They were dropping like ducks in a shooting gallery. The Sea Otter Classic, a major cycling festival, announced its postponement due to the Covid-19 pandemic on March 5. SXSW threw in the towel on March 6. The NCAA canceled its tournaments on March 12.
Matt Bulloch, president and founder of TentCraft, based in Traverse City, Michigan, immediately saw orders vanish along with the event industry. Roughly $600,000 of anticipated March revenue for his company's custom-printed tents and colorful canvas structures was lost or never booked.
"I realized if we didn't pivot we would be in a whole lot of trouble," Bulloch says.
Bulloch had seen TV reports featuring drive-through testing centers in South Korea. He thought it was a smart idea but noticed that many looked disorganized. The event industry demanded fast delivery of branded, custom shelters for large groups. Bulloch imagined a similar product but with sponsor logos replaced by messages like "Quarantine" or "Medical Personnel Only," and signage delivering step-by-step information to guide confused and stressed-out patients.
On March 16, Bulloch addressed his 75 employees by email. "We, together, are going to completely re-tool the company to focus on supporting health and medical applications," he wrote. "Our products are going to be in demand and will save lives."
Over the next few weeks, TentCraft would book close to $1 million of business in a vertical--health care--with which it had no experience. The company leveraged its strengths in custom fabrication and large-format printing to produce iterations of existing products, including pop-up mobile infirmaries and drive-through tents for Covid-19 screening. It also innovated wholly new products, such as cots and partitions for medical workers and patient privacy. And it developed and executed a fresh marketing plan.
The switch to medical products has not been a complete fix for TentCraft's problems. Although the company landed 50 jobs in a few weeks, more than half of its new orders come from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which had early access to federal emergency funds. Sales for March were around $300,000 below pre-pandemic projections. Still, Bulloch's decisive action--textbook "leadership in a crisis"--has protected his employees' jobs. The new mission also has improved morale.
"If we are making tents for Coca-Cola, which is sponsoring a Taylor Swift concert, and Taylor Swift doesn't get one of her tents on time, who really cares?" Bulloch says. "Now we are creating products that do good for a lot of people. And I think that does good for our crew."
From Wall Street to Traverse City
Threatening situations don't faze Bulloch, whose resume includes wild-land firefighting and a year stationed at Guantanamo Bay as a member of the Virginia Army National Guard. When he failed in his bid to become a smoke jumper, Bulloch turned to Plan B: Wall Street.
But working as an analyst for Credit Suisse, Bulloch grew restive. Then he met a colleague's father, who owned a large-format digital printing business. The owner had tried to introduce a line of custom-printed tents, sourced from Italy, but that business never took off. So in 2006 he offered to let Bulloch launch it as a new company. TentCraft was born and hit $1 million in revenue the following year.
Bulloch wanted to bring production home to Michigan to reduce shipping costs. He traveled overseas to learn tent fabrication but could not afford to set up operations back home. When the military insurance giant USAA placed a large order in 2009, he saw his chance.
"I said, 'Great! We are going to produce this in our new U.S. sew shop!" recalls Bulloch, who at the time had nothing resembling a U.S. sew shop. For the first time, he requested a deposit and used the $50,000 to buy the equipment required for a soft-goods operation. A few years later the company brought the aluminum frame production in-house as well.
TentCraft's production facility now employs 40 to 50 people. "One thing that has allowed us to make these medical products is that we built this U.S. manufacturing capability," Bulloch says.
Shifting to a new market
Pre-pandemic, business at TentCraft was good, not fabulous. Revenues had plateaued at around $15 million because of increased competition from Chinese companies, among other reasons. In response, the company had doubled down on product development and custom work, especially for the 50 percent of business coming from advertising agencies. That focus paid off as the coronavirus crisis demanded development of new offerings for medical customers on the fly.
The other half of TentCraft's business derives from pay-per-click advertising. Bulloch knew rebranding and repositioning online would be critical, so in March the company bought ads on Google and Facebook, as well as ZoomInfo, a B-to-B contact database. Customers buy credits, each good for one prospect's contact information. TentCraft, which already used the tool, approached ZoomInfo about buying another 10,000-15,000 credits so it could reach out to hospital administrators. "We said we are trying to support health-care workers," Bulloch says. "They said we love it, and we will give you 50,000 credits."
TentCraft logged its first order on March 16, from a hospital in Texas. Then more rolled in, each custom-built and printed. Beverly Hospital, in Beverly Massachusetts. St. Anthony Hospital in Chicago. The Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Erie, Pennsylvania.
TentCraft's first installation was local: at Munson Medical Center, a 400-bed hospital in Traverse City that requested a large tent for drive-through Covid-19 screening. TentCraft installed Munson Medical's tent, with an opening large enough to accommodate an SUV, in less than 30 minutes, the day after the order was confirmed. The company also quickly filled the hospital's request for a partition to protect patient privacy.
"TentCraft is the best solution we've been able to come up with," says Emily Summers, specimen collection services manager for Munson Medical Center Labs. "They have been so responsive, which matters so much right now."
TentCraft must be able to ship within three to five days, or hospitals will look for a quicker option. But that urgency puts a strain on capacity. An order from one region in the VA network for 24 large tents with lots of walls and interior partitions occupied much of the workforce for a week. At the same time TentCraft wants to churn out new products for this vital, hurting market. It is developing cots to address the shortage of hospital beds and a roofless tent for indoor environments, like convention centers, that can be quickly popped up and arranged in different segments.
Bulloch hopes that post-crisis some medical work will hang around, helping to fill those winter months when his traditional business slows to a crawl. But he's not sure the event industry itself will quickly rebound.
"We pulled a rabbit out of a hat to quickly get out some medical products that we have gotten a lot of traction with," he says. "I hope we will survive this crisis. But we are by no means out of the woods."