(Almost) Everything You Need To Know About Party Rentals

Party planning, one table at a time

almost everything you need to know about event rentalsSo, you’re having a party! And you’ve figured out that many parties need things (tables, chairs, plates, napkins). There are two ways to get said things: 1) buy them 2) rent them. (Number 3, “Borrow them from someone you know who already bought them,” is maybe worth mentioning as well, but that’s a specific scenario we’re not going to cover today.) The question on your mind now is—how do you figure out whether to rent or to buy? And what kind of things are we talking about exactly?

Most people have only ever rented apartments and cars before their weddings. But the truth is, lots and lots and lots of weddings involve at least one rental order. (I’m actually having a hard time thinking of a single wedding I’ve done that didn’t have rented items.) If you’re hiring full service caterers, there’s a good chance they’ll be renting things for your wedding, and if you’re self-catering or using food-service only caterers, there’s a good chance you may not have thought about it yet, but you’ll end up wanting to place a rental order at some point in the planning process.

So let’s say that you’re one of the aforementioned couples who will have to rent something for your wedding. Most of the weddings we execute involve at least the following: tables, tablecloths (called drapes in the industry), napkins, chairs, plates (often dinner, salad, and cake), forks, knives, and glasses (water, wine, beer, rocks as needed). Less universal but still relatively common items might include patio heaters, cocktail tables, table number stands, bread baskets, beverage dispensers and tubs, lounge furniture, and lighting.

If you’re in a major metropolitan area, there are lots of rental companies available to you, and some differences between them. You may be surprised to know that the major difference between them for most things isn’t price, but the quality of their items. Most of the rental companies we work with have extremely similar prices on the majority of rental items, but I know from experience that some of them tend to send linens that are too short, or stained, or just generally not as high quality as those of other companies. If you don’t have a caterer, planner, or other pro to ask, it may be worth going by some showrooms to look at the quality of their items in person.

Other key differences between rental companies are delivery windows and charges; minimum order amount; if dishes/glasses/silverware need to be returned scraped, rinsed, or washed (all of which are decidedly different amounts of labor); and willingness to work with you without having you setting up a professional account. If you’re handling your rental orders yourself, it’s probably worth calling a few different companies to ask them these questions and get a general quote started.

Now, let’s talk numbers. For the Greater San Francisco Bay Area, standard rentals tend to run along the lines of:

  • Plates: 55¢ each
  • Forks/knives/spoons: 55¢ each
  • Glasses (wine/water/rocks): 60¢ each
  • 60″ round table drapes: $13 each
  • 60″ round tables: $9.50 each
  • Plastic folding chairs: $1.65 each
  • Wooden folding chairs: $3.60 each
  • Chiavari chairs: $9 each

(Please note, all numbers are approximate.)

Could you buy these things for the same amount? Sure. My best friend’s thirtieth birthday party was in July, and he insisted on having people drink out of real glasses (…personal quirk), so in the two days beforehand we bought all the glasses at thrift stores for an average of about 50¢ each. They didn’t match, and we had one per person, so we had people write their names on them with a Sharpie. But it was a party in an industrial loft, and they were great. We also didn’t really have time or transportation resources to deal with rental glasses (most rental companies have a minimum order amount for delivery).

You can certainly do the same for your wedding, if you’re okay spending the time searching through thrift stores and have the space to store them. Because, friends, storage is one of the dirty secrets of weddings—there’s a lot of stuff, and if it’s not living in a rental warehouse, it’s probably going to have to live in your house. Do you have a basement/garage/spare bedroom that you’re okay having taken over with wedding stuff for a few months before your wedding? Rad. If not, this is probably another reason to rent. Something else to think about when looking into renting vs. buying is washing and cleaning. Rental dishes show up washed, and rental linens show up ironed. You can also generally return them unwashed. But if you’re buying these things? They’re going to have be washed both before and after the wedding, so make sure you have the labor to handle that. (Anyone who’s done it can tell you that washing 220 plates, even with a dishwasher, is not a small task.)

