Selecting the right software solution can improve rental business efficiency.

Rental inventory control software can provide information about the number of D30 cameras in stock (red), rental rates (green), and the current locations of stocked units (orange).

When David Stern launched Precise Corporate Staging in Phoenix just less than three years ago, he tracked his company's inventory using old-school technology: his brain.

“As we started the company, I was keeping it together in my head,” says Stern, a 25-year industry veteran. The strategy quickly proved problematic. “As we grew, we went from a $300,000 inventory to $1.5 million as we accumulated a lot of toys. It became hard to keep a handle on it.”

Stern's story is not unique. There was a time when a good memory, a Dry-Erase board, and some elbow grease were sufficient to run a profitable rental and staging company, Not anymore. Just as the digital revolution transformed the technology that the industry provides to customers, it is also changing the way staging and rental companies run their businesses.

Considering the proliferation of high-priced equipment on the market in tandem with heightened customer expectations, a solid IT strategy is no longer a luxury for rental companies — it's a necessity.

“As few as five years ago, a lot of people could just hang a shingle and say they were a successful staging and rental company,” says Bernie Robertson, owner and GM of Vox-Cam, a camera rental company in Silver Springs, Md. “Since then, it's gotten more and more competitive, and there's more and more to keep track of.”

Wanted: Comprehensive Solutions

Against this thorny logistical backdrop, staging and rental companies have migrated from handwritten records to pre-packaged software (Microsoft Office, Peachtree, Quicken and the like) or rental-specific systems. But such off-the-shelf tools are not focused on the ins-and-outs of the event rental industry, and they come up short delivering an integrated solution that fits the everyday needs of most rental businesses. Even many rental-oriented systems not specifically designed for the staging industry are less than optimal because they are usually designed for companies trading in such diverse items as power tools and videocassettes, and therefore, they apply to event rentals from only a broad perspective.

A handful of IT providers do, however, focus exclusively on the event rental industry, and they build their products around the pain points and specific needs of industry players. But even here, small- and medium-sized staging rental businesses are often caught between a rock and a hard place: the rock being antiquated or pre-packaged software, and the hard place being a big-bucks system that rides on top of a bigger-bucks database.

These differences may seem subtle, but there is a lot at stake here. In today's hyper-competitive rental and staging market, business processes that shift preventable losses into the profit column are more important than ever, once again highlighting the need to choose the best IT strategy possible.

Case in point: Precise's Stern initially used Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to write quotes for prospective customers. The method led to a good deal of double-booking of equipment, which in turn, resulted in last-second spot purchases and sub-rentals — transactions that cut deeply into already razor-thin margins and turned profits into losses in the blink of an eye.

By early 2002, Stern knew Precise needed a comprehensive IT solution and went shopping for a system that would help the company overcome its inventory management issues. He knew that there was never going to be the perfect time to install new software and implement new business processes, so he bit the bullet and began his search.

As he kicked the tires on a variety of systems, Stern had several buying criteria in mind. First, he wanted a system specifically designed to address the needs of an event rental company, not one that had been developed as a broad tool for rental houses of all kinds. He also wanted an established product that worked as advertised — “today, not tomorrow.” He definitely did not want untested vaporware still painfully working through its early-stage glitches. Finally, he sought a forward-looking IT partner with a plan to grow with the industry by improving and supporting the product over time.

In Stern's particular case, he selected a solution from our company — Intel-Event. Regardless of which solution you select — and there are now several available — Stern's criteria represent a good decision-making process. He says that right now, a little more than a year after installation, his company's inventory issues are under control. While praising our system's stability and customer service, though, he emphasizes that the technology's ability to increase productivity and illuminate profitability of each equipment purchase is, specifically, what made his investment worthwhile.

What makes this possible, in large measure, is the relationship between the rental company and the software manufacturer. One of the biggest obstacles for rental companies to overcome, in my experience, is the notion that the software provider is merely a vendor. I suggest finding providers who can serve as more than vendors — as business partners and resources you can use.

Shown above: visual notification of double-booked gear (blue), option to attach documents to proposal (red), bottom-line discount (yellow), and one-click printing, invoicing, and margin analysis (green).

For small businesses, this type of relationship gives you the equivalent of an in-house expert without the cost of hiring another fulltime employee. For medium-size businesses, it's an additional resource to assist a one- or two-person IT staff. For large businesses, which typically design their own solutions, vertical integrated software typically costs less over the long run. Designing a solution from scratch works best only when you have unlimited time and money. Therefore, a committed software provider/partner can help even the largest IT staff integrate the solution with whatever corporate IT structure and proprietary software a large company already has in place.

Today's sluggish economy is a wake-up call for the staging and rental industry. We all need to be better business people. There are too many decisions to be made, and those who make the wrong call can find themselves out of business. You have to fight for everything you get in this business, and therefore, you need the right weapons. The right software solution can be one of those weapons, so here's a minimum checklist to review when evaluating a software provider:

  • Make sure the software provider is dedicated to your industry and that the majority of its revenues do not come from some other segment or business.

  • Ask for multiple references on the product. Not simply anyone who is using the product and is satisfied, but customers specifically from businesses that are similar to yours.

  • Have the provider demonstrate the product in detail, and never take its word for whether the product does something or not. The two most dangerous words in the software business are “capable of.”

  • Make sure the investment in the software is justified. Namely, can you see the return on investment from that software in increased profitability and efficiency and better asset management and management control?

  • Make sure the software provider has a sales and service staff that will continue working with you after the sale. Most of the commitments and relationships you build are with people prior to your investing in the solution. Make sure these people are around after the sale, as well. Don't be afraid to ask the references about the post sales support.

  • After sales support, make sure there is a team of people there to help you consistently after you start using the product regularly. This usually means you will be investing in some type of annual license and support agreement. Support agreements are worth the investment and provide peace of mind that there will always be someone to help you and that the software itself will keep evolving. Look at this as an insurance policy.

  • Finally, look at your software provider as a key part of your business, not as just another vendor or supplier. There needs to be a trust that the provider is part of your team and someone you rely on to help your business grow, like another valuable employee.

Patrick J. Bormann is chief operating officer of IntelEvent, a major provider of software for the Event Staging & Rental Industry. Bormann has over 25 years experience providing software solutions to vertical markets, including the last four years with IntelEvent. He can be reached at