How Sperry Tents Became an Industry Leader: A Live Webinar for Tent Entrepreneurs
Learn from the entrepreneurs behind Sperry Tents, a successful tent rental company that serves areas around the world. They'll be talking about how COVID-19 affected their operations, their best business strategy tips & advice, and how they use Goodshuffle Pro to empower their success.
Webinar Transcript - Karen Gordon and Steve Clark
Karen: My name is Karen Gordon and I'm the VP of Growth here at Goodshuffle Pro. Today I'm super jazzed to have Steve Clark who is the owner of Sperry Tents Hamptons— welcome, Steve!
Steve: Thanks, hi everybody!
Karen: We were just chatting in the beginning of this, talking about all of the different ways that Steve has been using Goodshuffle and all of the ways he's planning to continue to adopt new features and other features he hasn't quite explored. Today we're going to be covering first a little bit more just about the business in general. We're going to talk a bit about obviously this crazy past year we've had, what we're looking at for moving forward for Sperry Tents, and then advice for any of the smaller companies, newer companies, folks on this call who might be curious to hear if you could go back in time what might you have done differently, what did you do well. Then we'll wrap up at the end with my favorite topic, Goodshuffle, and talk a little bit about how you came to find us and things you are enjoying there. So to get us started, it's the question that everyone's asking: I'd be curious to hear what are some of the changes that you guys made operationally in 2020.
Steve: So obviously 2020 impacted everybody in the event business very significantly. The main thing that happened with us obviously is we went to essentially not being able to host any events for the beginning of the season and we had to dramatically reduce our staff. We ended up really only producing three weddings that were booked prior to March 15th in 2020. The other 60 weddings we had on the books all moved to 2021. We ended up producing 50 to 60 micro weddings with less than 50 guests because we weren't allowed to have more than 50. Every single one of those inquiries came in between mid-June and and the end of October so we had to quickly pivot and essentially redesign a bunch of events and figure out how to produce events to meet the state guidelines. We essentially ran with about a quarter of our regular production staff and essentially no office support, so we got lean and mean and stayed in business.
Karen: Were you changing the way that you were marketing the business? Were you doing anything to specifically target micro weddings, or was it more just a scramble to adjust with the current business you already had in the pipeline?
Steve: It was more survival mode. This would be the best description because we had no idea what we were going to be able to do through June or into July, so it was very difficult to put out a marketing message having no guidance and not understanding what we were going to be able to do. We thankfully were able to rely on our on our vertical network of vendors that work with us: caterers, event planners, and venues to fill in the gaps and and salvage part of the season.
Karen: It sounds like you salvaged some, but obviously on a smaller scale, you mentioned being this lean and mean team— do you feel like there were any silver linings or any positive things that you guys learned as a team that you're going to take moving forward?
Steve: We had a lot of time to clean the warehouse in the beginning of the season so we were actually able to retool the warehouse, get rid of a lot of stuff, and change the workflow, which helped a lot. Bringing it back to Goodshuffle Pro a little bit, the fact that I was able to work remotely all the time and wherever I was I could update a quote or email a quote was great. Whether I had my iPhone or an iPad or my laptop, at home or at my desk in the office, being able to be mobile was huge.
Karen: That's great! You mentioned cleaning the warehouse, did you get to take stock of the inventory, and are you entering any more of those details into your software by chance?
Steve: We removed things, we got rid of older inventory. We didn't have to add any more because we really didn't add any more, but we definitely lowered some numbers as we identified older canopies that still showed up in the system that we didn't need anymore. Usually what goes in and out are just simple tent canopies because we've got so many poles and sides and everything else that we're less worried about inventory as it relates to all the small things. We have more than we need. We worry most about having canopies.
Karen: Got it, that makes sense. How has this kind of cleanup and everything impacted your goals for 2021? Are you going to try and market some of the stuff that you do have? Removing some of the things from your website that you were getting rid of? Are you going to try and continue to package micro weddings, or are you hoping that's just a thing of the past?
