Trending Content

Special Event Rentals innovates its way to success

By Brock Huffstutler

August 8, 2023

Special Event RentalsFirst-to-market is a phrase that can easily define Special Event Rentals’ trajectory in the Western Canadian event rental landscape.

The company — headquartered in Edmonton, Alberta — has grown by being a trendsetter versus a trend follower.

“When we were starting out, we were the first to do ClearSpan [structures] in the city, we were the first to do some furniture, the first to offer flooring and have a huge diversity in selection, so being first-to-market with a lot of new products definitely helped with inroads,” says Darren Kershaw, Special Event Rentals owner. “I looked at what Vancouver and Toronto — the big cities — do and thought, that’s where we’re eventually going to go. It allowed picking some of the popular inventory items and looking ahead, as opposed to reacting to what’s current.”

Special Event Rentals was launched in Edmonton in 1985 by Neil Goodkey, who remains with the organization today. Early customers were mainly trade shows needing supplies like pipe and drape, carpets and concession equipment such as popcorn and cotton candy machines.

Kershaw came onboard in 2002 and helped take Special Event Rentals to the next level with his vision of leveraging the organization’s growing inventory for expansion.

“I pitched the idea of opening in Calgary, sharing the product and working together in collaboration,” Kershaw says. “Neil agreed it would be a good idea. My strategy of sharing inventory mostly stemmed from the problems other rental companies have: not enough storage space, not enough quantity and not enough selection. I tried to reduce some of those struggles from city to city and store to store, share inventory and make it a win-win. That’s how the Calgary location started out, expanding to Banff, then to Red Deer and in recent years to Regina. Each came in with a competitive advantage because of the synergies, the products, the purchasing power and support you get from the other locations.”

Special Event Rentals now operates from four locations: the head office in Edmonton and additional Alberta branches in Calgary and Red Deer, and Regina, Saskatchewan. The company employs 100 to 120 across all its locations, ramping up to around 225 during peak season.

The company’s clientele has come a long way since its early days of catering to the region’s trade show circuit.

Darren Kershaw

Darren Kershaw

“Our customer base has definitely changed over the years,” says Karen Ackerman, CERP, Special Event Rentals’ director of operations. “We’re at about 65 percent corporate and 35 percent wedding and personal events. We’ve increased our inventory on large-scale flooring for outside events, especially for uneven grounds. We’re able to do quite large events and different venues. We have seen a surge in demand for ramps and stages over the last few years, which we can provide from different angles and different heights given our expertise in staging. The diversity of products that we have makes us a go-to place here in Alberta. That’s what sets us apart from some of the other rental companies.”

Special Event Rentals’ emergence as the “go-to place” in its market has netted the company some high-profile accounts, including work with the National Hockey League’s Calgary Flames, the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders, the Shaw Charity Golf Classic and The Princess Margaret Ride to Conquer Cancer.

“The Alberta film industry is booming with a lot of TV and movie productions, so we’re getting rentals there,” Ackerman says, citing examples like HBO’s The Last of Us and The Amazing Race Canada. “Those were fun to be part of, making sure all of our products were in great condition because it’s going to be on TV.”

Ackerman says items like farm tables and rustic vineyard chairs as well as cutlery, linens and other tabletop items in classic gold and white color schemes with pops of color have been trending for a while in the Western Canadian event rental market. While Special Event Rentals has all these products aplenty in its inventory, the company’s principals suggest that a key to their success is that they have never lost their first-to-market savvy when it comes to being at the forefront of the hot items.

“Our big thing is to listen and adapt,” Kershaw says. “We go to The ARA Show™ to get the trends and the new products, we look at magazines, and listen to the wedding planners and event managers who come in saying, ‘This is the new color that we need.’ We make sure we keep our ears to the ground to see what’s new, what’s trending and what’s not. For us it’s mostly listening and taking chances.”

Special Event Rentals also stays ahead of the curve by making operational efficiency a top priority.

“We’re proud that our whole process is paperless,” Ackerman says. “From the customer doing an online quote, to collecting payments, to warehouse prep, to equipment loaded out the door or on delivery, and then as it comes back to get counted in and the contract closed off — the whole process is paperless. It makes for an easy process for the customer, to keep them in that loop, and it’s really efficient for us internally.”

Special Event RentalsAlways on the hunt for new efficiencies, Kershaw considers Special Event Rentals to be essentially a logistics company and he closely follows examples set by those who have found ways to achieve their goals in the fewest number of steps possible.

