Tents 101: Your Guide to Renting a Tent for a Wedding or Party
The Basics on Tents and Tent Accessories
I am going to walk you through everything you need to know about holding a wedding, party, or special event under a tent, from sizing, types of tents, accessories you need (and some you don't), making your tent comfortable regardless of the weather, and more.
Why Bother With a Tent?
Two Words: Murphy's Law
If you are having an outdoor wedding reception, unless your location has an alternate indoor location that is up to par (that is, will fit all of your guests), you need some kind of contingency for bad weather. Even if it doesn't rain, excessive heat can kill a party. A tent makes it possible to have a party nearly anywhere. Instead of renting out a banquet hall, you can have your party in a garden, or at a meaningful location like your grandparent's farm.
Even if you going to use the tent only if it rains, you still need to size it out and price it out ahead of time—two days before your event is not the time to worry about it.
How Much Tent Do You Need?
And you thought you'd never find a real-world use for geometry!
The number one question anybody planning a tent wedding has is: How big of a tent do I need? You can't seriously begin to price it out before you figure out your size, and the layperson just isn't going to be able to eyeball it.
Most tent rental companies carry everything from 10' x 10' on up in 10' increments. Don't be intimidated by the huge range of sizes; the great thing about having your wedding or party inside a tent instead of inside a building is that you can build the space that works for you.
How to Calculate Your Tent Size
This is going to take some math, but don't worry, it's easy math. You can also use a program like this one to help you out. That program even has a simple sketch program to let you arrange your tables and chairs inside the tent.
Otherwise, here is how to calculate the size of the tent you will need:
- Guest count. Take your guest count.
If everybody's going to be seated at 60" Round tables (this is the round table size that fits best in tents), you need a 10x10 area, or 100 square feet per eight guests.
Example: 150 guests, divided by 8, comes to 18.75 round tables (if you don't get a whole number, round up because you can't sit at half a table). 19 x 100 = 1900 square feet.
If you're seating them at long tables, you need 80 square feet per eight guests.
- Bridal party. Are you seating the bridal party at the traditional long head table? If so, you need room for that. Take the number of people you want sitting at that long table (including the bride and groom!) and divide by four. That's the number of 8' tables you need to form the head table. You need room behind the tables, to let people get in and out, and also room in front to get the right effect. Allow 10' x 10' per head table.
Example: A 12-person bridal party divided by four is three 8' tables. This requires 300 square feet.
- Buffet. Allow a 10' x 10' area for each 8' buffet table (this also allows room for the buffet line to form). Usually, your caterer will be the one to tell you how many buffet tables you need. If my make-believe party needs four buffet tables, that's 400 extra square feet.
- Other items. Are you having a stage for the band? Are you having a dance floor? All of these are going to take up real estate in your tent. For stages and dance floors especially, you need more than the actual size of these items, since nobody wants to sit two feet away from the stage. If I was using a 12' x 12' dance floor, I'd give it at least a 16' x 16' area, adding 256 square feet to the tent.
For the scenario I just outlined, the total square footage adds up to 2856.
The number you just calculated is the bare minimum square footage you need. If you get a tent smaller than this, you're going to be banging elbows all night.
Now you know your square footage. All you have to do is match it up to the appropriate tent. Remember, you can't go below the number you came up with. If you are right on the border, always go up. Here's a list of some of the most common tent sizes:
20' x 20'
400 sq ft
20' x 30'
600 sq ft
20' x 40'
800 sq ft
30' x 30'
900 sq ft
20' x 50'
1000 sq ft
20' x 60' or 30' x 40'
1200 sq ft
30' x 50'
1500 sq ft
20' x 80' or 40' x 40'
1600 sq ft
30' x 60'
1800 sq ft
30' x 70'
2100 sq ft
30' x 80' or 40' x 60'
2400 sq ft
40' x 80'
3200 sq ft
60' x 60'
3600 sq ft
40' x 100'
4000 sq ft
60' x 70'
4200 sq ft
40' x 120' or 60' x 80'
4800 sq ft
40' x 140'
5600 sq ft
40' x 160' or 80' x 80'
6400 sq ft
Okay, so now what? I recommend getting the squarest tent your site allows for two reasons:
- Your guests will have an easier time mingling, and all will feel included during important parts of the evening like the cake cutting
- Wider tents have higher ceilings, which looks better and does a better job of keeping you cool. A 40' x 60' tent will have a higher ceiling than a 30' x 80' tent from the same manufacturer. Only use a long, skinny tent if that's all that will fit in your space.
