Shelter from the Storm:
Safe Operating Strategies to Cope with the Weather

April 1, 2011 No Comments

Nothing guarantees to please guests like an event held in the great outdoors. Yet Mother Nature’s weather events can conflict with and upset the best laid human plans. That’s why Sylvia Norton, general manager for Party Time Rentals, College Station, Texas, advises her customers, “Anytime of year you’re planning any type of outdoor event, especially here in Texas, always have a backup plan.”

The company’s equipment enhances a variety of large events in the great Texan outdoors, and 40 percent of them are held in state parks and on ranches.
In light of the unpredictability of weather, said Norton, it all boils down to having a very educated, experienced and professional crew. The tent foreman has been with the company for 25 of its 35 years in business, yet he and all crew members attend training sessions, ARA-sponsored safety updates, seminars, and watch DVDs on the best methods to anchor tents, which are the most fragile items, besides crystal and china, as high winds flash across the plains.

“I’ve seen 100-foot-wide tents flattened,” attested Norton, who can’t impart enough upon customers that a tent is not a permanent structure. “We advise them though it’s commercial grade, it’s still a temporary structure, that in a sudden storm or threat of violent weather, their responsibility is to evacuate into a permanent structure, and to expect the unexpected.”

A clause in the contract states that because of unforeseen weather factors, it is up to Party Time to decide if a tent is taken up or put in. Said Norton, “Because of type of tents and how hard the work is, we can’t leave to customers to decide how good or bad the situation is.” The company’s insurance policy covers equipment loss due to weather, claused in as acts of God.

Not everyone in the business takes the threat of wind as seriously as the folks at Party Time, evidenced at a Houston rodeo cook off several years ago, where, said Norton, every tent company in Texas was setting up at the same time, in a wide open area, dealing with wind, when what was actually a tornado hit. “We told our workers to take it all down, lay pipes, secure tarps under the pipes, get in the truck, leave the vicinity, and sit until we talked to them. We don’t care if tent tops are there when they get back. Those that didn’t know you can’t fight tornado winds and get tents up and tried were severely hurt. There’s flying debris, so much equipment not secured down. Wind is the quickest, most deadly factor.”

Once customers make plans, their focus is on the event, not weather, said Debbie Henderson, who keeps track of the 10-day weather forecast as a routine practice for her business, Big Top Bouncers, Spring Hill, Fla. “If the weather report says there’s a high chance of rain or wind, they can choose to move the date or we can return their deposit,” she noted, though the insurance policy doesn’t cover most equipment because it’s made to endure weather. “Being in Florida, the weather changes, and it doesn’t matter if we try to avoid it, it hits us.”

The wintertime favorite bounce house rents out with several risks attached, from bouncers in high heels to dogs chewing to wind and rain, the most pervasive weather issue to deal with because of the duration of its effects, said Henderson. “When rain gets inside, it takes a long pocket of time to dry out. If an event gets postponed because of rain, the next day it’s drying on the customer’s yard.”

Human-inflicted behaviors can obliterate a unit, yet a strong gust of wind can flatten one, according to Henderson. “You can stake them securely but one good wind and they’re down. You don’t want a bounce house out if winds gust over 50 miles per hour.”

Keeping an eye on the weather is the best defense against it, said Marshall Giroir, owner of A Kool Kidz Party Rentals, Houma, La. Though he mentioned inflatables are most fragile with regard to weather, small tents can’t withstand wind and rain when blowing at 15 to 20 miles an hour, and he simply doesn’t allow them to go out.

Outdoor events are prolific, especially March through June, according to Colleen Wientjes, manager of New Orleans Party Rentals, Belle Chasse, La., where weather often dictates alternatives to under-sky events. “You can always tent an event or move it inside,” Wientjes said.

New Orleans Party Rental workers take great care in erecting and dismantling tents, which don’t go up in rain and high wind conditions. If already up when a storm sweeps in, they’re careful to avoid rips, explained Wientjes. “If tents are up and equipment out, they take it all down in a hurry and store it in  the warehouse. When it stops, we’re up and running. In particularly bad weather, we don’t allow rental of anything.”

Wind is not a frequent issue in Nevada, yet the tents available from RSVP Party Rentals in Las Vegas, are wind resistant, rated to 70 miles an hour, said General Manager Mike Bolding. He recommended, “When purchasing a tent, make sure it’s engineered and of a high wind rating and it will be safe going down the road.”

Tents are rarely a problem for RSVP, nothing like dishes and glassware that get broken and linens that get burned, ripped, or thrown away in plastic bags.  
In a 50 to 60 mile wind, said Bolding, the problem is getting a tent up and down. “If we’ve checked the long-range weather conditions and have a pretty good idea a high wind is coming, we’ll get a tent up the day before the event when the wind is expected so there are no surprises. Or if we have a tent up when the winds arrive, we leave the tent up an extra day.”

An advisor from family-owned Party Time Plus in Billings, Mont., is at the customer’s side in putting together a backup plan if need be, said owner, Lynae Gilbert. The company has alternate venue suggestions and watches the weather forecast. Most customers choose the damage waiver opportunity the company insurance policy offers, to assume all liability as protection on rental equipment. If not, they’re billed, said Gilbert. “We’re fully insured and have assumed claims attributed to weather, have lost tent structures and equipment in freak snow storms.”

Over the 25 years in business, the Gilbert’s have learned to prevent loss by evaluating product fragility, coaching customers, suggesting product that can handle the kind of weather expected, at times turning away business for certain products, stopping or canceling events and giving refunds. Glass and crystal items and some of the tent products, such as pop-ups and those with clear tops don’t handle some of the weather that heavy vinyl versions can withstand. “It’s our responsibility to chose product that’s right for the event and help them stay in budget,” Gilbert said.

To maintain realistic expectations, the Gilberts remind endusers that “it’s a tent, not a building,” and inform them what to expect from products. “We coach them through answers to questions before they have questions, a laundry list of how to manage and cope when in possession of rental equipment.”

Extreme thunderstorms blow in and dissipate as quickly as they arrive in the area, and Gilbert is sure to extend the education on what to expect to family members and friends that rent large structures for wedding receptions. During a freak storm as wind in excess of 40 miles an hour creates movement that lifts tent, flaps side walls, and pulls on stakes and ropes, they panic and call for help, upset that the tent will collapse.

On one occasion a family member created such a ruckus that all the guests ran out of the tent. In 15 minutes it was still standing and all was calm. The unsureness creates panic, said Gilbert.

At times respondents arrive to tighten ropes and pound stakes, but when 200 miles away, 99 percent of the time, a phone conversation suffices to have them check equipment and calm down. Gilbert explained, “We try hard on the front side to educate on what to expect and do. But when it actually happens they get so stressed out, the logical side of the brain shuts down and they’re unable to recall what to do or not do.”

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