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New rental operators share challenges, hopes and wins

By Connie Lannan

January 25, 2024

Photo courtesy of The Festive Elk

Editor’s note: This is the first in a periodic series of stories that will explore the reasons why new equipment and event rental operators are called to be part of the industry, their challenges and wins and why veteran rental operators have stayed, plus how this industry has offered them success as well as valuable lessons and advice they gladly share.

Never having been in event rental didn’t stop Matt and Kendall Moretz with The Festive Elk in Boone, N.C.; Kelli Crosby with Sugar Moon Mobile Bar Co. in Colorado Springs, Colo.; nor Mike and Spencer Henle with Twin Cities Tent & Event Rental in St. Paul, Minn., from joining the industry. Each saw the opportunities this segment provides and went full speed ahead.

Industry calls. Matt and Kendall Moretz were expanding their family and thought owning a business would be the best option to move Matt out of his long hours at UPS and Kendall from her gym business co-ownership.

“We had a few opportunities come across the table, but none felt right. A friend of ours said he had this opportunity. We looked at it and said this could work. We jumped in. What made us go into something we knew nothing about was that looking at it, it was a big logistics game. As long as you have the staff, inventory and drive, you can do it. It just would take figuring out how to strategically get it done,” Kendall says.

Mike Henle had owned a printing company for 40 years and sold it in 2020. His son, Spencer, gave up a government job with all the benefits it provided because he wanted to be his own boss.

“We looked at 11 different businesses in 2022. Spencer and I like working together. We were looking for a business we could do together. Everything about this business model checked all the boxes — working outside, working together and working with a variety of people. We were going to purchase an existing tent rental company and then decided that we wanted brand-new equipment because we both are very meticulous,” Henle says.

After 20 years as a physical therapist and part-owner of a therapy practice, Crosby decided it was time for a change. Wanting her second, or “retirement,” career to be something that could offer “more flexibility, less stress and just more fun,” she moved to what seemed like a very natural choice — vintage mobile bars to rent.

“My family thought I was insane and did an intervention,” she says with a laugh. “But by the end of the conversation they were on board.”

Her business fits into a niche market. “I am not a bartender. I don’t want to be a bartender. I don’t want to have anything to do with the catering aspect. I just want to be in party rental,” Crosby says. “That is unique in this industry of mobile bars. Most other mobile bar owners are bartenders. They offer their services in conjunction with the rental of their bar. Their bar unit always goes with their rental. I wanted to own the adorable, vintage camper/bar and drop it off so the renter could use it how they wanted to. My philosophy is to work smarter and not harder. Going this route also would allow me to have a bigger target market because with not offering the catering and bar services I am allowed to go to venues that other mobile bar operators are not allowed to go to.”

Challenges abound. For Kendall and Matt Moretz, the challenges came fast and furious. First, it was learning the business, setting up new policies and procedures and coping with older inventory.

“Initially we did it through trial and error. We ran ragged. We did not have a day off. We were following what was in place and it didn’t work. Every weekend, things were missing from orders and we would have to go fix it. We were not enjoying it,” Kendall says.

Two weeks into running their operation, their front staffer walked out. Two weeks later, the back of the house walked out.

“Our front of the house person didn’t like that we were putting together policies and an employee manual,” Kendall says. “Then, almost the entire back of the house followed as they were all related. We ended up with only two of the original employees staying. We were scrambling to get staff. We pulled from a lot of family and friends. I called everyone we knew.”

Then it was upgrading inventory. “We had to purge and reorganize, establish systems and help with the business. We have had to put money into our inventory, bring the quality up and organize it better,” Kendall says.

“We didn’t realize that we had purchased a business that was in its growing-pains stage,” Matt adds. “A lot of the inventory was worn-out. We had to replace a lot and learn a lot of stuff quickly.”

A month in, a major storm hit their area and took out some of their tents. Later, they had tents set up at a music festival and someone vandalized them.

Another challenge has been standing their ground with customers who were used to having things done differently and perhaps preferentially. “This is an ongoing struggle: What we need as a company and will help us grow requires us to combat what has been done. Change is hard for everyone. We are trying to stay true to our contracts and the rules and policies we set forth,” Kendall says.

Photo courtesy of Twin Cities Tent & Event Rental

For the father-son Henle team, it was having enough inventory to meet the demand. “In June, Spencer had to say no almost 40 times because we did not have enough inventory,” Henle says. “It is having the inventory to keep up with demand, but you can’t afford to buy so much inventory that you run out of money. That is where a lot of businesses get into trouble. I come from a business background. Spencer and I are always analyzing what we really need — five more tents or 500 more chairs. You have to have a good business mind to be in this business.”

When the duo started, they looked at how many tents they could physically set up in a day. “We are a two-man crew. We can set up two in the morning and two in the afternoon — four a day. If we set up on a Thursday and Friday, that is eight tents per week. That is what we based our model on — eight tents a weekend. Then we became more efficient and were able to set up five tents a day. We start at 6 in the morning and go until we are finished. This is definitely not an 8-5 business during the busy season. Now we are up to eight to 10 tents a day,” Henle says.

