ToiletTalk Episode 13: Portable Restroom Rental Event Season

For this ToiletTalk, we talked with Wendy Cross, a former operator with experience managing events who now works for ServiceCore. Learn best practices for working with events, whether you focus on quality service, communication, or making a profit!

Transcript:

Matt: What’s up, guys! Today’s episode is all about events. According to the portable sanitation Benchmark report, revenue from events grew 300% in 2023 over 2022, and that makes a lot of sense considering that we were coming out of the pandemic, but this year it’s predicted to stay steady if not grow even further. So, we’ve brought in Wendy, our resident expert in events. She’s a former operator, and we’ve dubbed her “The Queen of Events,” so let’s talk to the queen.

 

Matt: If there is one word that you could use to describe doing events as a portable sanitation operator, what would that word be?

 

Wendy: Ahhhh!

 

Matt: Somehow I thought you were going to say something similar to that because we hear that a lot. Event season is the season where portable restroom operators get extremely busy, but it also can be a very lucrative season. So, you’re a former operator, so tell us a little bit about what you used to do as a portable sanitation operator.

 

Wendy: I was a portable toilet operator here in Wisconsin and worked for a company that did not only portable toilets but also septic, and my role there was the sales director. But like we know with most of our operators, you wear many hats, so I also backed up our customer service folks answering the phones, helped with some of the operations, took care of the drivers—all of that stuff.

 

Matt: Got it. So what types of events did you manage?

 

Wendy: I was mainly responsible for a wide range of events, some really large events that had hundreds of toilets that needed to be placed for it and organized. It might have been really large public events, like the lakefront fireworks, but then I also did a lot of events that were our smaller community events like the farmers’ market. So, it really could range from one or two units to, you know, three to four hundred units for a specific event.

 

Matt: Got it. When portable restroom operators are thinking about, you know, if they’re not doing events today and they want to get into it, or if they’re doing some but they realize they could be doing more, landing some of the bigger ones like a marathon or the Fourth of July celebration in your city, I think first we need to back up a little bit and say, if someone’s thinking about that, they’re not doing it, how do you land those types of customers as a pro?

 

Wendy: Yeah, I mean, it’s so important to be aware of what’s going on around you in the communities that you’re serving. You know, you mention a marathon, or like I had said, the farmers market or the community events. Get in touch with your business development area managers in the different communities, reach out to them, go meet them in person, show up at the events, and try and assess for yourself who’s currently providing services for these events, and explain how you could probably offer the same, if not better, service for them.

 

Matt: Got it. You know, I think that if you’re in an area that has other portable restroom operators in the same area, how do you stand out from them? Let’s say you land the job. I think that sometimes it’s the relationship to get the job, but you have to provide really good service and have to do an awesome job for them to want you to come back. But how do you keep the competition at bay so they don’t come swoop your event the following year?

 

Wendy: Yeah, that’s a really important piece. So yes, you want to establish a strong working relationship, a partnership with these folks in your area, and it’s most important to remember not only are you providing good customer service and always striving to be better than the best each year, but you also want to be consistent. You want to be the problem solver for these event organizers, no matter how big or how small. So many of these folks are a little intimidated by figuring out, “I’m going to need toilets or sinks or a restroom trailer at my event. I don’t know anything about that.” They might have assumptions they may have heard from others in the past what they might need. As the portable toilet operator, it’s your opportunity to come in and educate them on what is really needed, to break down some stigmas about it, but also to really inform them and help build the trust that you can continually make their event successful time and time again.

 

Matt: Got it. What was it you said about relationships and building that, and you use the word “consistent,” and I think that that is important because if you’re, you know, it’s once a year you talk to someone, that’s not really building a relationship. Can you maybe tell us a story or say more about how do you keep consistency with those relationships?