Steve: It's interesting that you mention that because there is still a trend for smaller weddings because some people are not as comfortable with a couple hundred people in their backyard, so they're still planning smaller events just for safety reasons. There's also still inconsistent guidance out of the state of New York as to what we're allowed to do right now. At venues we can have 200 people under a tent, but in somebody's backyard we can only have 25. They rushed to get the guidance out to get the catering halls and indoor venues open, and left off professionally mannered off-premise catered events. Earlier this morning, I was actually on a conference call with the New York State Department of Health to talk to them about the language that needed to be updated in the current COVID-19 policy for opening up our industry. The event businesses in New York were really left out.
Karen: That's great that you were able to do that. Did you have an existing relationship with someone and were able to get that? I know a lot of people are saying that they're running into those frustrations of local guidelines being really generous to restaurants and not for events. Do you have a connection there or any advice for folks?
Steve: What we did here is, a group of east end businesses— impacted caterers that do little events, caterers that do the over-the-top weddings, and myself— we have lobbied our local our local state assemblyman, and then he got a number of different correspondence from other local officials and one of our state representatives in Washington to send a note to the Department of Health and the governor's office. It was sort of a group lobbying effort— many, many voices tend to be heard a little bit more as long as the message is clear. It's just one of those things where there are unintended consequences of a policy that was put in place that— to no fault of their own— they didn't understand our industry as it relates to backyard events. They understood venues and they understood the commercial properties, but they weren't thinking the same thing went on in somebody's backyard, so they're very open to hearing our suggestions. We even wrote them copy for the legislation so they can just cut and paste.
Karen: We've seen that some here in the Washington, DC area. The DC Live Events Coalition put together some stuff, and they actually got a great write-up in Washingtonian, which I thought was really impressive. They did a really nice job explaining the issue. I think people sometimes hear about parties and things and think, “Well do you need to do that?”, and they just did a great job of highlighting the sentiment of: if we feel comfortable with restaurants being at this capacity because there are standards in place, there's no reason that a professionally run event can't have the exact same standards. I thought that comparison really drew a lot of great attention and a lot more understanding in general.
Steve: The way we positioned it to the state was with three main things. One is, when you have a licensed off-premise caterer that's getting approvals from the local health department, and then you have a local municipality's special event permit, and then you have a code enforcement with a tent permit, you're essentially creating a temporary venue in somebody's backyard. That temporary venue is operating under the same guidelines as a commercial venue because those licensed caterers, by law, have to follow the same policies that an on-premise caterer has to follow. If not, they've got even bigger restrictions because of the refrigeration and food temperature issues. All that food handling when you're in somebody's backyard has even stricter guidelines than an indoor kitchen has, so we made the case that since all these events are actually outside, they're safer. They're a double occupancy in the tents versus pre-COVID occupancy, so we went with the basic premise that we can operate these events more safely than if they're in a hall, and we should be able to operate under the same guidelines.
Karen: I'm glad that's been successful. We're actually even having people chatting in from up in Manitoba, Canada having the same kind of lobbying. It seems like, obviously there is strength in numbers, and I know one of the things that came out of last year was all these restaurant groups oftentimes have lobbying associations and had these pre-existing relationships. Did you already have relationships with other local vendors that you think really helped make it quicker to band together?
Steve: Yeah, this is our 16th season coming up and so most of these folks I've known for 15 years or more. We all live and work here, so we know each other. It was easy to put that together, but I think that the important thing is, whenever you're lobbying state or government offices, you need to put it in perspective of what's important to them. We're just one marketplace in a very large state, and guidance that negatively affects us, it really affects vendors from Buffalo to Montauk. It's not just about the east end of Long Island in the ‘Hamptons events’— it's about the entire state. The dollars just happen to be different out here because we've got more millionaires and billionaires, but somebody's 100-person backyard wedding in Rochester, New York is just as important to them and just as important to the caterer that's doing it and the tent company that's producing it as anything out here. It's thousands of businesses and tens of thousands of employees. We also wanted to break it down into the revenue lost to the state by restrictions. We can look at sales tax as an example. If I have 30 weddings in May and June that can't happen, and you take the average wedding that we do out here, you're probably talking between six and ten million dollars in total revenue for the event between the florist, catering, tents, makeup artists, bands, DJs, rental companies, the whole thing. That's roughly $550,000 in sales tax, and I'm just one little tent company. The other thing is that if you are not getting your employee taxes, and on top of that you have to continue to pay unemployment benefits because you haven't been able to hire your people back, then the states are accelerating their losses by not opening up. They're going to lose sales taxes, they're going to lose employee taxes, and then they're going to continue to pay out unemployment benefits, so it's in every municipality's best interest to legislate effectively with a common sense approach that gets things open responsibly, not irresponsibly.