Some other general things to note about rentals:

  • Have you ever wondered why most weddings feature floor length tablecloths? Standard event/rental tables are…ugly, even when they’re not beat up. You pretty much have to cover that shit up. (see above)
  • Cotton and polyester linens almost always cost the same. Cotton is always way, way nicer, so request it if you can (and make sure to request it from your caterer if they’re running your rental order).
  • If you don’t have someone washing racks of glassware throughout the event, you’re going to need to either order a ton of glasses (think: three per guest), or come up with a system that really gets people to only use one glass. (I recommend a mix of nametags and a clear sign at the bar asking people to please hold onto and reuse their glasses!)
  • Always order approximately ten extra plates/forks/knives/napkins. You may have one or two show up chipped, or have a guest drop one, or realize you forgot to include your vendors in the headcount (and they need to eat off of something!).
  • If you’re serving cake, don’t forget about an extra set of plates and forks to serve it on!
  • If you’re not sure exactly how many guests you’re going to have (i.e., if you’re placing your order before the RSVPs are in), put your initial rental order in for the high amount. The vast majority of rental companies will let you change your order with no penalty up to about three days before delivery, which means that if you need to drop two tablecloths, it’s no problem. However, if you need to add two at the last minute? There’s a chance they’ll be entirely out of your color of choice.
  • Generally you’re going to pay a flat delivery and pickup fee, no matter how many items are in the order. Because of this, it’s best if you can only have one rental order, so if you want to rent specialty items, talk to your caterer or venue to see if they’re placing a rental order and you can add onto their existing order. (Note: Most catering companies don’t actually own full sets of dishes/glassware/linens; they’re renting them for every event. See: Storage.) This also makes it easier on the return side. With two orders you have to make sure things get separated appropriately and not sent back to the wrong company.
  • Make sure to line-item read your rental order carefully a week before the event. And maybe have someone else read it carefully too. You want to realize that they put the wrong pickup time on the order before you’ve sat around for an hour at the end of the night waiting for the truck to show up. (Um, let’s just say: personal experience.)
I’d actually argue that anyone who plans on throwing parties larger than dinner-sized on the regular should get used to renting things. I regularly rent tablecloths, folding chairs, and racks of glassware for personal events (birthday parties, baby showers, etc., that I throw for friends and family) because it’s often easier and more resource-efficient to do so than it is to own something I may only use once or twice a year but have to store the rest of the time.

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Photos by APW Sponsor Emily Takes Photos; centerpiece flowers by APW advertiser belle-flower; rentals from Hartmann Studios.

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  • Meg

    Thank you!! We have to rent everything for our wedding next year and have started looking at rental companies to get pricing down. This was incredibly helpful!

  • We bought all the linens for our wedding, and were able to get much nicer stuff for less than it would have cost through our caterer. Elizabeth is absolutely right about it being a pain though. Getting all of it washed, ironed, then washed again was a ton of work. One of the things I didn’t really realize before the wedding is just how much bigger floor length linens are than your typical dining room tablecloth, all that extra fabric really adds up. For us it was worth it to get the look we wanted while staying in budget. Plus, we just got married in June and they’ve already been borrowed twice for other events, so I really feel like we got our money’s worth.

    We got all our dishes, flatware, etc. through the our caterer, and I’m very glad. I can’t imagine doing that part ourselves for a 110 person event.

    • Kathryn

      I’d also recommend to have someone check the rental delivery against your order to make sure you got everything. I’ve managed events with large rental orders before, and you wouldn’t believe whole sets of items, not just inaccurate counts, are delivered and you don’t realize it until you’re about to put your bread in the bread baskets, and oops, where are they?!? Usually renters have an emergency line you can call the day of, so make sure whoever is coordinating the wedding, or managing the set-up/service has it, with your order number. I’ve had rental companies deliver missing items in under an hour, which is probably one reason it’s better to go with a BIG rental company–they have manpower for stuff like that.

  • Laura C

    This is a side point, but: When you’re pricing caterers before committing to one, pay close attention to whether all these rentals are included in their prices. We had estimates from ones that did include rentals and ones that didn’t, and didn’t realize that at first and had to readjust our thinking when we realized it.

