Things can get complicated when vendors, freelancers, and clients all hire one another.
In an industry as small and tight-knit as ours, relationships mean everything. Although we may operate on a global scale, in reality the people who we keep close to us are the ones who can make or break our business. With clients, employees, and vendors, maintaining these relationships is vital to profitability and a quality product.
But increasingly, the defining lines between those roles in our industry aren't quite as clear as in other conventional businesses. Often, we find ourselves renting equipment to an individual whom we have previously employed as a freelancer, or we'll hire one of our own clients to provide important equipment or labor for a show. These relationships, as well as traditional freelance or vendor roles can, at times, create awkward situations and even open up businesses to potential conflicts if certain issues are not managed properly.
My company, for instance, provides technical and creative services to corporate event clients. In essence, we are primarily show producers. Like many producers, we don't own much equipment. Instead, we rent from vendors with whom we have developed relationships.
Equipment can have the providers’ name printed on the cases, but there is no reason to make a billboard out of every piece of gear.
Often, however, we find ourselves being hired by those same vendors to provide freelance services. Frequently, our vendors will need an experienced technical director, video engineer, or other service that we provide to our own corporate clients, and will hire us to supply those services for their shows. At times, we might also rent one of our Folsom Screen Pro Plus units or other inhouse equipment to our vendors when they need to supplement their own inventory.
In some industries, this would be frowned upon. The thought of allowing a potential competitor to be involved with your inhouse operations, much less on a show site to represent their business, would simply never be considered. Indeed, even in our world where it frequently happens, it is still vitally important to be cautious about who you hire or do business with. But many of us have found that hiring a client to work as a freelancer, or renting equipment from a client who provides us with freelance work, can be mutually beneficial as long as both parties are honest and respectful about their intentions.
What kinds of issues can arise if not addressed in advance, or if one of the parties isn't respectful or professional?
What sort of things are important in these relationships? For rental companies, what are producers looking for in a vendor, besides price and service? For freelancers, how do clients want you to behave at their shows, beyond obviously doing a good job? Following are some of the things I look for in a vendor, including equipment providers, as well as freelance show technicians. I will also share a few rules I impose on myself while working as a freelancer for other production companies.
Carol Garreans, co-owner of Available Light Productions, operates a Folsom Screen Pro Plus system at a corporate show in Dallas.
First, you must trust the people or companies you work with. As in any relationship, this takes time and effort from both parties involved. But once trust is established, everyone can move forward with the real goal of putting on a great show for the end client.
As a producer, trust means that I'm confident the equipment vendor isn't calling up my client and asking to bid on the show directly. As a freelancer, this means refusing to give out my contact information (especially business cards) to the end-client or producer when requested, unless my production company client approves it in advance.
I've seen too many situations recently where trust has been betrayed at shows, and it proves that not every vendor, freelancer, or even client is always trustworthy. Of course, most of this is not illegal, per se, but most industry professionals, including myself, would find this behavior unethical. When I see it happening, I refuse to give that freelancer or equipment vendor my business again.
For example, my company recently produced a decent-sized show for a corporate client at a large hotel, and we hired the inhouse A/V provider (a major international company) for a substantial amount of business, including labor and equipment rentals. But later, in discussions with our client about an upcoming multi-city tour, they informed us that the hotel's A/V company requested to be allowed to bid against us on the tour. In other words, the A/V vendor had chosen to bid against its own client (my company) to pursue the end client's business.
The result? From our perspective, since they had proven they were not trustworthy, they no longer get our business when we go to hotels that use that provider inhouse.
I'm sure we've all caught freelancers handing out cards to clients on a show site, or claiming our show as their own on their website. I would recommend caution both in hiring them again and renting to them — they may be renting your gear to service your former client!
A second thing I look for in a vendor is whether they are over-marketing their business on their equipment. You know what I'm talking about if you do any cross-rentals with other companies. I'm OK with their name stenciled on road cases and an asset tag or bar code on the gear. But when they start putting bumper stickers on the sides of cameras and screen-printing their logos on the front panels of lighting consoles, I get out the gaff tape to cover the billboards and start looking for other vendors.
It's important that the client be able to tell that my company is producing the show, and it's hard to keep my company name on the CEO's mind when the top of the lectern is emblazoned with the name of the company that rents me equipment. When I rent out my Folsom switchers, for instance, they have my company name and phone number on the cases, but I don't find it necessary to put my name on every available surface.
Meanwhile, as a freelancer, my goal is to appear as an employee of the production company that hired me, including wearing their logo shirts when provided. Often, end clients will know that the company I'm working for has hired outside specialists, but it's not my place make known which of us is the freelancer.
Finally, if there are concerns from either party in the relationship, it is vital to put them on the table before any problems percolate. Often, an equipment vendor doesn't realize that their nice new stickers are taking away from your company's image on the show. Sometimes, freelancers think it's OK for them to promote services they feel do not compete with your own. You may or may not choose to allow this, but in any case, make your wishes clear before it happens.
In the end, those smaller producers could turn out to be some of your biggest clients. As a freelancer, I want to make sure that my client is confident that I am not going betray their trust or compete with their business. These affiliations are not only important for business, but like any good relationship, the more trust, respect, and communication added into the process, the more enjoyable it is for everyone.
Since 1984, Kirk Garreans has provided expertise on numerous tours, corporate shows, and in broadcast radio and TV. He continues to work as a live-event producer, technical director, video engineer, and lighting director. Since 1994, he has co-owned Available Light Productions, along with his wife Carol, based in Orlando, Fla. ALP provides technical and creative production design/implementation for corporate clients, as well as freelance show labor for other production companies around the country. ALP is a longtime member of ICIA and is a charter member of AVolution. You can contact Kirk at email@example.com. The ICIA Field Report is penned each issue by members of the ICIA through its Editorial Alliance Program. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.