Katherine Lockridge bought Classical Tents and Party Goods 27 years ago with co-owner Ben Naylor while completing her Master of Education degree. She didn’t pursue teaching in the traditional sense, but Lockridge has since educated herself on an industry she and Naylor knew nothing about at the time of sale.
“Buying the company felt like jumping off a cliff, but I knew I had a head for business and Ben’s engineering background would easily transfer,” Lockridge says. “We thought, ‘How hard can this be?’”
Harder than they expected, it turns out. But their commitment to consistently learning and improving has contributed to steady growth. Based in Pittsfield, Mass., Classical Tents and Party Goods customizes tent and event rentals for clients in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and New York.
The power of listening
To truly understand what clients were looking for, she went straight to the source and continues to do so today. Open, honest conversations with clients have helped develop long-term relationships with clients and better meet their needs.
A key takeaway over the years is the increasing importance of an online presence. “The internet and social media have changed the industry,” Lockridge says. “Your website and social media are everything. Many clients won’t even consider a company without a modern website; we update ours every three years.”
Another differentiator is recognizing and honoring clients’ desire for a unique wedding with one-of-a-kind products—even if the products come from other companies. “Some competitors won’t let clients cherry-pick products from different rental companies. But to offer excellent customer
service, our job is to support what our clients want,” Lockridge says. “Clients are savvy shoppers. They’re trying to create a look. They’re going to find what they want. And they don’t want to hear that you won’t bring another rental company on the job.”
Expertise on display
Exceeding expectations unmet by competitors is a common theme. “We’ve measured and installed specialized structure tents in spaces where other tent companies told clients a tent can’t go,” Lockridge says. “But we know our products well and we know the industry and design well, so we can always confidently tell our clients we will find a product that will work for them.”
Classical Tents has supplied tents for ice rinks, malls and professional football teams, but weddings are where the company really shines. It has garnered national attention for its services, but doing so was no easy feat.
In 2011, Lockridge launched the Berkshire Wedding Tour to show event planners across the country why the Berkshires are the optimal location for a unique, elegant wedding. With vendors, venue owners and event planners, she helped wine and dine elite wedding planners in exchange for publicity. “The tour came to a natural end after five years, but it was a wonderful way to bring awareness to the beauty and excellence the Berkshire region offers,” Lockridge says.
Amid rumblings of an industry future that will push out smaller rental companies, Classical Tents will continue to focus on service and expertise. “Many companies think the only way to compete is with cost. But we know what our customers want, and it’s about a lot more than price. Several clients who first worked with large rental companies came to our showroom and said, ‘We’re going with you. We felt like a number at those companies, but we know that you care.’ That makes a big difference.”
Holly Eamon is a business writer and editor based in Minneapolis, Minn.
Classical Tents and Party Goods
Year founded: 1986
Number of employees: 14 year-round; 35 seasonal
Primary business: Weddings