Party and event
Deep roots, modern style
One is a Quebec institution – a go-to resource for tables, chairs, dinnerware and other event supplies since 1919. The other is a dynamic upstart, using flair and design talent to snag some of Canada’s highest-profile events and to create spaces and backdrops that exceed even the event organizers’ dreams.
By Patrick Flannery
One is a Quebec institution – a go-to resource for tables, chairs, dinnerware and other event supplies since 1919. The other is a dynamic upstart, using flair and design talent to snag some of Canada’s highest-profile events and to create spaces and backdrops that exceed even the event organizers’ dreams. Now, the two are working together to create something new and powerful: an event rental company with deep pockets, an established name and long-term supplier relationships all driven by a restless creative energy.
|From the left, Charles Kay, Brian Harris, Bertrand Cote and Louis Cote are the four owners of Location Gervais and Luxe Rentals. They bring a strong mix of creativity and experience to the event rental business.|
The two companies, Location Gervais and Luxe Rentals, are operated out of separate warehouses in Quebec City and Montreal, respectively, with a satellite Luxe warehouse in Toronto. Cousins Bertrand and Louis Cote owned Location Gervais and Brian Harris and Charles Kay are the owners and founders of Luxe. The two companies still use their separate brand names, but have operated as a partnership under one umbrella company since last year. The joint operation employs about 135 people and operates over 100,000 square feet of warehouse space. Bertrand estimates that when the process of amalgamating inventories is completed, Gervais and Luxe will offer around 3,600 different products for rent.
Location Gervais is so old its origins are lost in antiquity. All Bertrand and Louis know for sure is it was originally a furniture dealer started in Montreal by someone with the last name Gervais. The company changed hands several times over the next decades, eventually being purchased in 1967 by Hartland Price, a Montreal entrepreneur who owned numerous businesses in Quebec, including Montreal Table and Chair, a party rental operation. Price merged the businesses, and Gervais became exclusively a rental operation.
Louis’s father, Claude, worked in Price’s rental operations through the ’70s, building his investment in the rental business and helping Price to acquire competitors. The recession of the early ’80s hit the business hard, driving the company’s value down to the point where Price was looking for an exit. Claude saw an opportunity to pick up an established brand at a depressed price. He pulled together a group of seven investors, including his son, Louis, and nephew, Bertrand. They bought the company in 1985. Claude retired shortly after, and Louis and Bertrand were able to buy out the other investors in 1997.
Under Bertrand and Louis’s management, Location Gervais grew steadily over the next 20 years. The focus was on adding inventory and expanding its offering to its traditional client base so it had a ready supply of event rental fare for most any need in Quebec. Corporate events and weddings were its bread and butter, with particular strength in the French community. Bertrand and Louis expanded the warehouse twice, first to a 28,000-square-foot location in the company’s original area of Esplanade Street, then to its present 51,000-square-foot facility on Rue de Gaspe. They also have a warehouse in Quebec city.
Through that period, Bertrand and Louis were challenged to move with the shifting needs of their market. Location Gervais had been able in the past to serve its customers with a selection of low-cost items that met a broad array of uses. The emphasis was on volume and availability. But shifting economic conditions and customer tastes were putting new demands on the old way of doing things. “One of the first things we did,” Bertrand remembers, ”because we were in the middle of a recession, was to invest in more high-quality merchandise. We went into high-end products and into silverware instead of stainless steel. We went into porcelain instead of hotel dishes. This helped us get through into another market and that helped us get through that period.”
|One of Luxe Rentals’ innovations is using illuminated furniture to create a very modern and exotic effect. Illuminated bars like this one are a big hit at corporate functions.|
The partnership with Luxe grew naturally out of this process of evolution. “We began talking to Luxe about year ago because they had revolutionized the rental business a bit because they went into higher-end furniture,” Bertrand says. “And we had not invested in that. We were looking at that kind of investment and, after talking to them, we found they wanted to invest in our kind of business. So what happened was, we decided to do something together to limit the investment of both companies and give us both a wider range of products.”
Harris and Kay have known each other since high school, when they both worked as disc jockeys. Harris had moved on to event planning, arranging sound, lighting and entertainment for private and corporate clients. Kay parlayed his interest in design into a successful clothing business, first by selling shirts of his own design at events and then by making and shipping a full range of apparel internationally. He then tried his hand at the furniture business, producing reproductions of mid-century modern pieces.
Kay’s wedding brought the two back together. “I had been out of the industry for about 11 years while I operated my clothing business,” Kay remembers. “So obviously, I went to a friend of mine who was in the business [for my wedding arrangements]. He knew a little bit about me and my personal esthetic and how particular I am about how every detail needs to be. My wife actually called me Bridezilla while I was planning the wedding.” Harris and Kay looked around at the Quebec event rental houses, including Location Gervais, and found there was a gap in the market for truly innovative event design services. “There was nothing available in Quebec,” Harris says. “There was a little bit in Ontario. So because of Charles’ need, we discovered this hole that needed to be filled in the market. Charles designed a collection of furniture – some modular pieces, some replicas of famous designs – and we brought those together and started Luxe Rentals with a small inventory. The demand was so overwhelming that we literally doubled the size of the company every year almost until today. We were a rental company, but more on the décor furniture side. We didn’t have any catering equipment, we didn’t have any dishware, glassware or things like that.”
