In the summer of 2020, Scott Sutherland was elated with record-shattering sales, but he was also in a situation he had never imagined: out of aluminum, out of fabric, out of nearly every component used to make tents. The pandemic roller coaster had sent the event tent industry from a bust to a boom, with schools and hospitals replacing weddings and festivals in the tent market. Meanwhile, the supply chain was chaotic.
But then, Sutherland hadn’t imagined a career in the tent industry in the first place, even though he grew up in his parents’ business, Tacoma Tent & Awning of Tacoma, Wash. The company was founded in 1937, and Sutherland’s parents became owners in 1971. He began working in the business at age 11, installing rental tents, sewing cargo straps, grommeting horse blankets and sweeping the building. As a high schooler, he learned to weld awning frames, stretch on covers and install awnings, and he started selling awnings during summers as a college student. His long-term plans, however, didn’t involve fabric and frames.
“I was in law school at the University of Washington in 1986, pursuing a career in international politics and the foreign service, with zero interest in the family business,” he says.
Then Sutherland’s parents decided to liquidate Tacoma Tent & Awning. Seeing the opportunity to own a business at age 26, Sutherland took a leave of absence from law school—and never went back. The awning market was taking off, and that was the product he knew best.
“I began my ownership with a strong emphasis on backlit awnings and landed lucrative accounts with local and national chains such as Burger King, Jack in the Box, Pizza Hut and others. I purchased a sign company with the proceeds to help control graphics production for the awnings, and also began selling LED display signs, neon signs and all other sign products. I dropped the boat tops from our product line as growth in these other areas monopolized my time.”
Today, the business is organized with four divisions—tents; awnings; signs and graphics; and aerospace/special projects. And while awnings were in Sutherland’s wheelhouse, the tent market is where he would make an industry-wide impact.
In the 1990s, Sutherland sold off the company’s rental tents and began to market tents nationally for sale under the Olympic Tent brand, introducing a major innovation to ease installation: slide-in tops for western-style frames. Adapting the concept from European structure tents, Sutherland eventually extended the innovation to slide-in legs and roller wheels, which allow the tent user to open and close sidewalls by themselves. Other manufacturers eventually jumped on the bandwagon, but not before Olympic Tent had secured its market share.
“I credit a lot to having been a rental guy myself growing up, because I don’t think I would have seen the value of slide-in tops if it were not for having to install a lot of lace-up tops,” he says. “You can’t say I invented this, but I adapted this to the tents we were building already. Clients had the tubing and connectors. All we had to do was sell them the new track rafters, crowns and slide-in tops.”
Still, introducing a new concept to a traditional industry isn’t easy. Sutherland recalls one of the first rental trade shows he attended as a new exhibitor, where he was “stuck by the bouncy houses” with little foot traffic. “But all it takes is one,” he says. “And I happened to have the fortune of having Juan [Munoz] from Marquee Events wander into my tiny little booth. I told him about slide-in tops and his eyes lit up like a kid in a candy store.”
Sutherland left the show with a major order from Marquee Event Group and an advocate in Munoz.
“We went from being 80 percent awnings back in the early days to 80 percent tents,” Sutherland says. “Each division has grown, but because the tent market isn’t just local, it’s a bigger pond to play in.”
More growth came when Sutherland established the aerospace division around 2000, benefiting from geographical proximity to Boeing’s original headquarters in Seattle. This division fabricates covers for stealth bombers, specialized tarps for airplane parts, inflatable engine covers for airplanes and other custom products. The connection between aerospace and the other divisions, Sutherland says, is workplace culture.
“Aerospace waxes and wanes,” he says. “As a vendor to that industry, you have to be really careful to not overspend when gearing up whether it’s equipment or personnel or inventory. You have to be really nimble. That’s where it fits with our tent division, because in both cases, we hire with an eye toward having personnel willing to do whatever it takes to meet a deadline. In the event industry, that’s critical.”
With about 40 full-time employees (including his son and a nephew) plus independent contractors, Sutherland emphasizes recognition, respect and compensation to help retain those employees who are willing to get the job done. Most new employees find their way to Olympic Tent and Tacoma Tent & Awning via employee referrals, family, friends and word of mouth.
“I am very proud of creating a sustainable, enjoyable work environment for the next generation by adapting philosophies and processes that lead employees to frequently say, ‘This is the best place I have ever worked.’”
Sutherland extends a similar commitment to clients and vendors. “I love risks and rewards, problem solving, creative engineering and providing a family work environment,” he says. “The cherry on top is when we get to be the hero, saving the client with amazing customer service.”
And those unprecedented supply and demand challenges of 2020? Sutherland overcame them through creative resourcing that benefitted both his new customers and his long-term tent rental clients.
“We got to the point where we had so many desperate clients, particularly on the East Coast in late July and early August, that were trying to open the private schools. The demand was so overwhelming that eventually there was no inventory left, particularly no tubing,” he says. “I reached out to some of my [tent rental] clients, asking if I could buy back tubing that I could replace later when my supply chain got straightened out. And because they were shut down and had no revenue, I found a number of takers.”
Before the pandemic, one of the biggest trends in the tent industry was an increased focus on safety—concrete ballasts over water barrels and sandbags; engineered tents, like those Olympic Tent manufactures, over non-engineered ones. But many businesses in the pandemic tent market can’t afford engineered tents, and some jurisdictions are softening on code compliance to help support struggling small businesses.
Sutherland notes some concerns in the industry that inexpensive, poorly installed tents could fail, resulting in excessive code enforcement in the future, and that, when the pandemic winds down, a lot of used tents will flood the market. But those concerns are offset by excitement for the new markets that have opened up as tents are used to increase capacity and make social distancing more tolerable—and even enjoyable.
“One client stated, ‘Be ready. Country clubs are wanting tents like never before. The members just love being in tents.’”
Jill C. Lafferty is senior editor of Specialty Fabrics Review and a past senior editor of InTents magazine.
Photography by Rick Dahms
SIDEBAR: Project Snapshot
Socially distanced school days
Annie Wright Schools, a private school in Tacoma, Wash., is just a mile from Olympic Tent’s headquarters, but the installation the company provided for the school in 2020 is typical of the projects the company has undertaken all over the U.S. since the start of the pandemic, according to Olympic Tent president Scott Sutherland. While continuing to meet in person, these schools are following social distancing recommendations as much as possible, and they are turning to tents to increase space.
For this project, the school and Olympic Tent considered three potential sites, opting to install a series of interconnected tents totaling about 2,000 square feet on a terrace adjacent to the school’s cafeteria. “We installed a gutter to the wall so [students] can go out of the cafeteria and directly into the tent,” Sutherland says. “And because it has the roller wheel walls, if it’s a warm day, they can open the walls and be outside. The challenge was the high winds because it’s on a brick surface, so you have to be very careful about proper anchoring.” The spot was also tight, which required some complex customization to maximize the space. “They did not want to give up a square inch,” Sutherland says.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am proud of our success with all the turning points that the company has experienced. We call these “pain points” and it allows us to drill down to the issues and then retarget our efforts to improve. In 2008, we experienced one of these turning points when Darrel Brown took over tent production and rapidly ascended to chief operating officer. It has been a partnership that has allowed us to lead and grow a very talented team.