

Russ Hicks

Russ Hicks

AAA Party Rentals, based in Laurel, Md., and with a satellite in Waldorf, Md., has survived for nearly 30 years as a family-owned event rental company by proudly “staying in its lane.”

“’Staying in our lane’ is kind of our motto,” says Russ Hicks, the company’s owner and director of operations. “There are enough [rental] providers in our region that we don’t have to chase trends as long as we can cover the basics. That keeps us in business.”

Those “basics” are the typical staples of event rental: tents, tables, chairs, tabletop items, silverware and linens. “We live and die by what I would call the ‘vanilla stuff,’” Hicks says.

While that rental business model may not carry a lot of panache, it has done just fine for netting AAA Party Rentals some notable clientele in its market.

“We do a lot of cool stuff. We go to the Pentagon often; when Trump got elected, we got a huge bid to do the march in Washington; we just went out to the Department of Energy; and the city of Washington, D.C., puts on a block party every year that we’re involved in,” Hicks says of some of the high-profile events his company caters to.

But the sweet spot for AAA Party Rentals is really “in your backyard,” Hicks says. “That’s still our bread and butter. Graduations, smaller weddings — that’s really our thing, catering to the everyday renter.”

It is this kind of simplicity that attracted the originators of AAA Party Rental — Hicks’s father, Ray Hicks, and his godmother, Alexis Smith — to the event rental industry back in 1994. The pair purchased a rental business as an opportunity to exit the hectic fast-food franchise game.

“It will be shocking for people in our industry to hear that someone got into rental for more of a work-life balance, but it really was for them coming out of the fast-food business,” Hicks says. “My father and godmother had franchised McDonald’s restaurants for years, and those are never closed. They are 24/7 — it’s nonstop. For us in rental, on a weekend, you might have to deal with four or five angry brides. But if you are McDonald’s, you’re dealing with hundreds of people coming in every day. The headaches and the input it took to keep those stores going are what taught my father to evaluate the rental business and see that it was a good opportunity.”

Since he grew up around AAA Party Rentals, Hicks reasonably expected to seamlessly enter the family business after graduating from college. Dad, however, had other ideas.

AAA Party Rentals team members setting up a tent

AAA Party Rentals team members setting up a tent

“I was looking to use nepotism in my favor,” Hicks says with a laugh. “I thought, I’m going to graduate and Dad’s going to look out for me with a job. Dad had different plans. He said, ‘Son, I don’t have the type of business where if you have a long night out, you call in and everything still runs smoothly. I have a business where if you don’t wake up in the morning, the door doesn’t open. I don’t want you to take on that kind of pressure just out of school.’ So, I ended up getting a job in Atlanta with an overhead door company, where I managed their residential and commercial service department.”

After six years and with a lot of personal growth under his belt, the signpost pointing him back to the rental industry came via The ARA Show™ 2015 in New Orleans.

“My dad, as a gift, offered to let me go in his place,” Hicks says. “It was kind of like a free vacation for me. For him, the biggest attraction to the show was being able to speak with the vendors. He asked me to speak with the vendors because these are the main people we buy from, and we wanted to lock in pricing. I also went to some of the educational classes. It was all really reviving and refreshing. I came back interested in getting involved in the business. My dad and I sat down and came up with a plan.”

In the year leading up to his officially joining the business, Hicks’ father required him to visit the operation each quarter to experience the seasonal ebb and flow of an event rental company. “My dad’s kind of methodical, which I appreciate,” Hicks says. “I’d worked in the business over the summers growing up, but now I was experiencing what it’s like in January when it’s cold, in the fall and during the Christmas season to get a feel for things and make that transition.”

Hicks joined the business following that transition period and nearly eight years later says, “I’ve loved it ever since. It’s been way more work than I ever anticipated, but with the gratification of working at a family-owned operation, every day feels different. It was probably the best decision of my life.”

Today, AAA Party Rentals operates out of a 16,000-sq.-ft. facility in Laurel that serves as its main hub. “The satellite in Waldorf allows us to get some visibility in another part of the region without taking on an added warehouse. That’s more like a storefront that we do some will-call out of,” Hicks says.

The company typically runs on a staff of approximately 20 employees. That number increases to around 30 during peak season and Hicks has learned that in order to maintain that number, he has to aim even higher on headcount due to the realities surrounding today’s workforce. “We’re carrying a deeper staff because it’s so tough to keep them,” he says. “If my business needs 20, I have to hire 30 or 35 to maintain a level of service that people expect from us.”

AAA Party Rentals team members onsite at an event

AAA Party Rentals team members onsite at an event

Compared to many of its peers in the region, AAA Party Rentals carries a relatively small staff, but that, combined with its concentration on smaller events, has turned out to be an advantage for the business.

