Party and event
Lights, camera…rental action! – Higgins Event Rentals profile
By Jack Kohane
Watch the hit CBC TV show Murdoch Mysteries and see the dashing detective analyzing clues on an elegant wine glass, or notice the dinnerware and linens in the riveting television series The Handmaid’s Tale. Chances are those props have come from the shelves of Higgins Event Rentals.
By Jack Kohane
The Toronto-based, one-stop-shopping party and event rental titan also sources authentic props for Canadian productions of Molly’s Game, Designated Survivor and Saving Hope, among others, as well as working with movie directors and designers for decorative furnishings used on sets.
Many of those shows have gone on to win awards, so it’s fitting that Higgins Event Rentals has earned its own share of handsome hardware. In 2016, Higgins snared the Family Enterprise of the Year award from The Canadian Association of Family Enterprise, then in March, 2018, Higgins clinched the Canadian Rental Association’s coveted Most Creative Design for the winning Tabletop Design Challenge at its annual banquet, as well as the President’s Image Award recognizing Higgins as tops among those who exemplify the industry’s highest standards of service and innovation. In addition, Michelle Nicol, Higgins’ ace account manager and festival specialist, has been crowned with Canadian Rental Service’s Top 10 Under 40 accolade twice, as well as Rental Professional Of The Year in March 2018.
“We are delighted that we’ve been honoured with these prestigious awards,” says John Higgins, who, with his brother, Dave, are the current leaders of the company. “These kinds of awards are a tribute to the tradition of honest hard work that my parents initiated and that our dedicated team continues today.”
Higgins Event Rentals, a multi-generational family business, was started in 1982 by the husband-and-wife team of Denis and Peggy Higgins, who were high school sweethearts back in the day. A virtuoso in the financial industry, Denis could handle the operations side of the business and understood how a start-up can live up to its potential. So he set his mind to making a go of a neighbourhood rental shop. Peggy would be the driving force, with a natural flare for design, purchasing and well-developed hospitality skills needed to deal with event planners, designers and producers. At first branded under the United Rent-All banner, their small business operated pretty much like a general rental store in Etobicoke’s Royal York Plaza in the fast-growing west end of Toronto. Taking over the space from a department store, they warehoused chain saws, cement mixers, baby cribs and other odd items for rent.
“We were raised a strong family of four sons and one daughter,” says John. “Our parents’ legacy has grown into a devoted family operation in Toronto with over 65 full-time employees (with a cadre of part-timers tapped for duty as the brisk spring/summer events season blossoms). “It’s surprising that in the early years of Higgins Event Rentals only a fraction of our business offered dishes, glassware, cutlery, linen, tables and chairs,” continues John. “From humble beginnings, we eventually set a blistering pace focused on growth and becoming pioneers of Toronto’s event rental industry.”
As the company’s general sales flourished, Denis found a buyer for the tool side of the company and that sale allowed the couple to focus on the booming party rental industry. As the company scaled up, the children became more and more involved, starting with summers and weekends. They learned the business from the ground up. Nicol lauds how Denis and Peggy differentiated their enterprise from the competition by consistently challenging the old model of event rentals. “They did it by sourcing new designs, seeking out new products and setting new standards for the industry,” she affirms. When the senior Higgins retired in 2000 (sadly, Denis has since passed away), the second generation of the family took over the helm of the company.
That dynamic bond linking past and present is immediately evident as one enters the front door of the company’s new 55,000-square-foot plant in south Etobicoke. Displayed with pride of place in the foyer is a handwritten copy of the fledgling company’s first rental sale in 1982: a single appliance dolly for $6. Also prominent here for clients and staff to see is the company’s jumbo-sized vision board. Written large over a stylized scene of Toronto’s downtown skyline is the Higgins vision statement – to be the number-one source for event professionals – along with such core values as promoting effective communication, delivering on promises, treating everyone with respect and always advancing the value of teamwork and productivity. The board also proclaims growth targets the company will attain by 2021: boosting its number of client caterers from 300 to 400; increasing exclusive venue contracts from 8 to 15; raising tented events from 350 to 500 and hiking its street festivals supplied from 60 to 100.
“These numbers are achievable based on our performance,” vows Dave. “We’ve doubled our sales in the past five years, and we’re looking ahead with confidence.” To illustrate, in the past year (with more than 1,800 in-stock product lines), Higgins has supplied a burgeoning clientele, big and small, with well over 100,000 chairs, close to 50,000 tables, 800,000 pieces of cutlery and over one million glassware items. Dave notes that 25 per cent of the company’s revenues is generated by renting out tables and chairs, a further 25 per cent in glass and dinnerware and the remaining 50 per cent spread out across tents of all sizes and linens. For the present, the Hollywood North rental segment of Higgins accounts for 10 per cent of overall sales. “TV and movies are a very promising area for us over the next few years,” predicts Dave. “We provide a range of services for film staging and set design, tent delivery, lunch rooms and dinnerware for meals. When it’s time for ‘lights, camera,’ we’re ready and able to spring into action.”
Higgins Event Rentals boasts a welding shop to customize its chrome-plated beverage stands and plexiglass communal tables. The brothers try to tap into local sources for materials and cut their own multi-coloured and customizable plex bars in-house. Their industrial-grade BBQs and portable ovens, for example, are made by Crown Verity (based in Brantford, Ont.). These represent significant cost savings, claims Dave.
A key aspect of the company’s success focuses on building partnerships with customers to fulfill their event needs, as well as staying lean (in terms of inventory levels) as indoor and outdoor events dictate over the different seasons. “Many of our employees have been with us for 20 years and most of our customers have remained with us throughout the years,” says John. While the bread-and-butter affairs of weddings and banquets are the company’s mainstays, there’s an especially powerful message in teaming with charitable organizations and being a reliable and trusted supplier in running successful street festivals and fundraising events. A must-have are modular tents that can be quickly expanded to house from dozens up to hundreds of visitors. “We’re fortunate to live and work in Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities in the world,” John enthuses. “Every year there are more street fairs and venues celebrating our diverse cultures. Our goal is to help make it happen.”
Helping to stem climate change is another priority initiative at Higgins. Nicol spotlights the company’s innovative moves to reduce its carbon footprint. “This is hugely important,” she declares. “By making small changes in the way we do things we can make significant changes for both our bottom line and the environment.” Some of those changes include switching from plastic wrap to reusable lids for all our glassware boxes, resulting in less plastic wrapping going into the garbage, and shifting from wrapping flatware in plastic wrap to packaging it in reusable containers. “This saves an enormous amount of wasted plastic,” she explains, adding that the warehouse uses motion-activated lighting to ensure areas not in use are unlit. “Otherwise it would cost a fortune and waste a lot of energy to light the entire building all day long,” she states.
The family has seen dramatic changes in the rental business since Higgins opened its doors 36 years ago. “Years ago, I’d only need to show a client some folding chairs and plain white tablecloths and that’d be the sale,” John recalls. “Nowadays, people see things on TV or in movies and they want those items, that same colour, that design. And since it could be our own prop they see, we can supply it. If we don’t stock it, we have a huge network to draw on to satisfy the client’s needs. That’s the beauty of a family-run business: we can turn on a dime.”