    • Copper

      This was my biggest challenge with ALL the wedding things. Some vendors also adjusted the pickup/delivery hours from what I requested to what would be optimal for them and cheapest for me, while some gave bids for the hours I requested and didn’t bother to mention that if they dropped off two hours earlier it’d be $150 less.

      Actually very similarly when comparing venues I was so frustrated that I couldn’t make apples-to-apples comparisons, because renting the space “for the day” means something different to every venue. I remember one of them looking like a great deal, but then reading further into the fine print of the contract, it included only 4 HOURS of access to the venue, total, and each additional hour of event time was like another $300, and each additional hour for setup/teardown was $150. So by the time we sat down, made a superpreliminary schedule, and figured out how many hours we actually thought we’d need, it was actually one of our more expensive options.

      tl;dr version: Figuring out exactly what you need from each person giving you a quote is at least half the battle, because until you do those numbers they give you don’t mean a thing.

      • Laura C

        Definitely! Another one that drove me nuts: the caterer that refused to give me the most basic price estimate, insisting I had to work out a detailed menu and then they could give a price for that. I was just asking what the average range was, stipulating that I knew there would be a lot of variation! And it’s a pretty obvious attempt at manipulation to insist that I have to put in all kinds of time and develop a relationship with them before they give me a price, to make me feel invested and more likely to choose them. Not to mention, if they won’t be up front about the very first query before I’m signed on, how would they be once I’d committed? So they were right out as an option before we even got started.

        • Copper

          ooh, we had one of those two. They strung us along for 6 weeks of talking before declaring that they didn’t believe they could cater within our budget. I’d given them our budget in the very first phone call! And specifically said, I was just trying to check and see if they were an option for us!

  • Rebecca

    This is more a website function comment than a comment about the post (although the large image made mostly of text definitely helped remind me)- Would it ever be possible for the text header images (APW Happy Hour, Getting Sh*t Done with Elizabeth, etc.) to link directly to the post they’re the header for rather than to the image? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve clicked on the header image expecting to go to the post and instead gotten a page just showing me the image, and it drives me batty every time.

  • Emmers

    I’ve done some event rentals before, so I know some of the basics (like how gross some tables are without tablecloths), but I really appreciate the small tricky details that you’ve shared (like putting in a higher order & then reducing it, instead of adding).

    Thanks to APW for arranging these posts with Lowe House Events. I appreciate the clarity, and the usefulness.

    • Emmers

      A future post I’d love to see would be something with this detail on doing a tent rental (& all the associated logistics, since it seems like there’s a lot more to think of than with a typical indoor event). There was something that touched on that earlier this week, but more info would be appreciated!

      • itsy bitsy

        YES PLEASE TENT RENTALS. I honestly can’t wrap my head around how to even think about this, but there it is. Related: How to think about your outdoor wedding backup plan if indoors isn’t an option.

  • Andi

    This post was great! I feel like this is something that is really missing in the wedding industry in general (for brides, vendors, planners, etc.) – the whole get sh*t done attitude! So often brides see the planning side of things and the stress that go along with it, but often there aren’t sources and tools for cutting the work down, prioritizing tasks, and doing things more efficiently (… geeze I sound like i’m talking about my job!). I recently helped plan my brother’s wedding, and luckily my sister-in-law is detailed and organized down to the last hair, but it was often hard to nail down which options were better. What saved us was just simply asking for needs ahead of time — putting feelers out for table cloths, jars, lights, etc. Everyday things that most likely all of your friends have, but wouldn’t think to offer (or wouldn’t even know to!). Loved this post!

  • Fermi

    We are getting married in one week and a day and we have bought all of our table linens, napkins, glasses, and plates rather than rent them. They were about the same price and for some reason my mom wanted to buy them…said at least we’d have something to keep after it was all done. Oh and the silverware too.
    Things we didn’t buy, tent, tables, chairs. Those were ultimately necessary to rent for us.

    • SamanthaNichole

      Date twin! woohoo!

  • Karen

    This is a brilliant post. Very helpful information. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us.

