Tents make up social distancing essentials, but industry leader says businesses still struggle

Albany County

CAPITAL REGION, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Tents seem to have popped up everywhere you look throughout the pandemic. Schools and restaurants need space to serve and stay distant.

Jodi O’Donnell, a faculty member at Siena College, says this isn’t how she ever imagined teaching chemistry. “Students ask for class outside whenever it’s super nice and I always say no because we don’t have the resources for that, and in 2020 it’s a lot different,” she says.

However, one local tent rental company says it hasn’t been the booming business you might expect. The co-owner says they’ve still been hit hard this year with so many big events canceled.

“We’re down about 40% for the year. We usually do—I think we lost about $500,000 in the months of May and June alone,” explains Connor Whalen, co-owner of C.W. Whalen and Sons of Troy. The company usually covers SUNY Albany, Union College, Siena and Skidmore graduations, weddings, backyard parties, and events.

“It’s definitely a different year and we’ve had to be very flexible with what we can and can’t do, but we are just going to keep going as strong as we can for as long as we can,” he goes on to say.

Whalen says his family has been especially grateful for their partnerships with local schools and colleges like Siena setting up outdoor learning.

“A lot of my tents will be up through Thanksgiving and I won’t be taking them down until December, which is definitely much later than we’re used to working, but at this point, any kind of extended rental is good for us just because it’s business,” he says to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.

“I think it’s a great idea that we can support local businesses using the tents. Obviously, they can’t be used for weddings or special events or parties, but if they can be used for college classes, that’s terrific,” says Siena College Associate Director of Communications Lisa Witkowski.

O’Donnell says she’s tried everything she can to make this new normal feel comfortable and fun for her students, particularly new freshmen.

“We need to acknowledge that it’s awkward and we need to acknowledge that we’re doing the best we can with the resources available to us, as a society as a school, as a culture and what have you,” she says.

She’s set up a “tent bingo” game to play with her classes to deal with the natural distractions that come with learning outside.

“Anytime a bug flies in, a chipmunk runs through, everyone gets distracted anyways, so let’s make fun of it instead of have it be a disruption,” she laughs.

Another challenge of the tents is getting them prepared so quickly for their unconventional use as classrooms.

“The biggest problem has been thinking about how the technology works. Thinking about when students need to join on Zoom and how I will get them in on Zoom and still have them be part of the class. I’m carrying my own projector, my own music stand as a podium, I was carrying a screen, it is a lot,” O’Donnell explains.

Whalen says his company has done what they can to accommodate as many needs as they forsee. That includes setting up all their extended rental tents on schools and restaurants with propane tanks and heating options. He says the company only used to need around eight heating units, but now he’s looking to add around 25 to their inventory just to keep the business running as long and effectively as possible.

“We will stay and will keep them heated as long as we can for as long as they want them. I’m helping them and they’re helping me, so it’s a mutual great thing as long as they’re keeping them,” Whalen says.

O’Donnell says if nothing else, 2020 will be a strong memory in the minds of many.

“We will never forget having class in a tent — having 36 students in a tent. We will never forget it as long as we live, and I hope it will be a fond, fun memory for those of us who have done it,” she says.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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