 

Wendy: You know, when you start developing these relationships, and you’re within your community, there are opportunities outside of these once-a-year events that you can stay in touch, or you could kind of halfway through the season do a check-in, maybe it’s an email, maybe it’s a handwritten card off to them, maybe it’s stopping in at their office just with a little gift or something, just so that you continue that friendship, that partnership that you’re establishing, and it’s really appreciated. And I think kind of gets overlooked as to how the little gestures actually can mean a lot in this industry and with these relationships because, like I said, these event planners, big or small, they’re looking for someone to take that burden away from them, someone that they can trust, someone that they feel good about. “Yep, I’m just going to contact them again next year. I know they’ll have it handled for me. They understand what we’re accomplishing. Great, I have one less thing I have to worry about.” 

 

Matt: Makes a lot of sense. So we’re at the point where we’ve landed a new event, and it’s coming in the future, maybe it is that Marathon or that big Fourth of July event. Can you talk to us about, you know, describe some of the planning process and the execution planning that goes into one of these?

 

Wendy: Yeah, of course. So again, with that relationship, you want to have plenty of conversation around the expectation of the event. You know, you’re talking with the event planner, and they’re anticipating this many people for this time span. This is what’s in their head. As the expert, you want to come in and make sure that you’re asking the questions of, “Okay, exactly how many people did you have last year? Are you aware of, you know, so that we can factor any sort of growth moving forward?” But also, the duration of the event, “Is there going to be alcohol being served? Is there food being served? Is the event something that people are going to be at for the entire duration or just certain chunks of time during that?” And then you’re having these conversations, and it’s also important to meet up with them at the location if possible so that as the operator, you’re able to get your eyes on their vision and then walk through the need, placement details, you know, all of that stuff. So it’s important to meet with them, talk through the objectives, and then really start building the process from there. And as an operator, it’s really important to know your analysis. You know, what is your event analysis tool that you’re using so that you can provide the right service at the right price and still be profitable.

 

Matt: So, what are some of the logistical challenges? I’m sure you have some stories to share of running one of these large events and, you know, how have you handled them in the past?

 

Wendy: Oh, yeah, there’s plenty that can go really well and plenty that can be a challenge. And so many times, it does come down to location or placement or expectations by the event planner that might not be the most realistic for the operator to execute. A lot of times, it’s, “I really think it would be great if the toilets were all placed over there in that gorgeous field, and you know everyone will have plenty of room to walk to them.” That’s great, except that field that it looks so lush and green, if it rains, that’s the first thing that floods, or the first thing that gets squishy, and now, you know, people are walking through squishy sod, and for you to deliver them and/or pick up the toilets, you have quite a bit of a challenge on your hand because you’re not going to be driving trucks or trailers out there for that. So, again, goes back to that communication. A lot of times, a vision or expectations really need to be talked about so that it’s the best for both parties involved.

 

Matt: What’s a typical servicing schedule look like at one of these events, and specifically as it pertains to how do you maintain your standards of good customer service so that way your brand that’s on the toilets out there is seen in the highest regard?

 

Wendy: Yeah, that’s a good question. And again, when you’re factoring in all of the variables for this event, it’s important to understand what is the anticipated usage of your toilets and handwash stations or restroom trailer. You know, what is the duration, what is the anticipated usage because that will then determine, “Do you need servicing each day? You know, each morning, typically before the event starts? Is it maybe just, you know, every other day?” You know, so it again, all the conversation that goes into helping educate these event planners on what’s going to be best because they, this isn’t their field. They don’t know if the toilets are going to need to be serviced every morning before the next day of the event or how any of that goes. So it’s a really great opportunity to share your knowledge, share your expertise, which again goes back into solidifying that relationship and that trust so that they continue to call on you year after year.

 

Matt: Did you ever have your staff go to the events and make sure that those standards were being upheld? You know, they may have had a servicing schedule that was, “Oh, you could just come every other day,” but you’re realizing that it’s probably getting backed up in those toilets, and you probably should be doing it every day. And how did you communicate with your event planner or site contact?