  • KC

    I used to throw/help throw a lot of fairly large parties. I got sufficiently sick of having odds and ends of plastic flatware all the time that I just plain bought a bunch of super cheapo low-end flatware (envision the worst cafeteria flatware ever: http://www.webstaurantstore.com/3927/windsor-economy-flatware-18-0.html).

    Pros: cheaper than renting nice stuff (knives, which are heavier-duty, are around 35 cents each; forks/teaspoons, which are literally just punched out of sheet metal and presss-shaped, are less than half that); always have it for parties; loan it out without worries about whether it all comes back (at sufficiently large events, some flatware will almost always end up disappearing, mostly during cleanup); about 100 place settings all nest together and fit in a *shoebox*-sized box (albeit a *very heavy* shoebox-sized box); reusable.

    Cons: this stuff is really quite terrible flatware (not perfectly smooth edges; no decoration; can be bent [and bent back] fairly easily; the knives are nicer and not-bendy, though); you have to buy it by the 12-pack; you will have to wash it (as opposed to plastic or “scrape-return” rentals) and then nest all the spoons together, all the forks together, etc. if you want compact storage (which is easy; they like to nest, and I also want to check each piece for being fully clean, so they each pass through my hands anyway; but this would drive some people nuts, I expect); you will now have one *really* heavy, very small box.

    For me, the pros outweigh the cons, but I don’t think that I’d buy them for just one wedding (with no large parties planned), unless I could pass them along. But if you have Giant Gatherings, it’s great.

    I would, however, *not* buy glasses-for-100, as much as I’d like to have a standing stock of glassware on hand, just because of the storage issue (although the guests-writing-their-names-on-thrift-store-glasses-with-sharpies sounds fantastic). I’ve looked into buying plates, but unless there was something similar to Corelle in terms of storing snugly but decently comparable to the silverware on price, which I haven’t yet found, it wouldn’t be worth it to me. Both of these items are also harder/more space-consuming to wash. So: borrowing, rental, or disposable for those, depending on the occasion. :-)

  • Holy goodness, thank you for this! The mister and I are going to look at reception venues next weekend, and I guess now I need to go and find out if rentals are included. It might not have crossed my mind until too late. THANK YOU!

  • This is a great post, love all of the practical nits and bolts advice. I have done rentals before but still had some challenges with my wedding. Some tips I learned:

    Know when it is going to be easier and better to just rent even if you feel like you have things already. I was determined to use the tables that my venue already had because they were there and the fact that the venue already had tables was one of the plusses for choosing it. But the tables were an odd size, and the trouble and cost I went through to find linens, which still didn’t fit properly and looked messy on the wedding day, was so not worth the few dollars saved on renting tables.

    Check and double check on delivery times and extra charges before making a deposit. Learned this the hard way.

    Pay the order in advance with a credit card so there’s no problem getting your items unloaded, my caterer had added items to my linen order and hadn’t paid for it, so the truck didn’t unload my stuff and held up setup for an hour.

    There are cute little glass charms that you can get, frogs and shoes and stuff to identify people’s glasses. They serve the same purpose and sound much cuter than using sharpies or name tags.

    • Caroline

      For drinking glasses at Thanksgiving (25-35 people!) we’ve cut colored index cards into strips, hole punched one end, lopped a rubber band through and put out sharpies. It works great, and ended up being quite cute.

  • Copper

    Anyone who’s decided to buy their own (and I’m doing that for a lot of stuff—garden lights, tablecloths from the fabric district, etc.) what’s a good source for not-fratparty-looking disposable glassware?

  • I had A Thing about real glasses/silverware/plates for our wedding. We wound up doing so *except* for plates and forks for dessert (pie). Worked out perfectly!

    • KC

      Real for the meal, disposable for dessert is often a really good way to go – people can break plastic forks on entrees, but aren’t likely to on pie/cake/ice cream, and small paper plates are far more manageable at buffets or while milling around than large paper plates.

      And then whoever’s dishwashing (unless it’s a friend-dishwashing-party) can get started on dishes as soon as dinner’s done, and then there’s not much to do after dessert.

