“We were at a crossroads. Companies were struggling and getting budget conscious. We were struggling too,” remembers Scott Hirsch, owner and founding partner of Your Event Source (YES). “It was a huge decision. It felt like we were spending our last dollars.”
“We had no idea what we were getting into,” adds Keith Kaplan, who along with his father, Irwin Kaplan and Hirsch founded YES in 2002 as a side business out of a mini-storage unit.
Today, Your Event Source is a Charlotte-based, full service event planning and amusement rental company regularly involved in high profile events all over the east coast. They ran the Fan Fest at last year’s Belk Bowl and recent Men’s and Women’s ACC Basketball Tournaments. And Speedway Motor Sports Inc. (SMI) just awarded the company with a new contract. YES will be the sole vendor providing Play Zones for all upcoming events for Charlotte Motor Speedway and ZMAX Dragway.
For these and other events, YES customers can choose from a wide array of more than 125 products in the categories of personalized novelties, mechanical rides, interactive games, moon bounces, carnival games, concessions and inflatables.
“We’ve become a 365-day-a-year business,” says Kaplan.
“We’re a one-stop-shop and we’re the biggest in this area for everything we do,” adds Hirsch.
But back in 2008, YES focused mainly on company picnics and carnivals for local schools, churches and towns. With the economic nosedive of 2008, these were the first markets to dry up.
To make matters worse, the business was extremely seasonal. “We were doing very little in the winter,” recalls Kaplan. “We’d just started up a casino party division and that kept us busy for the three weeks of holiday parties in December but we were barely sustaining ourselves. All we were trying to do was get to April when the picnics and carnivals would start up again.”
Then they decided to take a chance. “In 2008 we were working with 12 to 15 colleges: Davidson, Queens, UNCC—all local,” Kaplan explains. “Colleges have events all year long, not just an annual picnic or fair, so we thought they’d be a good market for us.”
Game of Chance
“We found out about a college organization called National Association of Campus Advisors (NACA) that has national and regional conferences,” Kaplan continues, “and they had a conference coming up in Tennessee but it was a major expense at the time for us and we were hesitant to do it.
“We’d recently found a novelty at an industry trade show called Flip Books. You take seven seconds of video, create a custom cover and then you’ve got this book that runs like a video when you flip the pages.
“So when we finally committed to spending the money and going to the NACA conference, we decided to include Flip Books. We made them right at our booth at the show.”
Kaplan smiles. “I’ll never forget it,” he says. “I was driving home from the show when the office calls and tells me we’ve already got phone calls from colleges who want to work with us and one of them was the University of Florida.
“You don’t usually book these things onsite, but by the time I’d gotten to the Tennessee-North Carolina border we’d already had three calls!”
“And now the majority of our business is in the college market,” adds Hirsch. “Flip Books were the start of it.”
The company currently works with more than 170 colleges and still offers Flip Books along with customized license plates, dry erase boards, car flags, street signs and many other novelties.
Two of their most popular offerings are “Scribe the Hide” and “CampuSkins.” “It was our original idea to make these into interactive activities for the students,” Kaplan explains. “With Scribe the Hide, we set up stations with different colored leather wristbands and students make them uniquely their own by writing whatever they want on them.
“And CampuSkins allows students to customize covers for their iPads and other tablets, laptops and phones. Students can choose school logos, favorite teams or they can even download pictures from Facebook to personalize the skins. No one else is going onsite and doing this.”
“These two novelties are driving the business right now,” says Hirsch, “but if we come across something new to offer our customer, we’re going to do it. We’re always looking for new products. We came across something just this morning we’re considering.”
YES’s discovery of the college market was not only timely but also made them realize that they could expand their market beyond the borders of the Carolinas.
“Today we’re also in Louisiana, Tennessee, Virginia, Florida,” says Hirsch. “We’ve done events in New York, all up and down the east coast. We’re going to a college in Illinois soon. That will make us national.”
Bumper to bumper traffic on I-95 one winter day was also a surprise catalyst for expansion.
“We were already doing some bowl games,” Hirsch explains, “but we were focused on about a two-hour radius from Charlotte. We didn’t realize we could do business farther than that.
“One day I was traveling with my family on I-95 from a visit to my in-laws in Florida. Traffic was at a standstill when I spotted a truck from a competitor we have in Maryland heading south toward Florida. So I called Keith and asked him where he thought the truck was going in the middle of winter. ‘It’s bowl season,’ he said. ‘I bet they’re going to a bowl game.’
