Member profile: Las Vegas rental operator took a different route to success
By Connie Lannan
Whereas most event rental operators start their business with the basic tables and chairs, John “Brad” Smithers, president of RSVP Party Rentals in Las Vegas, took a different route.
After moving to Las Vegas in 1985 at the young age of 23, he entered the industry providing decorative items, such as lattice arches, garden bridges and wishing wells for both weddings and backyard events.
“I always liked the concept of renting something. I could get my head around that sort of an idea. I liked the idea of other people helping me buy and own things. When I was 16 in Little Rock, Ark., I bought rental properties, fixed them up and rented them out. When I moved to Las Vegas, I considered opening a reception hall, but I realized that would take too much money and involve too much risk. I researched weddings and learned there were businesses that rented wedding arches, tables, chairs and things to put in people’s backyards. I had experience building things, so I thought I could make these decorations and rent them on the weekends while working construction during the week,” Smithers says.
That is how he got his foot in the rental industry door. “I started with decorations and eventually added tables, chairs and other items. I had a beeper and a Yellow Pages ad. Back then, Las Vegas was a fraction of the size it is now. Rental stores weren’t anything special back then — just had some folding chairs and tables. I was able to look at it and say I can make some things that are special that will set me apart. If my wedding arch looks nicer, maybe they will use me. From that angle, I thought this was doable,” he says.
In 1987, he added balloons. “The balloons helped me buy tables and chairs. Then there were some companies in California that sold equipment and had $10,000 finance contracts that allowed me to make payments on other pieces of equipment. That really helped me be able to quit my construction job and convert full time to the rental business,” Smithers says.
Smithers was learning more about the industry from the American Rental Association (ARA).
“It was very early in the game when I heard about ARA. Since I hadn’t been in the business, I was flying blind. I didn’t know anything in the beginning. My dad, who was in the hospitality business, somehow got hold of an issue of the magazine, which was then called Rental Age. I started to subscribe and read them religiously. That is where I knew where to buy a product as there was no internet back then. I remember Keith Klarin’s column, called ‘Party Perfect.’ I learned so much. That was a lot of my education,” he says.
As he learned, his business started to grow. He soon had to find storage space for his fledgling inventory, so he rented a 900-sq.-ft. storage unit. He then met a married couple where the wife did the wedding flowers and her husband was a DJ. Smithers rented a storefront with them, calling it “The Bridal Center.” That arrangement lasted for a few years until Smithers took it over, continued to grow and move into larger spaces.
Today, Smithers and his wife, Grace, who is vice president, have 95 full-time employees who operate out of their fifth location, which is up the street from that initial small warehouse. “For years we have been in this location that offers 40,000 sq. ft. In 2022, we added a remote warehouse, giving us another 9,000 sq. ft. of space,” he says.
Catering to brides, wedding planners, country clubs, corporations, nonprofits, universities and municipalities, the company has a wide range of event rental inventory and accessories for every type of wedding, backyard party, corporate and nonprofit event or festival.
With a mission to help clients find the perfect items for their event, the company works hard to stay abreast of all the trends and be the first in Las Vegas to offer them.
To accomplish that, Smithers looks to what is happening in California. “We see what rental operations in L.A. and Napa Valley are offering. When we see certain types of china to glassware are hot in California, we make plans to add that to our inventory because our brides will be seeing it on Instagram, which means in about six months our brides will be asking for it. We try to have a wide selection of items. We push the inventory to the high end. We won’t be the first people to have anything, but we try to be the first people in Las Vegas to have those items,” he says.
Smithers learned the hard way not to be the sole trailblazer. “Years ago, I saw these amazing-looking chairs. Nobody was renting these chairs as far as I could tell, but I thought they were amazing-looking chairs. I thought they would fly out of here. I learned that that is not the way it works. People want to follow. Customers don’t feel comfortable being the first one to use an item. We have a system now that when we see certain items become hot and rental operations in California are renting them, we feel we have the green light to get them. We are usually the first people in our market to have it and start renting it out,” he says.
Like other rental operations, his was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. “However, we were never 100 percent shut down because our tents were used for testing sites and such. We did have to lay off most of our employees as there was nothing else happening. We kept a skeleton crew. I went back to working in the showroom, taking orders and answering phones,” Smithers says.
He is grateful his operation got through it. “The government funding was helpful. We have been able to bring our people back and then some. Business is booming now, especially on the private side. Corporate is starting to come back, but not fully,” he says.
He also is glad that the after-COVID challenges have eased. “For the most part we can get what we want when we need it. Supply chain is back to about 90 percent. Also, the labor issues have seemed to go away. We don’t have any problem finding and hiring people.”
Smithers says what makes his rental operation stand out “is our product selection — the depth and choices we offer — alongside offering good customer service. We always try to do the right thing for our customers, even if that means losing some money. Our goal is to treat others the way we would like to be treated,” he says.
RSVP Party Rentals has come a long way from its humble beginnings. As Smithers says on the company’s website: “We started our business 35 years ago and have grown into the most reliable and trusted event rental company in Las Vegas. Some of our first business clients are still clients to this day. Our roots run deep here, and we feel a responsibility to give back to the community that has given us so much.”
Giving back means supporting several local nonprofit partners, other worthy causes and offering a 10 percent discount to active-duty military personnel.
Smithers knows he couldn’t have accomplished all of this without his employees. “We have a lot of employees who have been here a long time. Some have been here well over 20 years and they like their jobs. That is very satisfying. So is the fact that we are well-known in our market. Customers know us and know we are a respected and valuable part of our community,” he says.
Because of that, he feels the future is bright. “Our goal is to become more productive and increase efficiencies,” he says, adding that those steps will help his company continue to serve his customers in the way they should be treated for many years to come.