Making grandma happy always is a wise policy. Just ask Jerry Kortesmaki, owner, London Road Rental Center, Duluth, Minn. For his company, one satisfied “grandma” resulted in a large, long-term contract as the go-to rental supplier for one of the biggest marathons in the nation.
Grandma’s Marathon, established in 1977, is an annual June weekend extravaganza in Duluth that draws approximately 20,000 participants. For the past six years, London Road Rental Center has been the exclusive rental provider of all the tents, tables and chairs for the event, from the starting gun to the finish line and beyond.
Kortesmaki says his company secured the opportunity with Grandma’s Marathon not on a bidding basis, but rather by providing reliable customer service and taking the time to engage with the organizers about their unique needs and preferences.
“We got this event because another company that was doing it wasn’t keeping the customer happy,” Kortesmaki says. “It wasn’t a price competition thing. It had a lot to do with personal relationships and working with them on the small side of things. We just finished the fifth year on our contract with Grandma’s Marathon, but even before that, when I started my party store 14 years ago, we were getting a little bit of the event. We would rent them some trucks, a few tables and chairs, and a tent here and there. But we still weren’t getting the whole thing.”
London Road Rental Center’s shot at earning the overall contract for Grandma’s Marathon came when issues arose with the previous supplier and the event organizers turned to Kortesmaki for his proven expertise and flexibility to accommodate their needs.
“Over the years, somebody would set something up wrong, and the organizers would call us and say, ‘Can you come and put this where we want it?’ And they wanted to be billed a certain way because of all the participating sponsors — that was part of the fight they had with the other rental company, who gave them one giant bill. I said, ‘I’ll break it up however you want. You’re the customer.’ Then they came to us and said, ‘We need tents. What can you do?’ I asked them to send me the list of what it would take to do the whole marathon, and we had everything they needed except the largest tent, an 80-ft.-by-160-ft. for the big party on Saturday night. So, we sub-rented that one. At that point, we started a long-term relationship with them, and for the past six years we have done the entire event,” Kortesmaki says.
Catering to the 2021 Grandma’s Marathon took 42 tents, more than 200 tables and chairs that numbered in the thousands. “We set up the tents at the starting line, the medical tents and water tents along the way, tents at the finish line, massage tents, VIP tents, beer tents and vendor tents. We go through and make sure everything is taken care of. We use aerial photos from the year before so the crews know exactly where stuff should be set up. The marathon also rents trucks and backup generators in case they lose power at their sites,” Kortesmaki says.
While Grandma’s Marathon has become London Road Rental Center’s biggest annual project, Kortesmaki admits that coordinating the event requires some intense schedule juggling and exhausting turnarounds, falling as it does in the middle of the prime season for graduations, weddings and other summer festivals.
“In June, there’s still a ton of graduations and weddings going on. You try to figure everything out,” he says. “The first year the marathon came to us, we already had three weddings booked that weekend. We were scurrying, trying to get creative and working with people’s schedules. There have been a few years where, when somebody’s wedding was over on a Friday night, we would take down a tent and move it so that it was there at the marathon on Saturday morning. We’re not a giant party store, but we manage to put 100 percent of our inventory into this event. Yet, when you get all these graduations, there is still a canopy here or there — you juggle all these things. The weekend following the marathon was an air show, which is another big event for us. We take down the marathon and load the trailers so that we don’t have to touch the stuff in between that’s going to the air show. It’s stressful, but a great problem to have.”
Because Grandma’s Marathon has become such a major part of his business book, even producing rental jobs for several other racing events staggered throughout the year by the group behind the marathon, Kortesmaki encourages other event rental companies to take on similar high-profile jobs, daunting though they may seem.
“Don’t be afraid to take these things on,” he says. “Over the years, I’d always shied away from things like this. But even when our store was smaller, my goal was always to get this event. To do a single event with everything that you have is easier than doing 40 separate little contracts. So, when you’re wondering about these big events in town, get out there, bid them and ask questions. And it’s not always about the money. We didn’t get Grandma’s Marathon on a bid situation. We got this job that we’ve done for years now because of customer service. It was all about customer service in my experience with the marathon — the customer was not happy, so they looked elsewhere. We have a good relationship with the crew that runs it. We get together a few times a year to get everything ready. It’s been nice.”