Karen: You said it perfectly that you need to put it in their terms, because just saying, “Hey my business is hurting,” they're going to be hearing that from so many people unfortunately. Really putting out the numbers is what someone in that position is going to hear. It's also very easy for people to assume that restaurants are so much bigger of an industry because some of these politicians may be eating out all the time, so they're seeing this right in front of them, but we don't all go to a wedding every weekend, we don't all have a major event every weekend, so it's easy for folks to have that in the back of their minds. We even encounter that being a software company for the events industry— I'll describe to a friend what I do and and they'll say, “Event rentals? Isn't that kind of niche?” and it just makes me laugh because it's like, you only think that because you're only going to a few events per year. Think of how many events there are in total, and think of all the makeup artists, florists, venues, DJs, event rentals, decor companies… If you illustrate that for somebody, they quickly get it, but it's just not as top of mind as something as a restaurant, where they may be frequenting every week. What has this done for your 2021 plans? You mentioned that things aren't going to be 100% normal, we're not going to turn on a switch, there's still going to be some smaller events and things like that. Have you tweaked some plans a little bit this year just to get a ramp-up phase?
Steve: Yeah, assuming the guidance gets adjusted in the next couple of weeks, which we expect it to. What's being held up right now is, as an example, there were people that literally called us last week that want to do something in May. We can't accept their order until we have updated guidance, so we're in a little bit of a holding pattern for those last minute sales, which we would love to have, but we sold out June by January this year because half of the June events, if not more, had been moved from 2020. So, we've got plenty of events to go produce and, assuming we're able to, we'll be right back on track. Where the summer is going to be a little different is big corporate events. A good part of our business out here is big charity galas: Saint Jude, The Nature Conservancy, VH1, Save The Music, things like that. Those probably aren't going to happen this year— in fact, most of them aren't going to happen, so where we're going to pivot is we added a lot of inventory for smaller events. People are not going to be as comfortable going to restaurants. In the market out here, people like to entertain their friends at their house every year or every couple of years, and they weren't able to do it last year. So, we're hearing there's a lot of pent-up demand for more intimate backyard parties with 25 to 75 people, so we've added more inventory to cover those smaller events. The other thing is we've come up with some other products that people can use because, let's be honest, not everybody wants to have a tent. They'd like to have an outdoor party, but they'd love to do it without a tent if they can, so we've actually designed a new system. I don't have any photos of it yet because the weather just cleared here and we're gonna be setting it up next week. We designed triangle sail shades suspended by varnished wooden poles that can be installed in somebody's backyard to create a shade environment, or let's just call it a fair weather event space. We give them a tent as a rain backup so they plan their parties if they're dining outdoors, and then they have a tent on rain reserve that they can use if the forecast shows that they need a tent. So on Friday, we show up and we either set up one or the other up depending on the weather forecast.
Karen: Wow, that is brilliant, I love that! I feel like that is going to be extremely popular for exactly what you're describing. I know on a personal note that my friends are all talking about trying to create any kind of event now because we've missed each other. I think also people doing smaller events probably have a little more budget right now. They're saying, “I didn't spend much money this last year because I didn't go out as much.” Of course, a lot of people are feeling the opposite and are feeling the hurt of the last year, but hopefully for events that they'd already planned or put budget aside for, they may say less people but nicer tent or nicer decor. Are you adding other things outside of tents? Are you finding you're doing a little bit more of the smaller stuff that wouldn't have normally been a focus?
