SUMMING IT UP
• Setting up tents strategically, to take advantage of picturesque views, can help to generate more event business.
• A tent can evoke the style, sophistication and charm of an upscale banquet space, while maintaining the fresh, breezy flair of an outdoor venue.
• Multiple tents on one property can create an even wider range of options
Hosting outdoor events in tents can add a powerful punch to any property’s event business.
When new owners took over the RiverTowne Country Club in Mount Pleasant, S.C., a few years ago, one of their goals was to expand event business. With two existing indoor banquet rooms, an outdoor venue was the missing ingredient for success. “Just looking at the setting of our golf course on Charleston Harbor, we believed that we had the perfect area to host an outdoor wedding,” says Howard Letts, Director of Food & Beverage.
In 2005, the club bought a 4,000-sq.-ft., “Euro-style” pole tent that stands atop a brick-base foundation. The tent was set up strategically, to take advantage of the picturesque grounds and views of the harbor.
Three years later, the tent has paid for itself, and the club’s event business is thriving. Weddings comprise about 80% of the tent events, but the club also utilizes the tent for meetings, golf events, rehearsal dinners, luncheons and corporate functions. Overall, the club credits the tent for a 30% increase in event revenue.
RiverTowne, like many clubs, has discovered there’s just something about hosting a gathering outdoors that resonates with people who plan events. “People naturally gravitate toward the outdoor setting, and the outdoor setting in a tent allows you to have a little bit of coverage,” says Jeff Kline, Operations Manager at Semiahmoo Resort in Blaine, Wash. “It is an ideal structure to have in a facility with a lot of scenery.”
The Great Expansion
Built in 1760, the mansion at Stone Manor Country Club in Middletown, Md., can accommodate 100 people. Yet, with most of the club’s weddings running from 150 to 225 guests, the property was facing a challenge. The former owners previously erected small, temporary tents throughout the property to meet these needs.
But when new owners took over the property, they knew they needed a more reliable outdoor event space. In July 2007, the club purchased a large, industrial-grade tent that can comfortably host 365 people and still have room for a large dance floor in the center.
Obviously, this is no ordinary pop-up tent. In fact, the tent sits atop a large cement slab, and has Palladian steps leading up to French doors that serve as its entrance. Inside, the tent evokes the style, sophistication and charm of an upscale banquet space, while maintaining the fresh, breezy flair of an outdoor venue.
“The tent has allowed us to have a different venue for different types of events,” says Brian K. Childs, Director and Partner at Stone Manor. “We do weddings, social events and corporate events. The tent makes us much more functional and diverse in our event packages than we were before.”
Spaces That Get Noticed
Savvy clubs and resorts recognize that using innovative event space is simply smart business. Several years ago, the Semiahmoo Resort was committed to increasing its wedding business. With a 40-by-80-foot tent situated atop a wooden deck in the back of the resort, to take in sweeping views of the Semiahmoo Bay, the venue has become an extremely popular wedding spot, typically hosting two weddings per weekend from May to September. Tent events now make up 25%-30% of the resort’s overall event business.
In addition to being a valuable source of revenue, the tent has helped the resort raise its profile. “Over the last few years we have really expanded our wedding business, and we are becoming a destination wedding resort,” says Kline. “In fact, for two years in a row, Seattle Bride magazine voted us the best destination wedding site in the Pacific Northwest. That’s primarily because of our tent and our setting here.”
Sometimes, multiple tents on one property can create a wider range of options. For example, the Stow Acres Country Club in Stow, Mass., has two separate tented spaces. The 40-by-80-foot tent pavilion is situated on the golf course and can seat about 150 people. While the club has hosted weddings in the tent, it is typically used for more laid-back functions, such as cookouts, golf tournaments and social gatherings. By keeping the walls off the tent, the venue offers guests views of the manicured golf course and sets a fun, casual tone.
For more intimate gatherings, the club’s “Tiki Tent” is located adjacent to the clubhouse, to accommodate groups of up to 60 people. The themed Tiki Tent is decked out with a Tiki bar, colorful lights and tropical-looking flowers.
“The Tiki Tent has added the ability to do small luncheons for our golfers,” says Colette Lankau, Outing Director. “Before we tented it, we had a patio there, but it didn’t really feel like it was ‘your’ space. Now, with the tent, it’s like having another room. It has added a lot of flexibility to our event operations.”
Incorporating both tent spaces at once has increased the club’s overall event traffic. “Because we have two golf courses here, we have a lot of things going on and need multiple spaces,” says Lankau. “I can have a group of 70 to 100 people in the big tent and a group of 60 in the Tiki Tent at the same time.”
