August 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions PRESENT Tents August 1999 Current Issue
August 1999


An ancient concept evolves into a planning idea you may want to pitch

By Amy Drew Teitler

Tents. They aren't just for camping anymore. These timeless shelters have evolved into truly flexible meeting spaces for everything from casual afternoon barbecue functions to glamorous black-tie affairs. And they come in all sizes: Groups as small as 25 or as large as 2,000 can enjoy the indoor-outdoor ambience that a tent venue can provide. Budget notwithstanding, there are virtually no limits when it comes to what tents can do, and there are many style, form, function, space and price options from which to choose.

Staking out options
Of the many structures available for your soirée, pole tents are the most reasonably priced. These are anchored to the ground with stakes; then ropes are pulled tight to maximize the tension and create a smooth appearance. Not only is this traditional tent cost-effective for the planner on average it rents for about 25 to 35 cents per square foot it is fast and easy to set up.

"There are a lot of different pole tents out there," says Ron Schubach, owner of Rochester, N.Y.-based Rain or Shine Tent Rental. "They make high-tension ones now with beautiful high peaks and a lot of curves. Their frames are cleaner because there are fewer ropes and stakes than earlier versions."

As one might deduce, pole tents require poles, and a soft surface in which to plant them. These supports are the major drawback; despite their being fairly inconspicuous, they can get in the way of tables, dance floors, stages or other elements of an event.

Nevertheless, these tents appear crisp and clean on the inside; guests gazing at the ceiling will see nothing but smooth surfaces, with none of the endoskeletal supports that frame tents require.

Frame tents which rent for an average 30 to 50 cents per square foot work best on hard, flat surfaces like asphalt or concrete. Their sturdy structures eliminate the need for poles, creating lots of open space for the event. Although frame tents do not need spikes, they still must be anchored; a strong gust of wind can send an improperly tethered tent on an unscheduled flight.

For large groups say, a formal dinner for 250 people Schubach recommends a frame tent. "Of course, it always depends on the size you need and the budget available, but personally, I just think it's a cleaner look."

Frame tents come in widths of up to 40 feet, but new on the market are clearspan tents, which can be up to 100 feet wide, with no poles. This factor is making them increasingly popular. "The major advantage of clearspan tents is the unobstructed interior," says Kirby Nixon, owner of Ideal Tent & Party Rentals in Calgary, Alberta. "They're great for industrial or trade show events because they can go bigger than any frame ever could."

Clearspans are simple and extremely strong, but they're also very expensive to rent: 75 cents to one dollar per square foot. Most often, clearspans can be spotted at events like the Super Bowl or major PGA golf tournaments.

Inner space
Once a particular tent is chosen, planners need to figure out how much space they are going to need for the event. Most professionals have developed a personal rule of thumb about space requirements; Nixon is no exception. For formal, sit-down dinners, he recommends allotting 12 to 14 square feet per person; for barbecue-style events, 10 square feet per person; and for seminar events, where chairs are set up in rows, eight to 10 square feet should suffice.

Be wary of tent specialists who aggressively suggest a frame tent. If the event is to be held on the grounds of a vineyard or golf club, and is of a more festive nature, pole tents can provide a classic atmosphere for less money. They are often the preferred model for weddings and private parties because of their graceful lines.

If the tent will be erected on a relatively flat surface, there usually is no need to install elevated dance flooring, which can get expensive. "You can use just about anything," says Schubach. "Real or faux marble, parquet... The flooring comes in sections, generally 3- feet-by-3-feet or 4-feet-by-4-feet, in any type of finish you'd want." Flooring like this is made specifically for the rental industry and either will screw together or interlock.

Weather report
Climate control is one of those creature comforts that planners might make a low priority. For those who choose to indulge attendees, however, there is one thing to be aware of: Heating a tent is much less expensive than cooling it. Air conditioning units are huge; these need to be brought in on special trailers and require specific generators.

"We did an amateur golf tournament last summer," says Schubach. "They had one AC [unit] for a 40-foot-by-60-foot tent." Cooling the tent for one week cost about $10,000. "You could've heated that same tent for the same amount of time for under $600."

Decor and more
If you're going to use a tent, why not decorate it appropriately? Create an Arabian fantasy of rich silks and intricate tapestries, a winter wonderland of ice and mist, an underground stream with billowing walls and ethereal lights.

The ceilings are a great place to start when creating atmosphere inside a tent. Pole tents, with their sloping ceilings, are wonderful for drapery, and with frame tents, the material doubles as beam camouflage. Use taffeta, lace or other materials to line the inside. Add soft lighting or tiny, twinkly bulbs, and you can re-create a desert night sky or a glittering mine of diamonds.

"There must be a million lighting variations you can use in a tent," says Schubach, "even chandeliers." In a pole tent, a bracket is used to attach the fixture to the pole; with a frame tent, it can be hung from the frame itself. "You wouldn't want to use anything too heavy," he adds. "They're more for design than actual light, so go with something less expensive and safer to hang."

Along with lights and draperies, things like latticework, vines and other hanging props can serve not only to make the tent breathtaking but to hide stakes, ropes, and other eyesores.

The only limits when it comes to tent decor are budget and imagination; a talented decorator can turn the atmosphere from drab to dramatic, making guests forget for an evening that they have donned their tuxedos and gowns for a glamorous evening out in a parking lot.

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