A broad inventory of high-quality event rental items was just what Location Gervais had to offer. And Luxe was an attractive partner because of its eye-catching portfolio of work on some of the highest-profile projects in Canada. For instance, Luxe designed and furnished the entire interior of an 81,000-square-foot tent at the Vancouver Winter Olympics.
“It was apparently the largest freestanding tent ever built,” Harris says. “There was the hospitality venue for Team Canada, the International Ice Hockey Federation and the NHLPA, and the other part of it was a world-class restaurant and nightclub where they showed all the games and had a very interesting lineup of entertainment every night; everything from Tom Cochrane to Bryan Adams to the Barenaked Ladies. It was a one-of-a-kind event and it ran for the entire time of the Olympics.”
“It was something that had gone out to tender by a production company in Toronto,” Kay adds. “I believe around 10 companies originally bid on it, then it went down to five and then three. It was quite a process of many, many versions of proposals, and I think what really sealed the deal for us was the design and creativity that we put into the project.”
“We were up against some very big production houses and event-management companies in the bidding process, and when we were awarded the contract [the contractor] explained that they weren’t quite sure how we made it through this process being the smallest player in the field, but to their absolute amazement we answered every single question better and presented better than all the other guys and they really had no choice but to award us the contract,” added Harris.
The merger started as a conversation at a catering show in Las Vegas about the shifting face of the market. Kay met Louis there, and soon after got a call asking about opportunities to work together. “Louis called me up and said a lot of companies in this industry have a crossover of products,” Kay remembers. “All of [Gervais’] competitors had either tried to buy the kind of product Luxe has or had bought out businesses. So Bertrand and Louis were kind of the last two men standing who were not offering this category of products. Originally, we got into some negotiations about sub-renting equipment to each other or possibly Luxe selling some product to Gervais, then I guess the negotiations continued and evolved.”
“It became apparent to everyone that we had everything they didn’t have and they had everything we didn’t have,” Harris adds.
Gervais and Luxe’s merger brought together old and new in the event rental world. Gervais’ inventory, while extensive and high-quality, represents a familiar lineup of hotelware, banquet chairs, folding tables and a linen department. Luxe carries everything but the ordinary. “We have polished stainless steel and plexiglass tables that don’t require any linens,” Kay explains. “All our chairs are not your standard chiavari chair or banquet chair. We have some that are completely transparent, made of polycarbonate. We have some that are wrapped in leather and we introduce the whole lounge aspect to event rentals. We rent sofas and carpet and tables and lamps and pillows and we make lounge areas. We also introduced the whole concept of illuminated furniture so where before a bar could have been a standard plywood bar which is painted black and which would fold out and have a top that sat on it, it was really there for the functional aspect, not for the esthetic aspect. We kind of changed that in Montreal.”
Yet even with all this creative success, Luxe was conscious of the need to have the kind of deep inventory that Gervais offered. “Even with people looking for this new type of product, they still need the basics of what a company like Gervais offers,” Kay says. “They still need all of the catering equipment. They still need all the dishware, ovens, fryers, refrigerators – everything a caterer could possibly need down to punch fountains. There is a different category of price, as well, and some people like to have the plexiglass alternative and some want more traditional linens. So this is a bit of everything now. It is a one-stop-shop.”
Together they have launched Haute Coutelerie a collection of dishware, glassware and cutlery designed by Kay in the Luxe aesthetic and complemented by a variety of never before seen catering equipment.
Bertrand adds that there is a difference in Quebec between the French-speaking and English-speaking markets. Gervais offerings were very successful with francophones, but less so in English Quebec. Luxe was stronger in the Anglophone market.
Luxe does most of their business between Toronto and Quebec City, with occasional forays to more distant destinations such as Vancouver. They regularly cross the border to the U.S.
More growth is on the horizon. The partners just signed a deal with U.S. furniture rental giant Cort to be its representative in eastern Canada. Luxe helped them out when a Cort client needed furniture for a trade show in Montreal. Following that experience, Cort’s president of the event and trade show division visited Luxe’s warehouse and was impressed by what he saw. In addition to the distribution deal, Kay will be doing some product development for Cort. So his furniture designs may soon be seen at events all over North America.
At the end of the day, all the partners agree that one simple principle has led to their success: integrity. “To be honest, to do a good job and make sure that what you say you are going to deliver, you deliver,” Bertrand says, are the keys. “The one thing we always had in common is we take care of our customers better than anyone else,” Harris agrees. With their combined strengths and with shared values like that, there seems no reason to doubt Gervais and Luxe will be major players in the event rental scene for years to come.