Weighing the options when considering portable staging.

Ed Wannebo, production manager for country music star Kenny Chesney, had a set constructed with features that may have been unavailable with a rental set.

One of the great challenges facing touring production managers these days is how to utilize available dollars effectively to get the best set and stage for their production. Here are some of the key issues that concern them: tour duration and size, setup manpower requirements, truck space considerations, and the adaptability of equipment for air and sea freight containers.

Many touring productions these days rely on stages provided by a promoter, with their budget dollars invested in unique-looking sets that don't break the bank. With productions that carry both stage and set, duration often dictates whether these elements will be rented or purchased. If the time span is limited, it usually makes more sense to rent. Optionally, as budget dictates, the set may consist of an off-the-shelf riser system and soft goods, with custom embellishments that are constructed for the tour.


A longer tour will usually buy the set and stage, because the duration ensures that it will pay for itself. Set packaging is then constructed to match the tour's itinerary — for instance, air freight of the set to Japan and sea freight of the whole system to Europe. Most rental houses stock equipment that will pack into the 48ft., air-ride truck format. Not all rental houses, however, will have the ability to package the equipment for air or sea freight, which have specific dimension restrictions, unless they are large operations with extensive inventories.

A production manager may ask for a rental bid and a purchase bid and then mix-and-match the system. He might rent high-cost items while purchasing lower-cost gear.

After a tour is over, decisions have to be made as to whether the purchased equipment is scrapped or stored. If stored, where? And what is the long-term purpose of storing the gear? If the artist plans on reusing the same look, storage is a great idea. However, vendors are routinely contacted after tours end and asked if they want to buy the set back. The answer is almost invariably no, however, as those sets are usually too custom to be of much use, and storage space is always at a premium. Storage costs will eventually erode the cost effectiveness of the purchase option.

If a tour is prematurely cancelled, the cost of the short duration is particularly high with the purchase approach. Although the rental system will have a cancellation clause, it will be much less punitive than the cost of buying the whole system. Just make sure you have comprehensive cancellation insurance! Notes insurance expert Ross Miller of D.R. Reiff and Associates, New York, “While you can insure for any eventuality, at some point it becomes cost-prohibitive, with high premiums and high deductibles.”

Extended Rentals

One of the main drawbacks of going with an extended-duration rental is that the production effectively buys the system. While the rental may come with a highly trained crew and be maintained throughout the tour at no cost to the production, the purchase system should be trouble-free if it is constructed professionally and maintained by quality tour carpenters. In this case, purchase is a viable option to rental.

Another disadvantage of the rental option is that producers may end up with a one-size-fits-all system, detracting from the designer's artistic license. Many rental houses make a particular effort to get around this problem by offering small customizations that allow the artist to get a custom look at a rental price. It is very common for an artist to tour with a signature set piece (for example, a lit sign, a backdrop, or a logo) and to construct the set from multilevel risers and attractive rental items. A busy rental and set house will accumulate an exotic smorgasbord of set pieces over the years, and a tour of such facilities can often fan the flames of creativity.

One of the great appeals of renting is that if the production tires of a set, the staff can change it, and fast. With industrial clients, convention booths can be far more attractive as rentals. Because the outlay is so much less, it allows them to spend more of their budget on the booth size and peripherals. The ability to offer a double-decker (a booth with a mezzanine) for half the cost of buying a one-story system is extremely appealing, especially when it means the possibility of doubling the floor space. Additionally, the rental house is able to meet local code requirements, which may prohibit a purchased booth from being used in more restrictive venues.

Ease of handling is another crucial consideration. The purchase set will, hopefully, be well thought out and constructed in a manner that lets the production pack, load, and unpack in the expeditiously. Although the rental system is designed for ease of setup and strike, there may be too many component parts. Labor costs in assembling many parts are greater than the “wheel-in and tilt-up” of the custom piece, and is another element in the formula.

Transportation is yet another complication. Typically it costs $3,000 a week to run a 48ft. truck, plus the driver's hotel costs. If the system is efficiently packaged, transport savings are significant, but beware the Teamster costs of fitting 10lbs. of stage into a 5lb. truck!

Patrick Whitley, production manager for KISS, opted for a rental solution, retaining the custom-signature KISS sign while carefully picking the equipment to ensure sufficient flexibility to integrate with local venues.

Adaptability of a set is another area to consider. On a typical tour, there will always be a venue that has an undersized stage, access problems, or a poorly located fire curtain. A custom set is designed with the itinerary in mind, and these items can usually be addressed up front. For instance, Ed Wannebo, production manager for country music star Kenny Chesney, recently had a set constructed so that sections could roll away on either side for load-in access, and segments could be removed from either side of center of the set for venues with narrow stages. Wannebo notes that such a custom set “addresses the artist's request, meets sight-line requirements, and fits the artistic and financial models, providing a win-win situation for the artist.” A less elegant rental set may not be able to tackle all these needs.

Custom Lease

Sometimes, though, an artist may not care about any of the preceding concerns. He or she may just want it all, so these considerations may go out the window. If the artist can afford it, and he or she wants it all, who are we to stop them? We all have experienced this thrill, with mixed results. Accountants can testify to the grief of balancing numbers while accommodating an artist's wishes. Successful sales of a premium band will entertain this option — otherwise, beware vendors and touring crew.

Occasionally, arrangements are made to lease out a custom system. This basically translates into a rental system that can be bought at the end of the tour. Most of the time, the purchase option is abandoned because it is becomes decreasingly attractive when the question of storage presents itself.

Recently, the rock band KISS headed off to Australia and the Far East with a rental system. Patrick Whitley, production manager for the tour, while retaining the custom-signature “KISS” sign that always travels with the band, carefully picked the equipment, making sure that it was flexible enough to integrate with local venues. Although KISS tours consistently, the band doesn't tour constantly, so downtime storage is an issue. They find the comfort level of having reliable service and a flexible selection of equipment is more attractive, and as Patrick succinctly puts it, the approach is “much cheaper overall.”

Corporate clients have much more varied needs. Mary Kay Cosmetics annually puts on multiple simultaneous shows, which makes purchasing the equipment nonviable. Because corporate clients may limit themselves to an annual show, the prospect of equipment ownership is often unrealistic. For the corporation that tours its products, the parameters are much the same as those impacting touring acts — buy or rent?

In conclusion, there is no exacting formula in making these decisions — just lots of horse sense, some personal preference, and a long-term strategy.

Clive Forrester, a 28-year industry veteran, started as an electronic service engineer for Showlites, Ltd. in Europe in the '70s, before working on major rock tours and other large events in the United States. In 1991, Forrester formed All Access Staging and Productions with partner Erik Eastland. He can be reached at clivef@allaccessinc.com