Meetings & Conventions PRESENT Tents August 1999
An ancient concept evolves into a
planning idea you may want to pitch
By Amy Drew TeitlerT
ents. 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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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