For Crosby the initial challenge was finding insurance. “Though we are party rental, as soon as you say the word ‘bar’ and ‘mobile’ in the same sentence, every insurance company hangs up on you, except ARA Insurance. It was the only company that was able to delineate that we are more like a concession trailer than a bar on wheels and that we are renting for others to use. We are not staffing the unit during its use,” she says.

Creating all the manuals and checklists for each of the mobile bars she rents has been a challenge, too. “Training manuals are specific for us based on the bar. I can use some of the resources from the American Rental Association (ARA) and even the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for safety as far as towing, but the exact way to clean and set up our three different keg taps, and each camper and tap truck, are different. Each training module and checklists for all our bars and all the stuff we offer are different. We have unusual equipment to work with, train on and maintain,” she says.

Additional challenges have included keeping up with social media to effectively market her business, building those relationships and networks and staying within her budget as far as new items for her inventory.

Mentors are vital. Because they were new to the industry, Henle took the leap and called two of his competitors. “I said we are in the East Metro and you are in the West Metro. I was wondering if you could share some stories with us,” he says. That approach worked.

“We work with Kim Kim at Epic Event Rental in Eden Prairie, Doug Haas and Brittany Vruno at Crown Rental and Marty Haas at Milestone Event Rental in Farmington. They have been incredible. It is a great industry, others wanting each other to see success. People are so helpful. We went to see Kim in January 2023 and she helped us set up our first 20-ft.-by-20-ft. tent inside her facility to make sure we knew how to start. She took us to our first ARA of Minnesota meeting. Throughout the season, I have been emailing Kim and Spencer has been emailing Brittany with questions and subrenting. When we need equipment, we subrent from these folks,” Henle says.

Kendall and Matt Moretz also have found that mentors can be lifesavers. “We have had these wonderful people guide us,” Kendall says.

There were ARA staff who helped with all aspects, including connecting them with James Waite, Esq., of James Waite Law, Castle Rock, Colo. “We got in line with Dan Hooks at Party Reflections through Larry [Ott] at Rainier. Dan took us under his wing and guided us. He even gave us a tour of his operation. We were like kids in a candy store, getting ideas of how to do things,” she adds.

Crosby firmly believes in the value of excellent customer service, kindness and collaboration over competition. “It is better to have friends in the industry rather than enemies. You never know when you will need to have someone have your back. That happened to me recently. I made a mistake with my setup and I didn’t have the equipment I needed on hand and I was hours from my warehouse. I relied on others in the industry. Having people in the industry you can rely on is a huge gift and blessing. It is easy to offer customer service and be friendly to your potential clients, but you need to carry that over to your competitors. They can save you and you can save them. Ultimately, having a friend in the industry is the most important,” she says.

Photo courtesy of Sugar Moon Mobile Bar Co.

Successes achieved. Henle and his son have already achieved their first-year financial goal way before planned. “Our year ended Dec. 31, 2023, and we already achieved our goal in September. I believe when you set a goal, you have a higher chance of achieving that if you know what you are aiming for,” Henle says.

Kendall and Matt Moretz have had many challenges, but “we have come out of every obstacle. There always has been someone to help,” she says.

A significant success is their current staff. “They are so strong and want to do things right. We have pushed quality over quantity. Everyone has been onboard with that. The two employees who have stayed appreciate the new standards. You can tell their confidence has increased,” she says.

To include everyone in bettering their operation, they have implemented the “innovation cookie,” a way to reward staff who offer suggestions for improvement. “We have taken advice from everyone under the sun. If you have an idea for how to do things better, make things a whole lot easier, organize things in a different way, etc., I buy them a cookie,” Matt says, adding that ideas are coming in.

Likewise, Crosby has garnered some major wins. She has been part of two HGTV events and was even in “The Happy Camper Movie.” She now has four part-time seasonal staff and has started subrenting other bars to expand her inventory. “I am glad to be part of this new industry. For me it is a breath of fresh air,” she says.

Questions beget more questions. Throughout this time, all have learned valuable lessons and are starting to achieve goals. But reaching one goal can create more questions and seeking more advice from veteran rental operators.

For Henle and his son, the big question now is: “How do we grow our business to the next level?” he says.

That question also is on the minds of the Moretz couple. “How do we grow and be productive in the space we are in and continue to serve our community the way we need to serve them and meet our goals in the space we are in? How do you survive your growing pains?” Kendall says.

For Crosby, there are questions about long-term planning. “I look down the road one to two years in advance, but I haven’t done 10-year planning. What are some tips for that long-term perspective?” she asks.’

Crosby’s other question hits at the heart of all new rental operators. “Am I missing something? I don’t know what I don’t know. I haven’t been in the industry very long and have never before been in rental. Are there things I should be doing that I don’t even know I should be doing? Have I covered all the bases and thought through everything I need to think of?” she asks.