PARTY RENTAL IS a labor-intensive business to begin with, so finding temporary staffers during busy season is tough.

“Our season runs from October through May,” notes Kelly Murphy, head of Panache Party Rentals of Pompano Beach, Fla. “We compete with all the other seasonal businesses in our area” for labor.

And thanks to an improving economy, party rental's busy season is growing longer. “Our busy season usually runs from the end of May through August; however, the past two years we have seen a dramatic change primarily in our wedding market,” notes Mary Stubbs, co-owner of Busylad Rent All in Tupelo, Miss. The result has been boosted bookings in March and April as well as September and October. “Recruiting extra help during May through August has never been a problem since we mainly utilize students that are out for the summer. But we've been forced to get creative finding extra help for the other months.”

DRIVER DEARTH

The hardest jobs to fill, most rental operators say, are drivers — not just because they need the proper commercial driver's license, but because party rental drivers need to do more than just drive.

“They have to be essentially customer service agents along with being able to handle the workload,” notes John Bibbo Jr., president of Cleveland-based EventSource. Murphy agrees: “Drivers from other industries that come to us are surprised at the physical challenges we are faced with delivering to unusual venues and residences.”

Operators typically rely on two main sources for temporary workers: vacationing high school and college students, and staffers supplied by temporary agencies. Each group has its advantages and drawbacks.

BACK TO SCHOOL

Karl's Event Rental of Oak Creek, Wis., has had good luck recruiting summer help at local high schools and colleges, according to company president John Schlueter. His company begins recruiting as early as February to get a jump on the competition, and keeps the young workers on track by ensuring that veteran managers share tricks of the trade. The company also offers periodic pay increases over the course of the summer, along with a summer-end bonus for staffers who stick around till the seasonal rush is over.

A to Z Event Essentials, based in Madison, Wis., keeps college students coming back each season by offering a tuition reimbursement program. The reimbursement level grows each year, but has a vesting schedule “so they don't get everything they are ‘banking’ until they have been with us for four years,” notes A to Z's owner, Kevin Hoffman. “We like to get the same guys back since once they are trained and experienced, they are more productive.”

However, other operators complain that either their busy season doesn't coincide with students' vacations, or that the work ethic of students today doesn't coincide with the demands of the party rental business.

WHAT, ME WORK?

“For years we would go to the colleges, but unfortunately, the work ethic of today's student just isn't the same,” reports Steve Kohn, president of Miller's Rentals & Sales of Edison, N.J. His company now hires through a temporary labor service: “It takes all the stress out of hiring seasonal staff,” he explains.

Yet other operators believe they can winnow out slackers before putting them on the payroll.

EventSource interviews would-be workers in groups of 10 to 15, educating the applicants on the company and the work it does. “We then take them on a walking tour so they can actually see what the dish room does, what the linen room does, and the volume of equipment that is being processed,” Bibbo explains. “We try to paint a very accurate picture so as not to mislead anyone.”

Once the temporary workers have signed on, it's up to management to keep them motivated, Stubbs says.

“We have to work ourselves to ‘sell’ the rental business to them so that we can get them excited about working in our industry,” she explains. “When we succeed at that, it's amazing how much they change. When you are able to give an employee — seasonal or not — ownership in a project or event, the results are usually positive.”




RESOURCES

ARA Government Affairs, 202/289-4460; A to Z Event Essentials, 608/222-5004; Busylad Rent All, 662/842-7834; Celebration Party Rentals, 908/735-7368; EventSource, 216/901-0000; Karl's Event Rental, 414/831-70000; Miller's Rentals & Sales, 732/985-3050; Panache Party Rentals, 954/781-5335

VENI, VIDI, VISA

U.S. party rental operators may find a fresh pool of temporary workers soon thanks to the passage in Congress last month of the “Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act.” The measure, part of a huge appropriations bill, is likely to be signed by President George W. Bush shortly.

The bill temporarily suspends the cap on the number of H2B visas each year. These visas allow U.S. employers to hire foreign nationals for seasonal jobs for which the employer cannot find Americans. However, the number of such visas has been limited to 66,000 annually, and employers may not apply for the H2B visas until 120 days before they hire. The visas become available on Oct. 1, and employers such as ski resort operators are quick to apply for them. As a result, the visas “were eaten up in the wintertime,” notes John McClelland, vice president of government affairs in Washington for the American Rental Association, long before the busy summer season starts for many in the party rental industry.

A member of the party rental industry — Megan Jones of Celebration Party Rentals in Flemington, N.J. — was one of the leaders in the fight to pass the Act. The president of ARA's New Jersey Chapter, Jones marshaled her fellow members to lobby their Congressional representatives to support the measure.

“The difference between using H2B labor versus temp labor is cost and staying power,” Jones explains. “We know that when we bring in an employee through the H2B program, that person will stay for the entire season and return year after year. Therefore, the investment in training that person is a real value and savings to the company, whereas a [temporary agency] laborer may stay anywhere from one day to one month, and the cost in training along with the employment agency's fees hinders the value of the job and gouges the company's pocket.”

Jones believes that her local labor pool of U.S. residents just isn't big enough, and so turning to foreign workers for seasonal jobs is unavoidable. “This past few weeks, we have gone through over a dozen driver's license checks, and have had a 50 percent turnover rate in temporary employees,” she says, “proving that the labor force on the East Coast is not a viable option. Once upon a time, some 13 years ago, the use of temporary labor from the employment agencies was a great find. But the season has expanded and the [pool] of college kids that were attracted to this method of employment has shrunk.”

But she expects the situation to improve soon. “As all small-business owners know, ‘Murphy’ is always around the corner, and we are agile enough to survive,” Jones says. And the passage of the H2B measure “will make the season a bit brighter!”