“It allows us the ability to pivot a lot more quickly than some of the larger outfits,” Hicks says. “Some people in the industry stop taking tent orders seven or 14 days ahead of an event, or they don’t take any orders the week of, or cut off on Wednesday. If you call me Thursday morning and I have a truck, I will bring it Thursday afternoon. When you help somebody who’s in a pinch, they’ll always remember you. That has been huge for us, whether it be gaining exposure or just being able to price differently so you’re making more for an average product when you can do it last minute. It’s kind of our philosophy.”

AAA Party Rentals’ success as a minority-owned business also has been an advantage, not only as a means of securing clients but also as an opportunity to provide mentorship in its community.

“In our industry there’s just not many minority-owned companies and that’s something I kind of like about us,” Hicks says. “Our area is diverse, so I think it gives our customers a diverse option. And my staff are 95 percent African Americans, and for them to see a company that started with my father and godmother and now being passed to me — for a lot of them, it’s the first time they’ve ever seen anything like that. It’s not normal for them to see a minority-owned business being passed down through generations. For some of them, a light bulb goes off that says, ‘Maybe I’ll get into business or try to do my own thing.’ We’ve had guys who’ve worked for us who’ve gone on to work for the city driving buses or become over-the-road truckers and be able to provide in a way they never thought of prior to coming to work for us. We really care about our family. It pushes you as an owner, too. Obviously, you do this for your own well-being, but when you get up to go to work in the morning, you kind of feel like there’s other people on the ship with you. It’s been really cool.”

Benefits of ARA involvement ‘monumental’ for this rental owner’s career

You could say that Russ Hicks, owner/director of operations of AAA Party Rentals, Laurel, Md., is “all in” on being involved in the American Rental Association (ARA).

Russ Hicks“I sing ARA’s praises from the hills. It has been monumental in my rental career,” he says.

Even though he grew up in the event rental business and had seen The ARA Show™ as a youngster, it was Hicks’ attendance of the show as an adult in New Orleans in 2015 that proved to be the real catalyst for his path in the industry. What started out as a “free vacation” from his father, Ray — who ran AAA Party Rentals at the time — turned out to be a life-changing experience.

“I owe the start of my career to ARA. That show was one of the main reasons I fell in love with rental. I saw all these people who are doing well, it’s a laid-back industry, everybody’s wearing jeans, boots or sneakers — it’s not like a conference full of lawyers and you’ve got to wear a $1,000 suit. It was like, ‘Wear whatever’s comfortable; we’re here to make money and make this thing work.’ I really love that about the industry,” Hicks says.

Eight years later, Hicks is fully immersed in the industry and within ARA. He serves as treasurer on the ARA of Maryland board of directors, he is a member of ARA’s Young Professional Network (YPN) and has participated in the association’s Leadership Conference that prepares emerging industry leaders for leadership roles.

“What all of that has done for me professionally is great,” he says.

Hicks also singles out some other ways in which ARA involvement has been especially beneficial:

Career path validation. “Seeing The ARA Show as a kid and then coming back as an adult to that 2015 show in New Orleans and networking with people there really lit the flame for me to double down and get involved with my father in our rental business,” he says.

Community of support. “As a small business owner, I don’t really get to make friends at work because they’re my employees, so getting along with fellow ARA members is huge,” Hicks says. “It’s a resource for you to look outside of your business. When you’re in your business and employees are calling or your customers are complaining, you internalize that stuff. You tell yourself that it’s only business, but you can’t stop thinking about the lady who had dirty chairs. How did you let that happen? Then you start thinking you’re the worst business owner in the world with the worst company ever. But then you go to an ARA event with 10 different owners, and they say, ‘Oh yeah, we had three of those last week. Take it easy — it happens. You’re doing perfectly fine. Think about how many customers you satisfied.’ That helps you remember that, for example, you only got one complaint on a weekend when you delivered to 70 people. You don’t realize all that until you get in touch with some of your peers and learn that stuff.”

Business efficiency ideas. “We’re thinking about getting new software and I’ve been able to call different operators I have met through ARA who have used all of the software we’re thinking about,” Hicks says. “They will give you honest feedback. They want to save you the trouble. And I’m more in touch with my salespeople by being with ARA. They know me now on a face-to-face basis because we were at an event together. It has made running the business a little bit easier.”

Inventory expansion. Hicks acknowledges that his company’s product line is not as expansive as that of others in the industry, but his connections through ARA are “giving me an opportunity to outsource and expand my inventory through my peers. If I do a job where I need 50 more tents, I can call some companies that are 100 percent tent. Then, if they get into a job where they need 1,000 chairs, they call me. It’s good for relationships in a social aspect, but it’s also good for our bottom line.”

“That’s why I’m so interested in being involved. Anything ARA asks me to do, I’m like, ‘Yeah, put me out there.’ You can’t lose with it. That’s how I feel,” Hicks says.