Steve: Yeah, without doing the big galas and those large setups, we're going to use that time to train and develop staff on attention to detail because it's really important when you're doing a large event that you have employees that really understand all the finer things to make it look perfect and and you put your best foot forward. We're not expecting all of our staff that we lost from 2020 to come back, so it's an opportunity to bring in new new blood. Training this season is going to be really important because September is chock full of weddings, both new and old from 2020, and the standards are going to be very very high for those events. So, we need June and July as a training period so that we're putting our best foot forward when the biggest part of the season hits us.
Karen: I love that. I love hearing people thinking through the long game of, “How can I use the extra time to be efficient,” not just “Okay, I'm gonna have a little extra time to chill” but more “What am I going to use this extra time for that will mean much more efficiency down the line?” For folks who have a smaller staff, would you recommend the same goal of using the time for training? Are there other goals that you would recommend for smaller teams?
Steve: At the end of the day, you're only as good as your last event. For most of us, failure is really not an option. We cannot show up for somebody's wedding and not complete the job. We can all purchase tents and trucks and gear, but quality employees are the most difficult thing to find. Being able to hire, train, and keep good employees is the number one thing for growth because without those employees, you simply can't grow. We ran into a huge labor crunch in 2018 and found ourselves in June without enough help to carry out what we were doing. We ended up working harder than we've ever worked because we were doing more with less, so being staffed well with good people is really really important. It's also important from a safety perspective. Whenever you're putting up a tent on a windy day in particular, having enough staff is really the key to the tent going up safely and everybody staying safe. Sometimes two plus two isn't four, it's actually five— having one extra person on staff does make the day go faster.
Karen: We've been putting together a whole new guide on our website about starting an event rental company if you're a newbie, whether that's tents or other areas. One of the things we've been working on is gathering from other people, “How do you find great employees? How do you keep great employees?” and we certainly have a lot of opinions based on our experience here at Goodshuffle Pro. Our employees are a huge part of what we do. We focus on hiring the right people and training them, and keeping a company culture that makes them want to stay. I'm curious— obviously every industry is a little different. Do you have any thoughts on where to find good hires and how to make sure you keep people happy?
Steve: First of all, you have to identify the type of person you want on your team. We have a core operating principle as it relates to staff, which is we only want good people. By that, we mean people that are good to each other and good to other people that they meet. We are willing to train on skills because you can always learn a new skill, but you can't take somebody that's a complete jerk and turn them into a good person. Bad behavior is simply not tolerated, so we always want to start off with people that are just good humans and then help them learn the skills that will help them develop their career. This year, for instance, we're going to a bunch of high schools and we're looking for kids that maybe want a different career path. They might not be going to college or they're thinking about community college, but they just don't know. If we can give them a great environment that allows them to work six months a year and maybe just do one semester of school in the spring, and then not have to incur debt because they work for seven months and earn good money, then we're finding that this can be effective. We're going to broaden our net and hopefully we'll catch some good folks.
Karen: I love that. I like how you're thinking very much related to what's in it for them. I always say that's a really key part of finding great employees. You have to think what would make somebody really interested in this who would be a really good fit. For example, somebody who's trying to figure out school that's hard to pay for— this provides them that flexibility to do the work in the semester. Thinking about what it's in for the employee instead of just us as the employers first is a great way to actually think more about finding the right people, instead of simply “it's a job and here's the pay”— that could just get too out of the net. So determining that this would be a person who would be very interested in this job because they have a unique need. What are some of the changes that you've made not just this past year but historically that have made the biggest ROI impact, obviously bottom line being important here.
Steve: I really think investment in staff. We have a much deeper office staff now. I used to really wear all the hats. Now, we added a general manager in the warehouse that runs all production. There are also things that reinforce that we were doing the right things. We look at the business as, “What can we produce efficiently and successfully” versus “I want to get every single job.” At the end of the day, if you take one job too many on a busy weekend, that could be one bride too many that didn't have a good experience. So, it’s important that you’re really recognizing and planning for growth diligently so that you can take on that extra work each year and grow your business. But, if you don't have the staff, you can't do it. You can always buy equipment, software, trucks, but you can't just write a check for skilled tent installers, so you have to develop a staff. Then, based on that staff, you then can grow your business to accomplish more. Sometimes the changes are really just about refocusing on what you need to do.
