All the World’s a Stage

featured-crewcallLast month, we talked about rental companies that grew out of audiovisual sales companies. As I pointed out, there are a number of differences between the personnel and equipment required for rental and those required for sales and demonstrations.

There is, of course, another kind of specialized rental company which in the industry we refer to as a staging company. This kind of company specializes in equipment and personnel for staged events. The use of the term staging has been an issue within the industry for some years as the term is also being used by sales companies for the assembly of an order. Also, when used externally, people often seem to assume that we are describing a company that assembles platforms and stages.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have spent several years in a company of each type. As I pointed out last month, I have often found major differences between rental personnel and sales personnel. I am also here to tell you that there are significant differences between rental personnel and staging personnel. One of the things I most often said while running a major staging company to friends in the rental industry was that we were a rental company that didn’t allow anybody else to touch our gear.

Probably the most significant difference between a staging company and a rental company is the emphasis on the show rather than the gear. I used to say the show was not the sum of its parts, and that a quote was not a proposal. When a rental company approaches a staging event, their quote is most often an assembled list of all the parts that are required, with a line item price for each. However, the same pieces can be used to produce shows of varying degrees of difficulty and as such make a poor way of quoting an event. The price for an event is much more dependent on the personnel and skills involved, the difficulty of execution, and in fact the creativity required to put it together. As such, a quote for a major event is more often a descriptive narrative with an attached price that does not refer directly to a list of hardware.

But this is not the only difference in emphasis between a rental company and a staging company. A rental company, especially one with a relationship with the house in which an event is conducted, is a servant that must please multiple masters. While it is important to the rental company to produce a successful show for the end-user, a company that has a direct relationship with the venue must also support the venue and its policies, and in fact must often support it more than the end-user, as that relationship will go on long after the show. An external staging company has only one client, and only one set of priorities.

There are also significant differences in the personnel required between a rental company, whose staff is oriented towards packaging, shipping, and renting equipment, and a staging company whose staff is much more theatrical in nature. A staging company will need to employ (or at least have direct relationships with) many more skills and trades than a rental company will. In major staging company, I have employed set carpenters and painters, lighting designers, CAD specialists and account executives whose major role was to hold the client’s hand during a major event.

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As with the differences between a rental company and a sales company, I am not saying that there are not successful companies who are in both rental and event staging. I am, however, here to say that there are difficulties in combining the staff of these two things because of the differences in priorities and emphasis involved. Last month, I said that in operating a rental and sales company I had found it necessary to separate the staff and P&L between the two, I have also found it necessary in running a large rental company to separate my staging staff. If I thought of the rental staff is my army, I had to think of the staging staff as my special forces. These were people who could be dropped into another city and who were resourceful enough to do whatever it took to make a show happen.

There are also some differences in the way our rental company and a staging company would deal with equipment. A rental company often produces systems from components on the shelf, put together on-site. Most of the rental companies with which I’m familiar also pack and case gear per order, using utility cases, while a staging company cases each piece individually and tends to rely upon pre-racked systems to avoid infield failures. As such, a staging company will usually spend much more money casing its gear then a rental company will. When I first took over a major staging company, I was astonished to see a $100 piece being placed in a dedicated $250 road case, and mentioned it in passing to our owner. Without even looking up from what he was doing, he said, “Have you ever tried to find another one in Shanghai?” This, probably more than anything else, sums up the difference in attitudes between a rental company and a staging company. In a rental company values are determined and expenditures are made based on the value of a piece of gear, and its rental value. In other words, we invest as much in it as it takes to produce optimum rental dollars from the piece. In a staging company, these things are often backward, as we tend to look more at its importance to a flawless show.

Finally, I think the biggest differences between rental companies and staging companies tend to revolve around authority levels in employees. Rental companies tend to be hierarchical, with in-house and delivery employees having limited authority, and most detailed contact with clients being conducted by sales and management personnel. In a staging company, where the personnel are often on the road with the client, there are much more direct relationships between field personnel and high level end-user clientele. These people also have a great deal more authority in making changes to a show, and in general doing whatever it takes to produce successful events.

Again, as with last month, we could go on a long time talking about the differences, and there would be exceptions to every one of them. But, as with last month, I think the issues that we have talked about are ones that need to be considered by management, and by staff, in positioning their company within the rental and staging industry.

Also, this being our last column of the year, let me wish all of my colleagues in the industry a happy and healthy 2015.