Tent Layout Programs
It's important to sketch what the layout of your tent will be. Where will you put the guests, bridal party, buffet, and stage? You can do this on graph paper, but if that's not your thing, there are also several online programs. Here are two recommended sites:
- County Marquee—This is a UK-based tent rental company that has a pretty cool flash-based tent layout planner on its website. You can enter measurements in either meters or feet and choose from a variety of table sizes. I have never used this company (I'm in the US), but the planner is useful no matter where you rent from.
- Tents by Design—This is a Missouri-based tent company. Again I have not used this company, but its layout program is really easy to use. You do have to download it, but it's not a huge file.
Common Add-ons for Tents: What You Need and What You Can Skip
Pricing on this stuff tends to be regional. I'm based in the southeast USA; if you're in Chicago or LA, you're probably going to end up spending more.
When you're shopping around, make sure you get pricing that includes delivery, set-up, any accessories, fire/zoning permits if needed, and take-down. If at all possible, try to get the tent delivered and set up a couple of days ahead of time, so you have time to set up and decorate. A 40' x 80' tent is going to take at least hours for the tent people to set up.
Here are some common add-ons people ask about:
- A tent color other than white: Since 95 percent of people want a white tent, other colors are hard to find and are going to cost you—hey, that's the price of being original! A clear-top tent is an alternative to white that usually doesn't cost more. For an evening shindig, it will look awesome all lit up. Having your party on a spring or summer day? Skip the clear top—you would essentially be partying in a giant greenhouse!
- Tent liner: You see these a lot in bridal magazines. It's a floaty, parachute-looking lining, usually white or ivory, though you can get insane colors for insane prices. Even in your basic white, these can get pretty expensive, usually one to four times the cost of the tent itself. Bridal magazines try to make these sound as essential as a best man and a marriage license. Fortunately, like sterling silver flatware, tent liners are a fancy detail 98 percent of people can skip. Instead of a liner, get a pole tent. They look perfectly nice, no liner required. The peak is made via one single pole instead of lots of interior frames and what-not, so you don't even need a liner. And if you do get a liner, don't blow a ton of money on a custom fuchsia-colored one, when you can use lighting effects on a normal liner to get a similar look.
- Walls: These cost $1–3 per linear foot (the perimeter of the tent). The perimeter of our imaginary 40' x 80' tent is 40' + 40' + 80' + 80', so you'd need 240 feet of wall. Solids, clear, and cathedral (walls with windows) are standard. Fabric walls are nice, but they are for looks only. They won't keep in the heat or keep you dry.
Whether you need walls depends on the time of year. Having your wedding in the dead of summer? Skip the walls and add fans instead—walls will just make your tent hot. Having your wedding in the winter? Get walls and heat. One of the pictures in the picture section above shows patio heaters in the tents, but don't do that—get an actual tent furnace. For not too much money, you can get one with a thermostat, just like the heat in your house, so you don't have to keep adjusting it during your event, and 90 percent of it sits outside the tent so it doesn't take up space. Plus you don't have to worry about somebody knocking it over.
- Tent flooring: You can't just put carpet on the grass. It'll look rumply and stupid after about 20 minutes, and it creates a trip hazard. If you're just looking to keep your feet dry, portable flooring runs for about $1.50 per square foot. But for a floor, you need a flat piece of land to start out with, preferably sand (they are really made for beach weddings) or asphalt. If you want a hard deck that women in heels can walk on and can be built almost anywhere, you'll spend $1.00–2.50 per square foot, including carpet. $2 per square foot doesn't sound like a lot, but do the math: A 40' x 80' tent is 3200 square feet. At $2 per square foot. That's $6400 for the floor. And that is for the standard grey or black carpet. White carpet, as you can imagine, is pretty much one-use, so if you want it, expect to pay. Also, if your land slopes significantly, the cost will go up significantly, since there is a lot of labor involved. Tent flooring is a nice luxury, but at the end of the day, it can break your budget, and most people don't need it.
- Dance floor: These are also about $2 per square foot, but since you'll probably only want a 20' x 20' area at most, it's a lot more affordable than flooring the whole tent.
- Tent lighting: These come in several flavors, and it's going to vary depending on which tent company you go with. One option great for evening events is stage lighting with color gels. These lights can be mounted to the framing structure of the tent and look really cool. I've had people use Christmas lights, but a word to the wise: You need a lot. Like 10 x more than you'd ever use for your house. Bear in mind that if you are providing your own lighting, the tent company probably won't put them up for you, and you'll have to get them out of there before they come to take the tent down.