 

Wendy: It’s definitely important to, whenever able, you yourself take the opportunity to show up at these events, or at least have some of your staff go in to check on how things are going. But also, that event planner, make sure they’re well aware that if suddenly they’re noticing a situation or, you know, “While it’s been even more successful than we anticipated,” that’s where having the right contact numbers, “Here’s my cell phone, call me if we need to do an emergency servicing. We can certainly figure that out. If for the next day, let’s anticipate adding a few more toilets just to be safe.” You factor in all of those pieces because the last thing you want to happen is an event that now the toilets are too full, or you’ve had to kind of lock some off because they are no longer usable, and you know that really has a negative effect on the event because nobody really wants to deal with an overflowing portable restroom. Nor do you want to have an event where suddenly people have to go to the bathroom, and they don’t have options to do so. So that’ll have a negative review for your event across social media real quick.

 

Matt: Did you ever have an event in your time doing this where you had an unexpected situation come up that was like, “Oh boy, I remember that?”

 

Wendy: Oh, most definitely. There’s probably far too many to remember, and you kind of let those drift to the back of your memory. But yeah, there’s times where something got either miscommunicated or there was an issue on site that prevented proper servicing of the event. Or weather, you know, weather can be a real big factor too. Suddenly, you know, something’s like I mentioned before with placement, suddenly something’s flooded or inaccessible, and now you can’t service the toilets that you really thought you were going to be able to. But yeah, there’s always a lot of memories for operators where things were running along just fine until they weren’t, and then suddenly panic sort of ensues, and it’s usually on a Saturday or a Sunday when, you know, you’re trying to call staff in who might not have been working to rectify the situation. 

 

Matt: Of course, of course, those things never happen when it’s convenient. They always happen when it’s inconvenient. So, you know, let’s talk about something that’s really important that we hear a lot. I actually hear this all the time, and it’s the financial aspect of running events. The thing that I hear over and over again, which is surprising, is, “You know, I don’t even know if we’re making any money on these things,” which to me, that just seems a bit crazy. But I think it’s because you were talking about communicating and just making sure that that relationship was there. If you’re having all these add-ons with overtime and this and that, you may not realize that you might be cutting into your margins. So can you kind of walk us through the financial aspects of running events to make sure that you stay profitable?

 

Wendy: Yeah, that’s definitely the most important factor, and we do see that a lot in the industry. We see, you know, questions always being asked out on social media, we hear a lot of it within the industry, and you know, “Hey, I just bid on this such and such event, how many toilets should I use, and what should I charge?” That all goes back to understanding your own costs. You have to start there first before even starting to bid on these things. And when I talk about understanding your own costs, I really mean knowing your variables. What are your supply costs first and foremost—your toilet paper, your hand sanitizer, the bluing, you know, the drop-ins for the toilets, the paper towel, you know, soap, whatever it might be. Those are all variables that the price can change on you. You can’t just stick with one solid, “Yep, I know that’s going to cost me, you know, $4.20 every time.” It’s not. So you want to make sure you’re always aware of how your variables are changing in cost because that factors in. 

 

And then, of course, anytime you’re bidding on these events, you need to understand, you know, what is your labor cost going to be? How many trips is it going to be for the allotted toilets requested? If it’s a large event, you know, you may be making multiple trips to deliver and pick up. You want to always make sure you’re factoring in delivery and pickup costs, the labor involved, the gas, you know, figuring out your mileage to your events, and then disposal cost as well. It’s always important to figure out what is your disposal cost. So understanding all of these costs, all of these variables, and a lot of times putting that into a formula that you use that you can manipulate as prices change, then you will be able to kind of see what your total cost is and understand what type of profit margin you want to have with that. 

 

And you know, within this industry, I think a lot of times people are still apprehensive to charge their worth, to really explain how they’re the expert for this, and with that expertise and knowledge, there’s a price tag. So don’t ever underbid, you know, just to get the event because in the long run, you’ll be losing money and only hurting your reputation. Really important to value what you do, explain that to the event planners and to the other, you know, to the community so that they, you know, you get the respect that you deserve because this is such a huge piece to successful events, big or small. And, you know, just don’t ever sell yourself short. Know your costs, charge accordingly, make the profit that you know you should, and you know, you’ll be more and more successful when you do that. 

