Elegant crystal, fine china, lavish linen--event rental is a high-touch business. But managing rental inventory has traditionally been a low-tech affair, due to the challenges of managing a vast array of products that move in different quantities between different clients at different times.

Anaheim, Calif.-based linen company GBS Linens has defied conventional wisdom that radio frequency identification (RFID) is too costly and too temperamental for event rental. Its SLEUTH system--for Specific Linen Electronic Usage Tracking and History--"tells us in a real-time basis what we've got and where it is," explains Tony Poploskie, the company's vice president of finance and administration. The system tracks what linen is out, what is back and ready to be washed, and what is ready to be shipped, updating itself every 90 minutes, 24 hours a day.

All tablecloths and chair covers in GBS' inventory have a tiny RFID tag sewn into a seam or patch. (Small, lower value items such as napkins and sashes don't have the tags.) Each tag bears a 10-digit identification number for that item. At various stations in the GBS warehouse, the tagged linen is passed by an RFID antenna, which looks like an empty 2-by-3-foot picture frame. The antenna reads the ID number and feeds this information into GBS' databases.

As linen comes back from a job, crew members pass it by an antenna at the sorting table, then toss it into a vacuum tube. The system logs the piece in and determines which of the 16 color-specific laundry bins to route it to via the vacuum tube. Workers usually sort about 600 pieces of linen at hour at this station, Poploskie estimates. After washing, the linen is scanned by another antenna in the warehouse to log it in clean, bagged linen.

Although RFID tags can cost as little as 3 cents apiece, "You can't wash and iron a 3-cent chip," Poploskie says. GBS springs for 70-cent tags--pricey, but virtually indestructible. Out of hundreds of thousands of tags, "I have a cup on my desk with 13 tags in it--those are the defects," Poploskie says.

For the full story, see the May issue of Special Events Magazine.

Photo at top by Cheryl Prats, at bottom by Lisa Hurley/Special Events Magazine