Karen: I love that you're talking about also focusing on what you do well. At The Special Event conference this summer, I'm going to be talking about this notion that some people try to do too much. They try to be everything to everyone, and that’s just a recipe for failure. I talk to people all the time about things like their website. They say, “Well I kind of want to gear towards these brides, but I also want to do these types of events…” and it's fine to be doing lots of different types of events, but you need to figure out what your unique value proposition is. What is it that people are coming to you for? It may be that you have the most well-trained staff around, you're going to have safety guaranteed, and you're going to have everything set up properly. If that's your thing, make that your thing, but I think people try to be too many things at once. It's just too much, no one can observe that. Event professionals need to think, “What am I getting with this one brand?” In terms of letting go, you talked about carrying office stuff and things like that. I think another thing we see from a lot of entrepreneurs, and I've experienced this myself, is that that notion of letting go and letting other people run parts of the business. Is that something that you can give any advice on?
Steve: That's a work in progress for me, to put it bluntly. Luckily I have the people (like Megan and Donnie who are listening in) that have the skills. And if, assuming I can let go of everything, I actually do have the people in place to do it. It's just something I have to learn how to do. I was a micromanager for years, so I had to untrain myself and let more people do more things. A really good example of that is two years ago, I was heading on vacation and our current web-based software at the time was not functioning. It was not good— a company had bought the company, and we were supposed to migrate over to new software, and I just left and said, “Hey guys, take care of this, try to figure it out while I'm gone,” and I came back from vacation and Donnie said, “Steve, the fact is this software is awful we don't want to use it, and by the way, I've solved the problem. I found this company called Goodshuffle Pro. They've got this great product and we think you should use it. So, that's a good example of stepping back into the office and finding things were running without me.
Karen: And, it's a great example of why you hire the right people. You want somebody that’s proactive, who knew that just saying the software was awful and not doing anything wasn’t enough, that he needed to come with a solution in hand. I mean, that's the kind of employee that allows you to let things go.
Steve: Exactly, problem solvers.
Karen: I love it. The solution-oriented thing is what I live and breathe. I don't really care to hear a problem about a suggested solution afterwards. So you come into this office and you've got your team ready to say Goodshuffle. We've seen it go both ways— we've seen people who come and say, “Look, my boss doesn't know I'm on this software demo, but I hate our software. He or she is attached to it and just can't accept change.” Sometimes that turns out well like it did with you, but sometimes the owner is never going to get on board. You're never going to be able to sell them if you don't sell them properly. We usually ask if they can bring that person to the demo so we can talk to them too. It's not going to be great if they're doing this behind their back. What do you think it was that they did that really sold you?
Steve: I don't know if it was any one thing, but we had certain criteria that were important to us. The old software we were using worked but it wasn't ideal. We dealt with it. We looked at all of the big players out there and they had server-based software that was ridiculously expensive and had, frankly, too many functions and too many options. It was too complicated, even for me to figure out having a little bit of a tech background. I went, “Oh this is crazy and the investment doesn't justify it,” so we had a web-based service that was okay, but it had its quirks. The other comment I think I made to you guys years ago was that your software platform took a business challenge and then attached technology to solve the business challenge. So many people have the idea of developing software and the developer side comes up with everything they think is important, and it turns out from a business perspective, it's not important. So, if you have a business-oriented development team that is solving specific business problems with the code on the back end, then that's engineered the right way. If it's, “Oh, by the way, it can do this,” well, who cares, we don't need it to do that. I knew as soon as I looked at the demo of what you guys were doing and looked at the user interface and saw a lot of the flexibility that was in the software. We also love the reporting aspects of it— for us, calendar and inventory tracking are really important. The presentation of the quotes was very important to us because it's what the customer sees. We want everybody to see the same thing. More importantly, you guys were responsive to solving any challenges we had and educating us for how best to take advantage of it, so we felt like we got good support too, which we weren't getting on the other side. It wasn't a tough sell for me, and at the end of the day, everybody on the team's got to use it, so if I'm the one guy that's saying I don't like it, well, I'm overruled. I didn't have to be overruled, but I would have accepted that overrule because I don't want to roadblock to everybody else being successful.