“We realize that we’re just logistics,” Kershaw says, adding that he frequently ponders the question of “how do we move our product? CORT Party Rental in Seattle had a good online video; it all starts with the return counted back in, cleaned, put away and stored, and then prepped to go out. That whole process is our life. How can we do it efficiently, do it well and with the least amount of energy?”

Other examples that Kershaw cites of those who have striven for leaner processes include “the movie ‘The Founder,’ about McDonalds’ Ray Kroc, who asked, ‘How many steps does it take us to make this burger? How could we cut that in half?’ That’s what we think of all the time. And I always say, what would Amazon do? So, we’ve been working on that, from lift equipment to storage — we try to make sure we innovate. I try to think that we are No. 2 or No. 3 out there. We ask ourselves ‘What do we need to do to be No. 1?’ I like to go see every rental company in every other city to see how we can be a little more efficient,” he says.

That approach to efficiency is more important than ever to Kershaw and his team as the event rental industry sees the pandemic recede further in the rearview mirror. Despite robust business, the pressure is mounting to service more clients with fewer rental providers on the scene.

“We’re almost done with a renovation of one of our warehouse sites to help with the flow and improve efficiency. Our big goal this year is to get to 100 orders a day because that is what the market needs from us. Right now, in our world, we’re capped at about 70 or 80. Because of COVID, there are a few less competitors, so we’ve gained market share accidentally. Now we’ve got to service that market share or it’s going to go somewhere else,” Kershaw says.

A look into the recruitment and retention toolbox

Karen Ackerman, CERP (left) and Stephan Conze

Karen Ackerman, CERP (left) and Stephan Conze

This summer, Special Event Rentals expects to ramp up its already sizable workforce by around 125 more seasonal employees to cover activity across its locations in Edmonton, Calgary, and Red Deer, Alberta, and in Regina, Saskatchewan.

That’s no small feat, considering the hiring headwinds companies industrywide have been facing.

What is the magic behind the company’s success in finding and retaining workers in those numbers? Stephan Conze, Special Event Rentals’ general manager, suggests that several factors are critical in the mix:

Encouraging a family atmosphere. “I have regularly been signing ‘over-a-year’ celebration cards for employees and that’s a testament to the fact that we try to encourage the family feel — they feel part of something special. I think that translates [to retention success],” Conze says.

Referrals. The “family feel” also produces a lot of referrals, Conze says. “Word of mouth — when employees say, ‘I have this friend or family member who is really interested in coming because we’ve been telling them about you’ — really gives us the opportunity to get our numbers up. That has been a trust base for us.”

Conze’s colleague Karen Ackerman, CERP, Special Event Rentals’ director of operations, says another useful item in the recruitment toolbox is “social media – utilizing social media has proven to be an excellent way of with getting the word out to community groups.”

Identifying complementary industries for recruitment. “We look at [people from] hotels and catering, but also airports and warehouses — experiences that benefit us where we need them,” Conze says. “And truck drivers. We’re not limited to saying they have to be truck drivers in the rental industry. It can be a truck driver from any industry. They bring in an experience that can be beneficial to us.”

Providing opportunities to migrants. Special Event Rentals employs some staff from places like Ukraine. “There are a lot of new people immigrating to Canada,” Ackerman says. “They reach out through their networks, so we’ve been very lucky with getting people from different groups just through word of mouth and referrals from staff, which has been great.”

The Special Event Rentals team

The Special Event Rentals team

Keeping the door open to returning students. “Some students come back over and over for the length of their of study, which can be up to four years plus, so that’s really beneficial to us,” Conze says, with Ackerman adding that the company does a call out to all its previous students every March to see who is interested in coming back when they’re done with school.

Offering diverse training resources. “There’s a diversity in training that we produce and offer our employees,” Conze says. “We tap into ARA [American Rental Association] training programs and we do our own internal programs as well. It’s very customized for departments and what the needs for staff are. And it doesn’t always have to be narrowed down — a driver doesn’t just get driver’s training; he can get training in the warehouse or other areas as well.”

Special Event Rentals also produces basic equipment usage training videos for the benefit of customers, and the company has found these visual-based tutorials helpful for educating its important migrant workers too.

“Whether they’re from Ukraine, the Philippines or South America, they have a variety of ability of grasping the language. We might be at a limit in terms of what our communication can be with them, so the videos really help us to facilitate that process of integration,” Conze says.

Helping employees feel they are part of something bigger. Conze says this is something those on the Special Event Rentals team “feel pretty proud about. This is in an industry where, let’s be honest, there is a limitation of development and opportunities that can be created. We try to stretch that and create opportunities for our staff so they can develop, grow and feel they are part of something bigger — that they have a future within the company rather than feeling that they have reached the ceiling. I think that has helped us have a higher retention rate than other companies.”