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Tent Companies Tap Into a Suite Kind of Hospitality

Events: More firms are offering executives and guests a privileged experience in outdoor corporate settings.


Amid furiously racing cars, greasy tires getting changed and dust flying around the pit stops of the Long Beach Grand Prix, the event's outdoor hospitality suites were a plush, elegant oasis of black Astroturf and linens.

Waitresses stopped to offer refreshments as corporate VIPs trickled in throughout the three days surrounding the race to schmooze and find the perfect vantage point on raised platforms protected from wind and potential showers.

Few even noticed that they were gathered under a 10-foot-high canvas tent, a structure that was dismantled within hours of the final lap.

Creating a comfortable and exclusive setting is important for the organizers of events such as the Grand Prix because these high-profile productions are driven by corporate sponsorships, said Kevin O'Brien, president of marketing and sales for the Long Beach Grand Prix.

In return for their dollars, the companies want perks that give their executives and guests a privileged experience.

As a result, the tent companies that provide these temporary havens are growing in popularity by increasingly offering outdoor event producers more than just canvas shades.

"Corporate hospitality is done in a very classy setting. You have environments that are in preferred facilities like stadiums and arenas. But with the Grand Prix it's downtown, on the street," O'Brien said. And when a tent company can dress up an outdoor setting, "they make our job a lot easier."

For the Long Beach Grand Prix, employees from Torrance-based Aztec Tents & Events began setting up some 450 tents, covering 150,000 square feet of covered space about 10 days before the race. Workers also installed 170,000 square feet of Astroturf, 15,000 chairs, 2,000 tables and 5,000 pieces of silverware. Housed within red and white striped tents, the corporate hospitality suites were up to 800 feet long and 20 feet wide.

"The tents are highly visible here. The Grand Prix was the first large event we ever did," in 1986, said Chuck Miller, Aztec's president.

The popular race event led the company to growth within the field of party event equipment rentals into what is now an $11.5-million company, based on annual revenue, that also manufactures tents, he said. Miller refused to disclose the amount of his contract with the Grand Prix.

Aztec's other contracts include installing a 72,000-square-foot tent for Raytheon Co. at the company's El Segundo plant parking lot when the defense contractor wanted to celebrate a new contract in a big way last year. Renting the tent, which sheltered President Bush among others, cost $150,000 for the day. To purchase the same size tent would have cost $850,000.

And Aztec solved a problem another event planner had for an upcoming meeting of world dignitaries in Cabo San Lucas by having designers engineer a perfectly symmetrical table and tent that would not have any of the leaders sitting at the head of the table.

Aztec's clients vary from sporting events such as tennis, racing and golf to business expositions, trade shows, fairs, new-car tours and, of course, backyard weddings.

"[Tent companies] are basically taking the outdoor wedding to the Nth degree, which is good for us," said James Leitz, vice president of IMG, a national sports production company based in San Francisco that puts on massive outdoor festivals such as extreme sports competitions, the annual Beach Bash in Hermosa Beach and the U.S. Open in Surfing in Huntington Beach.

"We laugh, because we're basically oversized party planners," Leitz said. "And no party is complete without the circus tent. When you have a sports events like the Grand Prix or a tennis tournament, it's basically a three-ring circus anyway."

Academy Tent & Canvas was present at the king of all circuses. The Los Angeles-based company owned by Tom Shapiro and Maury Rice set up more than 700,000 square feet of rented tents for the recent Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. And as one of the top makers of tents in the United States, the company has found unexpected avenues for sales.

Rice said the development of stronger canvas and sturdier frames is opening up a new area of growth: semi-permanent storage space.

Companies that may need extra temporary space would rather rent a tent than build a new building, he said.

"They have always been festive and we do a lot of sporting events, but now you have people who require long-term temporary space using them too," such as a computer company that used a tent to store hardware, Rice said.

For others, tents simply continue to be used as a shade and the extra special touch that make outdoor events complete.

"Tents make the festival and the look," Leitz said. "They give an event personality with their shape and dominant arches. Sometimes it's just for aesthetics. The roof line of a tent against a blue sky--we hope--looks great."

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