Karen: I love that, I think that's the best view for an owner to take, and I love that you said very business-oriented solutions. It makes me feel really proud. People say to us all the time, “How did you guys do this? This is literally solving things that I never thought would be solved by a software,” particularly when we run into companies that maybe don't quite fit the mold right. They're not quite a rental company, they have an in-house warehouse where they're creating unique designs, and they're more in the design agency. You get some people who are a little bit on the cusp of being truly event rental, and they're blown away that it can customize to their business. Tents is one where we have to convince people and say, we actually will track down to every single pole and sidewall, and show you that you can actually swap them in and out. It sometimes blows my mind that there are other programs out there where you build a package and you're stuck with it forever, you're not able to just swap something or change a price or change a name. Brian's going to want to see my “Wedding Tent” as opposed to “10 by 4” or whatever, so it's just been really rewarding to hear that feedback because we spend a lot of time with the design. We don't just pop open a feature and hope it's going to be a band-aid solution. It’s really important that you actually know your clients and listen to your clients and get to understand the root of the problem, as opposed to just slapping things in, because then you get that bride of frankenstein software you're describing, where there are so many things to click, I don't even know where to start. What's your favorite feature? I know we talked at the beginning of this about some features that I'm going to be nudging you to adopt, in addition to what you're currently using. I know you mentioned the Google Calendar integration. What are some of your favorite features?
Steve: The Google Calendar, for me, is the best tool because I love to be able to look at the calendar, see what my production schedule is, and by moving the cursor over a particular event, it gives me that quick highlight of what it is. It always pops up the key big things, which is always tent, flooring, and lights, and if I see that, I know this is a huge event. I don't even need to look at the price, I just know based on what the first four items are that it's a larger event, and I can say, “This week's looking really crazy because of this.” I love the fact that I can go right to the order and either look at it, print it, or change it. I don't even have to have Goodshuffle Pro open, I just have to be looking at the calendar. It also shows me what's not booked, so I think it's the most important. We're a sales and marketing company, we just happen to put up tents. Everybody in business is a sales and marketing company, whether they want to believe it or not. They just have a product or service that they offer, but we're all in a sales and marketing company, so being able to look at your calendar of events that are not booked and go, “I need to follow up on that because I need to close out that weekend,” is, for me, the most important thing.
Karen: I love that. I hear all the time about people getting what I call the shiny ball syndrome. They've maybe looked at a software that had some random feature that looked cool, but one of the things that I say should be on your list of priorities when you have this checklist as you're shopping around is the sales and marketing. You should be thinking about what's going to get you more business. For instance, a client gets this beautiful quote and they can scroll through photos, and they can approve, sign, and pay all online. Over half of the quotes sent through our system are signed and paid within five minutes because it's so seamless on the client side that they just do it immediately. Things like automated billing, reminders, the Website Wishlist Integration— things that we talk about a lot, it's because, at the end of the day, everyone's trying to get more sales. We've got these demos where someone will say, “Will it track my inventory?” and we realize we forgot to mention the most important thing, but we just get so excited about getting them more business.
Steve: In my opinion, tracking inventory is just something that should happen. But, it needs to do all the other things because you won't have any inventory to sell if you don't have sales. You won't need to buy any inventory if you can't book an order.
Karen: What scares me is that people are asking it because they are using an inventory system that doesn't properly track their inventory.
Steve: Oh no I know, I was one of those people, I was one of those people for sure.
Karen: It's frightening to me. I'll talk to somebody who says, “I like this feature, but I always have to go out and double check and do a count,” and it's like getting a car with a great sunroof that doesn't drive. Cool, I guess?
Steve: Yeah, looks good...
Karen: I want to make sure that we leave some time for other folks to ask questions, I've been asking all the questions so far. If anyone has any questions for Steve about Sperry Tents, about their business, what they've been doing in this past year, what they're going to be doing in the future, or about Goodshuffle Pro itself, please feel free to go ahead and drop those in the Q&A or in the chat and we will go through those now. And, while people are going and typing that, I do want to again say thank you to Steve for the time. This is so wonderful, we love chatting with our users and seeing all the enthusiasm on social media when we were posting about this, so thank you for that.