Somers Convention Furniture Rental Inc. of Las Vegas may have been wounded by the cancellations of conventions and trade shows following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but the company did not choose to sit still and wait for business to pick up on its own. Rather, Somers worked to develop a new approach to corporate furniture rental.
Adding to the challenge of recovery — a weak national and global economy, which has caused Somers’ domestic clients to scale back on their convention budgets. Then there was the war with Iraq. And now, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which choked off what’s left of the company’s international clientele.
Company owner Debbi Somers, though, doesn’t believe in “sitting out the crisis,” she said.
“We’re still in a down period. We haven’t recovered yet because of the economic downturn,” she said. “A lot of companies are hurting right now, and it’s getting more expensive for people to fly. The question they’re asking is whether it’s economical to come to Las Vegas to do conventions.
“That’s why you have to be aggressive at every show, more so now than ever before,” Somers said. “Having good customer service isn’t enough. You have to be more creative, broaden your customer base, consider what you can do to bring more business in. Are there customers you’re not serving?”
One strategy Somers uses to offset slow trade show business is boosting furniture rentals to hospitality suites, which are increasingly favored by companies over the relatively higher cost of exhibiting at a tradeshow.
Somers’ competitor, CORT Furniture Rental of Fairfax, Va., which has offices in Las Vegas and in the Western United States, is taking a similar approach, the company said, increasing furniture rentals to companies for special events or corporate meetings to mitigate a drop in trade show revenue.
Matt Struckhoff, CORT’s district general manager, said the company is able to maintain its cost-competitiveness by offering special discounts to a majority of exhibit houses and other furniture rental businesses with which it has agreements.
Somers also works to attract and retain its clients by saving cost-conscious customers on their expenses. Even though Somers’ furniture rental fees aren’t based on the weight of its furniture, the company is switching to leasing lighter furniture to drive down moving expenses.
“We used to lease heavy metal bases for tables. But now we get light steel frames from our manufacturers in Los Angeles. Our main concern now is getting furniture that can take a lot of abuse from being moved or bumped about on the truck. That may mean much more maintenance on our end, but in the long run, we can save our customers’ money,” she said.
Keeping its used furniture in good condition is another strategy Somers uses to impress customers. Indeed, one would think that much of the shrink-wrapped rental furniture stacked neatly throughout Somers’ 54,000 square foot warehouse is new.
“I make sure the furniture is repaired, cleaned and touched up each time after it’s used, and then wrapped in plastic to protect it from dust,” she said.
The business is also being helped by aggressive promotional efforts by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority as well as by Mandalay Bay Convention Center, a new entrant on the convention scene. Mandalay Bay Convention Center has helped bring back some conventions and attract new ones as well, Somers said.
Since the company was founded nearly 15 years ago, Somers has learned a lot, growing the business in part with help from two Small Business Administration-guaranteed loans she obtained with help from Janis Stevenson, business development advisor with the Nevada Small Development Center, and her banker, Maria Fernandez.
Somers, who received funding for a $300,000 SBA loan from Sun State Bank in 1989, bought inventory for her first 10,000-square-foot warehouse at 4050 W. Harmon Ave. Three years later she secured funding for another $600,000 SBA loan from Sun State bank to buy a 20,000-square-foot warehouse and inventory at 3926 W. Ponderosa Ave. In 1997, she moved her business to the 54,000-square-foot warehouse at 6330 Polaris Ave. with a commercial loan.
“After I was rejected by several banks for a loan to start my business, I thought the problem was with my business plan. But Janis (Stevenson) told me it wasn’t the plan but rather the officers I spoke with,” Somers said. “She then recommended me to Maria, who was then vice president of Sun State bank. And I’ve been with her ever since.
“If you have a good banker that understands your business, stick with her. That’s the key because she’s the one selling your company to the bank’s board of directors,” Somers said.