 

I think in this industry, we’ve always talked that in 2020 when the pandemic had started and really shook things up, and events weren’t happening, so many operators were given the opportunity to take a step back and actually do the math on all of what they had been doing, and so many realized we weren’t charging what we should be charging. I think we might have been, you know, not making the margins we thought because we didn’t factor in all the labor costs and such. So always important to make sure you take the time to do that piece first before even, you know, starting to bid on some of the events. 

 

Matt: It seems like that’s where the relationship part comes in because if anyone can come in and underbid you, and sure there’s going to be someone that does it cheaper, but if you have that relationship where they know that they can count on you, they can call you anytime to make sure if there is a problem that you’re giving them the advice that’s going to run the smoothest event, you know, if no one says anything about the bathroom situation, then you know that’s probably a really good thing. And you know, any of us are willing to pay what, maybe more at times, for that good quality service versus I’ll spend a little less here, and then they have a disaster on their hands. So, I think what you said earlier about relationships is so important as it pertains to making sure that you do stay profitable and you’re getting paid what you’re worth, but you’re also giving a service that the event planner sees as highly valuable.

 

Wendy: Oh, absolutely. And if you’re working with someone who is just focused on price, be honest with yourself, to realize, is this, you know, an event or a business relationship I want to get involved with? Maybe it’s not worth my time and energy if I can’t develop a respectful, strong, profitable relationship. It’s okay to say no. It’s okay to maybe, you know, go find another opportunity for yourself compared to the one that you’re struggling to get your worth out there.

 

Matt: What was one of the biggest lessons you learned as a pro when you’re running all these events, something that you maybe made a mistake or had a challenge but you learned from it, and we could share that with others?

 

Wendy: Oh boy, yeah, there were so many lessons learned. Again, the communication. I mean, I remember when I was first starting in the industry and first dabbling with organizing these events, and talking with people, and what I had to learn about the questions I wasn’t asking. You know, that was so key because then all of a sudden the event happens, or delivery is happening, and I hadn’t provided the right details or full information that the rest of my team needed to execute this properly. So I would say early on for me, it was, “I didn’t know what I didn’t know.” And that’s where in this industry I love that I was able to grow because there were so many people around me with the knowledge, with the expertise, willing to share, willing to learn from. As you know, I’ve always been involved with the PSAI, you know, and that’s always a great opportunity as well to share knowledge, learn from other operators, and get that stuff. But wow, there were a lot of panic moments or suddenly I think I feel a sweat coming on because, you know, I may have made somebody else’s job harder than it needed to be because I didn’t ask the right questions, I didn’t communicate properly. And uh, I just remember as I grew, learning and feeling so much relief when you’re like, “I got this. I know the questions to ask. I know what we should charge. I know what our variables are,” and now I can just have fun with building these relationships and taking on bigger events and seeing a new challenge and succeeding and feeling proud about it, and you know, being happy to see your name on those toilets out there and everybody’s having a great time at whatever the event might have been. 

 

Matt: That’s awesome. All right, so I think let’s start to land this plane by asking you if there’s a portable sanitation operator out there that is looking to get into events, and they, you know, it’s like, “All right, I hear what you’re saying. This is going to be where we make some money in the future.” What piece of advice would you give them?

 

Wendy: Get out there and meet the people where they’re at. Meet your opportunities where they are at. Whether it’s wedding venues, event planners, like I said, your business Improvement districts, your local communities, big or small, get out there and meet them. Go to the business after five events, go to the Chamber of Commerce breakfasts or lunches. Just get out there, get yourself out there, volunteer for other opportunities, and through that, you see a lot more that can come your way. So, yeah, first and foremost, get out there. They’re not going to come to you, so go find them and be the first one doing that and building that relationship.

 

Matt: I think that’s great advice. And Wendy, I just want to thank you so much for being on, and I’d like to say, All hail to the events queen!

About the Author: Liam Sabot

Liam is an author of over 70 articles about portable toilet rental, septic pumping, and dumpster business management. He is dedicated to providing important information to help sanitation businesses succeed.
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