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January 10, 2017

The Production Manager's Crash Course to Mastering Event Rentals

The Production Manager's Crash Course to Mastering Event Rentals

It wasn't so long ago that "managing equipment" for an event was pretty straightforward. Lights? Check. A/V? Check. Set pieces, tables, chairs? Check, check, and check. But the emergence of interactive tech (VR, large touch screens)  has made inventory tracking much more difficult. The basics are still around. But now clients are demanding more custom products. Production managers need to address how to source, transport, and store gear they may never have worked with before.

Truthfully, most of the production managers I know can roll with anything. Just tell them what the client wants and they are pretty resourceful in designing ways to make it happen. That said, as events become increasingly complex, the process of sourcing gear gets more complicated as well. The best production managers apply some basic rules to every build, no matter how intricate. If you're stressing over renting a lot of gear for your next event, find some comfort in this guide. You'll be able to meet any challenge thrown your way.  

1. Ask Questions

As a production manager, it's easy to simply get a set of plans and execute them. But if you do this, you're missing an opportunity to provide a more meaningful level of service to your client or event planner. When you first get a needs list, ask some questions.

  • What are you intending to use this gear for?
  • Why do you want to use {insert type of gear here}?
  • Are you open to substitutes or alternative suggestions?

Even if the scope of your work is limited to execution, it's in the client's best interest that you understand the story he or she is trying to tell. You may be able to recommend equipment that is better suited to the situation or venue. This is especially true if the client is hosting an event in a strange space. You are the subject matter expert on issues such as egress, traffic flow, safety, and design execution. If you can make suggestions that either help tell the story better, provide a more seamless attendee experience, or save the client money, do it. 

 

2. Work with Existing Equipment Wherever Possible

What you have to work with will vary drastically from venue to venue. I’ve worked in spaces that have some of the most high end products I’ve ever seen. Stuff I couldn’t rent from the best shop in town. I’ve also worked venues that have 4 walls and a roof and not much else. I've shown up to a site survey in an open field dotted with a bit of scaffolding. Before you even THINK about renting gear, assess what’s available and match it to your existing design plots. Bring in the designer personally and start brainstorming alternatives, especially if reality is significantly different from the vision.

Once you’ve taken stock (literally), go back to your contracts and riders. How much authority do you have to explore other options? For example, suppose the rider coming from the client requests 16 microphones of a certain model. The venue has 10 that match and another 10 that don’t. Work with your audio lead to determine if these non-matching products can act as fair substitutes. If the answer is yes, ask the client if they would be comfortable with such a change. The client may be thrilled that you’ve saved them on rental costs. But you won't know until you ask. Go back to Rule #1. If you don't ask the questions, you're going to own the results of your assumptions, good or bad.

Another option would be to buy certain pieces of equipment you need. It depends on the use and the budget. If you are working with a tour or clients who produce similar events over and over, you might encourage them to buy the specific equipment in question. Do the math. If you’re renting a piece of equipment 10x a year at $19 per use and it costs $130 to buy it yourself, skip the rental and buy it.

Of course, things rarely work out this seamlessly. You'll probably need to hit the rental shops. But where do you go?

 

3. Do Your Vendor Homework

If you’re fortunate enough to have a variety of places to rent from, which shop you choose can be dictated by many factors. First and foremost, do they have what you need? In my experience, local lighting and staging rentals make it their business to know what the nearby venues have and don’t have and stock accordingly. You’re likely to have options. If you're still building contacts, ask venues or other managers for referrals. Once you've built a shortlist, look to availability, price, and customer service.

  • Is the gear available when you need it?
  • Are the prices competitive?
  • How is the customer service? Friendly or nightmarish?
  • Are they punctual?

If you’re unable to rent locally, you may need to have a rental shipped to you. This is especially true for custom products or complex installs. And these shipping costs can add up quickly. Assuming the client absolutely must have this equipment, find a vendor you can create a longstanding relationship with. If you're going to be shipping gear, you may as well work with a partner you can trust. Renting equipment isn't just about one event. It's about how you structure your business over the long term. Find a partner you can see working with again and again.

Tackling event rentals doesn't have to be complicated. Download this free inventory order template to keep track of all your gear.

 

4. Cultivate Your Vendor Relationships

This is arguably the most important rule the best production managers follow. When a gig is approaching, event planners and production managers need to know where to go to fill an order at the drop of a hat. On top of that, the harsh reality of the production business is that no matter how much you plan, things don't always go as intended. Are your vendors likely to have your back when things get intense? Some of the biggest headaches I’ve had on shows have been quickly eased thanks to an exceptional rental shop.

Want an example? I’ve had the pleasure of working with a backline provider who for years has sent backups of everything I’ve rented at no charge. Need a guitar amp? Here are two of the same. I’ve even had situations where neither amp sounded the way a musician wanted and the shop has brought additional options an hour before showtime. Whenever possible, this provider gets my business. They go out of their way to provide me and my client superior customer service and they've earned my business as often as I can hire them.

But just because I love them, doesn't mean they automatically love me back. Especially if I treat their equipment poorly. To deepen your vendor relationships, you've got to give as much as you get.

  • Assign your department heads to track rented gear meticulously. Separate it from the venue's equipment.
  • Take care of gear as though you personally owned it.
  • If cables came coiled a certain way, return them that way. If the cables came in a tangled mess, return them coiled.
  • Don’t ask for a better price unless you truly need it. Don't trade your reputation ("Hey, that guy Matt is a real penny pincher") for a few bucks. A time will come when you truly need to stretch every dollar. That's the time to negotiate.

5. Don't Skimp!

Of course, don't break the bank. Or your client's trust, for that matter. But if you need to rent equipment, don't just find the cheapest deal in town. Kudos to you if you find a unicorn - top of the line gear for pennies on the dollar. Generally you'll find that in rentals, like most everything else these days, you get what you pay for.

If you want the event to sound amazing and look spectacular, you need equipment that can do the job. Good rental companies work with all kinds of production managers with all manner of available funds. Lean on your designers and the shop heads to put together the best equipment you can within your resources. It doesn't matter how much work you put into an event. If the audience can't see it or hear it, it's all for naught.

 

 

You’ve got an event coming. It has a lot of technical challenges and some requests that might seem unfamilar. Don’t stress. Work with what you’ve got, rent when necessary, and cultivate strong relationships with the many great vendors in the industry. No matter what your clients throw at you, you'll be able to tackle it with confidence.

 

This post was originally published on October, 2015. It has been updated for accuracy comprehensiveness.