By Jim ChliboykoFeatures Profiles
It must be quite a promising business that brings a Brazilian man to live in Winnipeg, you might be thinking while heading to an interview in the midst of a January polar vortex.
It must be quite a promising business that brings a Brazilian man to live in Winnipeg, you might be thinking while heading to an interview in the midst of a January polar vortex. Or, as they call it in Winnipeg, Wednesday. Instead, it was an unlikely union between a Winnipeg man and a Brazilian woman, a fantasy of Hollywood fame and a solid footing in the growing Winnipeg event scene that made Bel-Ayre Rentals a major event and party rental centre today.
|In addition to working at the store, Louise Serpa is on the board of the Canadian Rental Association Manitoba Local. Carlos was also active in the association for many years.
Bel-Ayre Rentals, currently run by said Brazilian, Carlos Serpa, has been around since 1967. Bel-Ayre was started by Serpa’s stepfather, Harry Willms, a Canadian man who had married Serpa’s widowed mother, a woman he met on his travels through South America decades ago. Seasonal party rentals appealed to Willms because the harsh, long prairie winters allowed him time off to travel. Serpa hails from Curitiba, the impressive capital city of Brazil’s southern state of Paraná.
Bel-Ayre has grown from a business Serpa describes as being born in the bay of a car wash. Willms dabbled in several types of rental along the way, including a U-Haul dealership for a time. “In the late ’60s, the economy wasn’t that great here, but that started to change in the ’70s,” said Serpa. “The opening of the Winnipeg Convention Centre was a big boost.”
When Serpa came up to Canada in 1986, Bel-Ayre had gotten a bit bigger, and had about four employees. These days, the business employs about 25 people during the busy summer season, about half of that during the winter. Serpa had bought his stepfather’s shares in the company in 1991, allowing Willms to retire to the west coast where he and his wife live, now in their 80s. So, five years after immigrating to Canada, Serpa was a business owner, and the timing seemed to work out. When asked whether or not South America is still in the picture, Serpa says, “We always toyed with the idea of opening a branch in Brazil. That didn’t happen. The economy in the ’80s wasn’t that great, though it would be a different concept down there.”
Owning Bel-Ayre started pretty well for Serpa. “The 1990s were pretty good. There were lots of big events, concerts and festivals,” said Serpa. “Then my brother came in 1993.” Serpa now employs his brother as a supervisor.
As for the Bel-Ayre name, Willms had evidently liked the status of the name Bel-Ayre, or Bel-Air, and associated it with ideas of class and success. The name had several connotations to Willms and his business, says Serpa. “The story I got was that in my stepfather’s younger days, him and a buddy went to California with big dreams of being an actor. They asked around Hollywood for the rich and famous and they were directed to Bel Air. They saw a truck bringing tables and chairs into a big building. A guy said, ‘Don’t just look, start helping out.’ My stepfather said, ‘Is this a movie?’ The guy said, “No, we’re setting up for a party.” That got Willms’ wheels turning. Another Bel-Air connection was the Chevrolet Bel Air car Willms bought to come back to Canada from L.A.
|Consolidating everything into one, 15,000-square-foot location has been a major benefit. In the past, customers sometimes had to pick up parts of orders in different locations.
One of the more recent changes to the business was in March 2013, with a move from their old facilities, a smaller series of disconnected locations along Wellington Avenue, to Roseberry Street: a single location, complete with a 15,000-square-foot warehouse. Both areas are in the light industrial northwest corner of the city, north of St. James, and close to Winnipeg’s James Armstrong Richardson International Airport. “There were three different locations, all within walking distance,” said Louise Serpa, Serpa’s daughter, who has worked at Bel-Ayre since 2005. She describes having to tell clients to pick up their plates in one place and their tables in chairs in another. With the new location the Serpas have a larger showroom, about double the size of what they had on Wellington. When Canadian Rental Service visited, they had just been cleaning it up from the Christmas season following Ukrainian Christmas, which is still a bit of a thing in Winnipeg.
“There’s a lot of tweaking going on still,” said Louise of the showroom, something they hope will help their clients. “We always allow for clients to play with things, mix and match things, have some mock set-ups.”
The Serpas don’t just cater to weddings. There’s grad in the spring and family parties near Christmas time. One consistent source of income is the exceptionally busy summer festival season in the Winnipeg area. They rent out things such as tables, chairs and cooking equipment to the Winnipeg International Children’s Festival (June), the Winnipeg International Jazz Fest (June), the Winnipeg International Folk Festival (July), the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival (July) and Folklorama (August), a two-week celebration of the various ethnicities that makes up Winnipeg, not to mention other seasonal festivals, like February’s great winter bash, the Festival du Voyageur.
|Some slick branding on the truck helps Bel-Ayre keep its profile up in the community. The Serpas do not do much advertising or other promotion.
Having done business in the community for 47 years, Bel-Ayre doesn’t spend a lot of money advertising. “It’s mostly word of mouth,” says Louise, of the way their clients hear about them. But the company has taken several virtual steps into cyberspace. They do have a webpage and they did finally decide to recently start up a Facebook presence, as well. “It gets a lot of traction. People call in.” While Louise admits their webpage could have more information, she also finds the lack of detail can sometimes work for them. “Another company mentioned that when they don’t have certain information, their clients have to call back to get some more,” she said, something which may increase interaction between the company and more passive clients.
Bel-Ayre is also trying a few different things this year, with a larger presence at Winnipeg’s Wonderful Show at the Convention Centre. “It’s been several years since we exhibited. They called us to rent the futons and I worked out a deal with them,” said Louise.
In terms of other trends, another thing that they’ve endured is the rise of, for lack of a better term, the party supply dollar store, specializing in disposable party gear. “When I saw that trend coming, people decorating with disposable goods, I looked at the list for sales versus rentals,” said Serpa. “At the same time, we had many other stores that had disposable party goods, three or four of them up from the States. And we’ve seen many disposable party goods stores come
Other challenges in the Winnipeg party rental business include dealing with the seasons and keeping employees. But there’s always something to keep one’s eye on. “The do-it-yourself market is up and coming with all the (wedding preparation) reality shows, and Pinterest is really blowing things up,” said Louise. “I did my own wedding myself. I couldn’t resist. I got married at (the historical, now-demolished) Canad-Inns Stadium. It was a blue and gold theme, not just for the Bombers, but it worked out well. There were fireworks at the end.” In fact, Louise was able to incorporate elements from her wedding back into the family business. “I saw these white futons (on which we were conducting the interview) on Facebook, bought them for my wedding, and now we rent them out,” she said. “The more we can use it, the cheaper we can provide it to the customer.”
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