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ARA to the rescue

By Connie Lannan

December 12, 2023

Marlene Woodard, owner of A Planned Affair Event Rentals, Redding, Calif.

Marlene Woodard, owner of A Planned Affair Event Rentals, Redding, Calif.

Marlene Woodard, president, A Planned Affair Event Rentals, Redding, Calif., didn’t intend to own a rental business, but when the opportunity arose to purchase a struggling event rental company, she grabbed it. That is how she learned about the American Rental Association (ARA) and discovered the association’s resources could be veritable lifesavers.

“ARA saved my business,” says Woodard, an Army veteran who had worked for years in the corporate world before entering the event arena. “Since 2002, I had owned A Planned Affair, an event coordination and design business that specialized in fundraisers and galas for nonprofits and corporations. As my business grew, I was being asked about draping for big gala events. I started collecting a lot of drapes and décor and began renting everything else, initially from one rental operation. The owner of that rental business kept inquiring whether I wanted to buy the business. I finally made an offer. The day she accepted, we were hit with the Carr Fire and had to evacuate, which delayed the purchase. It finally went through in November 2018,” she says.

Woodard soon learned there were more issues than she initially thought and the support she thought she would get did not materialize. The learning curve was challenging, but Woodard, who changed the name of her new business to A Planned Affair Event Rentals, was bound and determined to turn things around for event rental clients in Redding and the surrounding seven counties.

Her insurance agent told her about ARA. Woodard understood the important role associations can play in a business. She joined and attended The ARA Show™ in Anaheim, Calif., in 2019 — a step she is so grateful she took.

“There were three pivotal moments at that show that put me on the right path for my business,” she says.

This is one of the events handled by the team at A Planned Affair Event Rentals. (Photo courtesy of Alyssa Rosa)

This is one of the events handled by the team at A Planned Affair Event Rentals. (Photo courtesy of Alyssa Rosa)

No. 1: Learning to go slow from the keynote speaker, Kevin “Mr. Wonderful” O’Leary from the popular television series, “Shark Tank.” “He was talking about the bakery that grew too fast and failed. The lesson I took away was that you can’t go from being a small town to a big town and spend all this money. You won’t survive financially. That was a big takeaway,” Woodard says.

No. 2: Finding a place for used equipment. “I was sitting with another couple at lunch. I mentioned that we had about 3,000 chairs that were a mess. He said he does not retire his old chairs but rather rents them out as ‘spare chairs’ for 99 cents each. They go out all the time. That sounded like something we could do and is now how we operate. I bought new chairs, which we rent for more money. We turned our old chairs into ‘I don’t care chairs,’ renting for $1.25 each. We clean them, but we don’t worry about what the metal looks like. Our clients don’t care. They just want a chair. These chairs go out every week. We are very transparent with our clients. If they know upfront, they are fine with it,” she says.

No. 3: Discovering your niche, staying in it and never turning clients away. “At one of the seminar breakout sessions, the speaker talked about finding what works for your area and becoming really good at it. He said you can’t be the rental company for everyone and don’t worry about trying to compete. He said to stay within your niche. He also said, ‘Don’t ever tell a client you don’t have something.’ You should just rent it from someone else and give it to the client. That was good advice because if you send them away because you don’t have something, they won’t come back. Since then, subrenting has become a big thing for us,” Woodard says.

This is a section of the showroom. (Photo courtesy of Alyssa Rosa)

This is a section of the showroom. (Photo courtesy of Alyssa Rosa)

Those suggestions “helped my business grow,” she adds. “Who would have known that hearing the keynote speaker, sitting at lunch and attending a seminar at The ARA Show would have given me this type of advice. That put me in the right direction and helped guide me business-wise in a correct path. If I hadn’t gone, I would have spent money I didn’t have.”

Over time, Woodard started turning things around, first with just the help of her sister, who volunteered her time as a business manager, and then eventually more staff. Just as they were starting to feel comfortable in their new venture, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit. The company shut down for a mandatory period of time.

Once again, ARA played a major role in helping Woodard survive.

“ARA brought in Ami Kassar [founder and CEO of MultiFunding], who did online webinars about the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and everything going on. His webinars were great. If I hadn’t been part of ARA, I wouldn’t have known about the webinars, I would have never known how to do the PPP and the other loans. I applied for the PPP and the other loans. When we knew we were getting them and it was deemed that we could reopen, I brought everyone back, working different shifts in different parts of the building. No one was laid off,” she says.

Long-term tent rentals were key, even though Woodard didn’t make any real money renting them. “My personal belief is that I don’t want to take advantage of disasters,” Woodard says. “If you are a business owner in your community, you need to support your community and still be able to pay your staff.”

That meant when people needed tents after the Carr Fire, she rented her tents for three months at a time but only charged for a three-day rental. She did the same for area churches and restaurants. Those efforts paid off. “Now the largest church and so many other businesses only use us because we were there for them. We have gained so much business just because we helped them during a time of crisis,” she says.

Before the end of the pandemic in 2021, Woodard purchased another area rental operation, Snows Wedding and Party Rental, which had been in business for 40 years. “We closed her location and moved everything, including her staff, to our location. That has been part of our growth,” she says.

She needed the additional staff and inventory once all the pandemic restrictions were lifted. “When things opened up, it was a tornado. We were so overbooked. At that point, we had eight people, with five answering the phone and delivering orders,” she says, adding that the level of business and stress on her and her employees wasn’t fun.

Now that business has calmed down, Woodard is assessing what the operation has achieved and what the future holds.

Woodard, third from left, takes a quick photo break with some of the members of her team. (Photo courtesy of Alyssa Rosa)

Woodard, third from left, takes a quick photo break with some of the members of her team. (Photo courtesy of Alyssa Rosa)

“In the beginning, we had to turn around the business from losing money every month to gaining money. When you are a company that can’t buy the big stuff, you have to figure out how to get the revenue in and make the customer happy and make a return on investment. We have done it with ingenuity, whether that is finding a use for our old chairs, a unique way to handle our linens or by using old dance floors as subfloors for our nice, new dance floors. I am really proud of that,” she says, adding that she couldn’t run the business without her core group of loyal employees. “They are the backbone of our business. Everybody steps up where we need them.”

Woodard’s initial goal when she purchased the rental operation was to “increase revenue by 30 percent within three to four years. I thought that was a pretty hefty goal. We achieved that in one year. Since I purchased the business, our revenue is up 43 percent,” she says.

That achievement derived from hard work, a loyal staff, being creative and the resources of ARA. Woodard plans to continue leaning into those resources as she prepares for her future growth — especially her membership in ARA.

“ARA saved our business — 100 percent,” she says again. “I cannot imagine not being part of the ARA. It’s an association that understands our industry, is fighting for our industry and can speak on our behalf.”