Decorating and Accessorizing
To transform a tent from a simple canvas and poles to a personalized, one-of-a-kind space, it’s all about accessorizing. When customers book events at RiverTowne CC, Lacy Davidson, Catering Sales Manager, works with them to determine their vision for the event. She then partners with local rental companies and event planners to bring these ideas to life. “We’ve had some [rental] companies bring in fichus trees with white lights; we’ve had people string greenery from our two tent poles to soften the area; and we’ve used a silk liner to bring down the roof of the existing tent,” Davidson says.
Lighting is one of the most effective ways to customize the space. RiverTowne CC’s tent has white twinkle lights around the perimeter, four chandeliers, and eight “up-lights” that are all on dimmers. For added flair, the club has incorporated disco-type strobe lighting, soft lighting and multi-colored lighting. “For one event, we had lighting that went through the ceiling of the tent, so when guests arrived, they could actually see pink polka dots on the exterior of the tent,” describes Davidson.
Thoughtful design details also play a functional role. While RiverTowne CC’s tent can host from 200 to 300 people, it is also available to smaller groups. Recently, when the tent was set for a 24-person dinner party, fichus trees were brought in to both spruce up the site and wall off the area, to avoid a cavernous feel to the space.
Like any banquet space, however, keeping the basics of the tent décor classically simple helps to establish versatility. The tent at Stone Manor CC, for example, has a muted gray carpet, four white wrought-iron chandeliers, and tent poles wrapped in silk. “We basically leave it as a very clean, elegant palate for anyone who wants to accessorize it,” says Childs. “We have had weddings that will bring in large draping inside the tents, laser light shows and Chinese lanterns. It can run the gamut; that is the beauty of the tent.”
Avoiding a Collapse
Tent events can be a logistical nightmare, however, if all of the operational details are not carefully considered. One of the most challenging aspects of outdoor functions is preparing and serving the events. To make it easier for its kitchen staff to cook everything for events onsite, RiverTowne CC built a 16-by-16-foot outdoor kitchen. Complete with ovens, traditional and specialty grills, hot boxes, burners and the like, the outdoor kitchen enables easy access and diverse menu options.
With its two distinct outdoor event spaces, Stow Acres relies on two separate kitchens, which allows the club to host multiple events at one time. The larger tent pavilion is served by the club’s catering department and kitchen. Meanwhile, events in the Tiki Tent are served out of the grille room kitchen and outdoor grilling stations.
Serving a tent event can also be difficult without a service prep area.
“Initially, we had some challenges in setting up an area for our catering staff to be able to service the tent, because the proximity of the tent to the kitchen was a little bit farther away than some of our [indoor] banquet rooms,” says Kline of Semiahmoo Resort. To solve this problem, the resort now blocks off a good-sized entrance hallway just inside the hotel from the tent, to set up a makeshift service station for the event staff.
When Nature Calls
While there is much that clubs and resorts can control in tent operations, they are, unfortunately, powerless against Mother Nature. Weather is often cited as the most difficult challenge in selling, planning and executing outdoor tent events. For every outdoor event, clubs and resorts should have a backup plan to seamlessly move indoors in the event of a worst-case scenario. Additionally, having an arsenal of tent accessories on hand—ranging from screens and walls to fans and heaters—will allow tent events to carry on comfortably, despite rain, wind and temperature shifts.
Many properties are also investing in high-quality, durable tents that can stand up to even the harshest conditions. Stone Manor CC learned the benefit of this first-hand when, the day before it was set to hold a large corporate function in its tent, a massive storm with almost tornado-level winds ripped through the property and took down some large oak trees. Yet the tent emerged unscathed.
“The tent was perfectly ready to go the next day,” Childs reports. “It has flaps with large pipes that are filled with water and slide through the tent pockets, to hold the flaps very taut. When the wind is blowing, they aren’t flapping. They did what they are supposed to do and stayed nice and tight. ”
While there are benefits to renting tents, properties with a thriving event business often find a better payoff through purchasing them. While prices can vary, most clubs and resorts now report a one- to two-year return on investment, if not sooner. “For the quantity of times we use the tent, it is much more financially sound to own it, vs. relying on a rental company to bring it out all the time,” says RiverTowne CC’s Letts.
Owning a tent also offers more flexibility and control. “By ownership, you have the diversity of creating your own special palate and mood for what you want your tent to look like,” says Childs.
However, quality is key. “Don’t buy cheap,” advises Childs. “Buy a quality tent from a quality company and utilize their staff to maintain it. By utilizing their staff, your tent will have a much longer lifespan.”