“That’s when we started contacting the bowl games. We now do the Fan Fest for both the Capitol One Bowl, Champs Sports Bowl and the Beef ‘O’ Brady Bowl in Florida. And it all happened because a competitor got stuck in traffic.”
While it seems a few “happy accidents” have helped steer the company’s tremendous growth, Hirsch and Kaplan agree that it’s the business philosophy they adopted at the start that is the real key to their success.
Hirsch was working in commercial real estate and Kaplan was an executive recruiter when they first met while playing basketball and became friends 18 years ago.
“We both had good careers,” Hirsch explains, “but we were in businesses that we weren’t really able to build to the extent we wanted. So we were sitting by the pool one day and trying to figure out what we wanted to do.
“Keith’s father owned a small amusement rental business in Richmond, so he and I got in the car and drove up to take a look at it. We also looked at the market for this business in Charlotte and who was doing it here. We immediately saw an opportunity to bring a more professional image to this business. Our goal was to take our professional experience and apply it to this industry.”
So, together they wrote the business plan in the fall of 2001 and started the company in 2002 with four inflatables in a mini-storage unit. They set up the first few events while still working their full time jobs and then, as business grew, hired someone to manage sales and operations.
“We would meet with her either before or after our regular jobs and check in several times during the day as well,” Hirsch explains.
By 2004, business had grown enough to support Hirsch coming on full-time. Kaplan joined him full-time the next year.
“Our goal was always to offer a higher end amusement rental company,” says Hirsch. “To this day we’ve continued with that philosophy and it’s worked extremely well. We’ve never been the cheapest, but for the extra money, customers get quality equipment and quality staff. We’ve been so successful because of our equipment, our customer service and our professionalism, but also because of our staff.”
YES currently has 12 full-time staff and 50 part-timers. All staff are YES employees, interviewed, background-checked and hired by YES. The majority are college-educated or current college students. And since the company can be a 24-hour operation in busy periods, all are dedicated.
“It’s an unusual job,” Hirsch says. “There are times when we have trucks coming in from an event at 2 a.m. and that same truck has to be unloaded, reloaded and out to another event by 5 a.m. We definitely wouldn’t be where we are today without our staff.
“We pay our staff more than others in the industry because we expect more from them. They have the right attitude, communicate well with customers, and act and look professional. We hear from our customers daily how much that matters to them.”
But even with the demands of the job, it isn’t all work at YES. After all, providing fun is their business.
“Last summer we bought one of the largest portable water slides in the area. It’s so big the Great Wolf lodge rents it from us,” says Hirsch. “When it arrived we sent all the employees home to grab their swimsuits and come back to test it. We’ve also had mandatory office shutdown days where everyone goes into the warehouse to play laser tag.”
One of YES’s strong points is their flexibility.
“We can handle something as small as a moon bounce for a few hundred dollars or events running tens of thousands of dollars,” says Kaplan. “We’re booking events right now for next March but two weeks ago we did a casino night on just 24-hours’ notice. It all depends on the time of the year, the time of the day.”
Kaplan points toward a wall-length dry erase board where 45 events are listed for the next 10 days. The column for Saturday accounts for a good quarter of the 45.
“People would be surprised at how many events we can pull off in one day,” he says. “We’ve grown so much that we now do more events in one busy month than we did for the entire first three years we were in business. Our company is currently among the largest of this type in North America. There might be only 10 companies nationally that are within half a million of what we do. We’ve turned four inflatables into that.”
Hirsch and Kaplan count colleges as 60 percent of their business. Churches, schools and municipalities make up 15 percent and the remaining 25 percent is corporate business with about half of that being sports-related.
They plan to continue and expand their marketing to colleges but they’ve noticed a current increase in corporate events and the two agree that they would like to spend more time growing that market as well.
They also recently acquired a company that fit within their business model, starting a new YES division in September 2011 called YES-AIR. YES-AIR provides businesses with large cold air balloons and colorful pennants called “adversails” to promote grand openings, re-openings or other important events. Through a network, the company can install these all over the country. The new division hit the ground running.
“Family Dollar committed to use YES-AIR for hundreds of store openings and grand re-openings in the next year,” says Kaplan. “Right now YES-AIR is only a small percentage of our total business but we see tremendous potential. We plan to aggressively promote YES-AIR.”
Both Hirsch and Kaplan believe they have the best jobs in the world.
“It’s very rewarding to go to events and see that what you do for a living results in people having fun,” says Kaplan. “For me, that validates all the time we spent figuring out what we wanted to be.”
“Ten years ago we decided to be the most professional company in the industry,” Hirsch adds. “We’ve continued that to this day. It’s what’s allowed us to get to where we are today.”