      (we do this for Thanksgiving as well, and I loooove it.)

  • vita_trefusis

    SO USEFUL. but I had to figure this out for myself a few months ago (wedding was 1 month ago!). We did a food truck wedding so had to organise all the rentals. I really underestimated the total cost of this but it had to be done. The biggest challenge was finding a supplier that could deliver and pick up as per our venue’s very strict times. Definitely caused more stress than I had bargained for. I had a few moments where I cursed the decision to go with alternative caterers but in the end of course it was absolutely worth it!

  • Wow. Thanks for un-complicating something that until now I hadn’t known was complicated. I think you just saved future me some headaches, and saved my SO from my future grumpy self.

  • Beth

    A little late here, but I also just wanted to put in my experience of how we eventually figured out what rentals we needed. We decided to go with a caterer who didn’t handle rentals and had to figure it out ourselves and I had no idea what we actually needed.

    The first thing I did was look at the various quotes we’d gotten from the caterers we talked to (and guys, don’t get me started on how much I hate how the catering industry runs…it was seriously the only part of the planning where I found instances of people flat out lying to us and telling us that we didn’t actually want the things we asked for. It took us a month to pick someone and we got like 12 quotes). In general, they would include a rental quote and this was the starting point to see what items we should be looking to get and how many of each.

    Then, because I’m spreadsheet crazy, I made a spreadsheet with the various highly rated rental companies in the area and itemized everything by cost and added it up to find the total amounts. Turns out the main company that most caterers worked with was the most expensive (shocker). This was stupidly time intensive, but I’m still happy I did it because it made the cost of everything make much more sense to me and I could better figure out if there were things better purchased on our own.

    I also did this for caterers because I couldn’t figure out how best to compare them. I broke each quote down into costs for food, service, rentals, tax+tip and WOW was that eye opening. One caterer was charging over $1000 more for service and had included more than double the amount of tip that everyone else had. And her rental estimate was more than $1000 more than what we ended up spending Look at this stuff carefully, folks.

  • I would say that your article seems very informative and I think these all information will helpful to me because I want to start new catering business. Thank you for giving such a great ideas to me here.

  • Amanda

    My bit of advice: As far as linens go, you can buy them online for the same price as rentals! I figured after my wedding, I will resale them for maybe half the price of what I paid for them on facebook swap groups or craigslist. The only downside I see is that I will have to press the linens beforehand myself.

    • Bridget

      Hi Amanda,

      Good idea! Can you tell us where you bought these linens?

  • Quinnjela

    My wedding is five months past, but I am helping a girlfriend organize her DIY wedding. I wish I had read this before my wedding, I would not have bought a single centerpiece if I knew I could rent them! Thank you so much for providing such great advice! It’s overwhelming to learn all this. So generous for professionals to donate advice online.

  • Caroline

    We’re going with the rental place our caterer recommends. I’m so excited because it turns out it will cost only 12 dollars extra to use REAL silver. Being a fancy-pants type of lady, I’m super duper excited about this. And it costs the same to get plain ceramic plates or bone china with gold trim. Which I’m pretty excited about. So yes, the quality doesn’t seem to change the price so much…

  • CatrionaInBC

    If you’ve covered this in another post, let me know, but my mad Google skills are coming up empty. We’re planning our wedding with no rentals because we’ll be further off the grid and don’t have space or budget for a dish washer to be employed. We’re doing disposables. Before anyone gets their eco feathers ruffled, they’re all from recycled products and are completely compostable :) . Figuring out plates, cutlery, and napkins were straightforward enough. We’re hung up how many cups and and mugs (bringing our own for tea and coffee) we need. We figured we have about 80 guests, invite start time is 5pm on a Saturday in July (no kids), beverages will be non-alcoholic (cucumber water, lemonade), beer keg, signature cocktail, and a red and white wine (have enough wine glasses with name tags to encourage reusing). We need to know how many beer cups, how many cocktail/non-alcoholic drink cups, and how many tea/coffee mugs to bring in. Does anyone have any pointers on calculations for number needed?

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