- Tent air conditioning: This gets expensive. Since a tent isn't sealed or insulated like a building, a 2000 square foot tent will use five times as much AC power to stay cool as a 2000 square foot building. More AC means more power—much more than any nearby building could provide. So getting tent AC also means renting and paying for huge generators. I hesitate to even put a price on this because I've only booked maybe two jobs ever with AC, since nobody wants to pay for it.
How to Find a Reputable Tent Company
A rule-of-thumb when buying anything big—including hiring a party rental company—is you get what you pay for. You wouldn't trust a caterer who said he could get you fillet mignon for ten bucks a head, and you shouldn't trust a tent company that's thousands of dollars less than everybody else in town. Like I said earlier, tent prices are regional. If a vendor is significantly cheaper than everybody else in your area, there's a reason. They're either brand new to the industry and don't know how to price themselves (do you really want to be this guy's test case?), or you're comparing a wedding-quality tent to a ten-year-old state-fair-quality tent.
A good vendor should, at the very least:
- Be responsive. Beware any vendor who doesn't answer the phone if you call during business hours (or at least return a message promptly). What if something goes wrong during your event? You don't want to rely on somebody who can't or won't be available.
- Give you a written quote. Before booking or paying anything, ask for a written quote for everything you want to get from that vendor, including set up, breakdown, delivery, deposits, taxes, etc. If they can't or won't provide you with a free quote, move on.
- Some companies want to come out to the party site and see where the tent is going in advance, some don't really do that unless there is something unusual about the site. Some will come out but will charge a nominal fee (maybe $20), which goes toward the price of the tent if you place an order with them. This is all pretty standard—but I would hesitate to use a company that charges a large or non-refundable fee. Some companies that give free site surveys won't give you a line-item quote to take home with you because they don't want you going to another vendor who price-matches. They should at least let you look at a quote and give you a final price, even if they won't let you take the quote with you.
- Have a clear cancellation/change order policy. What happens if you decide, a month before your event, that you don't want a tent anymore? What if you have to reschedule? What if your guest list shrinks, or doubles? Things happen. Find out the cancellation policy. Get it in writing.
- Is this a wedding-quality tent? Since the wedding business is seasonal, most tent vendors also do tents for church events, school events, the county fair, etc. I wouldn't use a vendor that never does weddings. They might be cheaper, but you might be getting a shabby-looking tent.
Another thing: Most tent companies also do tables and chairs, and some can even do your dance floor, stage, tablecloths, dishes, centerpieces—you get the idea. Get everything from the same place if at all possible. For one, you'll only have one delivery charge. Plus you won't have to worry about the tablecloth people getting there before the table people, or the stage not fitting under the tent, etc. Unless you have a really compelling reason, you'll end up saving money and frustration by using as few vendors as possible.
Where do you find a company? Many times your caterer can hook you up, and I'd go that route first, since it's to their advantage to recommend somebody good. Failing that, a Google search for "tent company + your area" should give you a good start. Also be sure to ask people you know, and check out Yelp and Google Reviews for an idea of who's good and who sucks in your area.
Should I Get a Frame Tent or a Pole Tent?
This is going to come down to the logistics of your set-up (which your tent company will help you out with), your budget, and your personal aesthetics. Below, I have listed some pros and cons of having a frame tent. To sum it up: Frame tents are more expensive but more practical. Pole tents are cheaper and have that "swoop" effect that everybody likes.
The Pros and Cons of a Frame Tent
Requires no center poles, giving you greater flexibility on where everything goes under the tents.
Price. Almost always more expensive than a pole tent.
If you are having an all-week schindig (say, having your rehearsal dinner, wedding, and post-wedding brunch under the tent), this is the way to go. With periodic maintenance, these tents can stay up for months.
Takes longer to set up.
Can go on any surface. However, it is always safer to stake a tent into the ground than it is to use weights or water barrels. Some companies will not weight or barrel large tents for safety reasons.
Some don't like the look of a frame tent, especially from the inside. You can use a liner on the inside, but this is an expensive option.
Frame tents can be attached together. Why would you want to do that? If you're setting up outside your ceremony site, you can use a long, skinny tent to make a covered walkway into your main party tent. If your area has a huge tree right in the middle of it, you can build an L-shaped space. You can attach frame tents together, but you can't attach pole tents together due to how they're built.
Frame Tents: Pics and InspirationClick thumbnail to view full-size
Pole tents - Pics & InspirationClick thumbnail to view full-size
Credits for Tent Pictures
All the pictures are from Flickr people who have put their stuff up on creative commons. I haven't worked with any of these companies/photographers.
Here are the three Flickr accounts all pictures without a link in the caption come from:
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© 2009 CuppaJo