Getting that perfect New Orleans look
Emily Shaya is one of the up-and-coming entrepreneurs garnering recent attention both for and in New Orleans. Unlike some New Orleans-based businesses making a current splash, however, Shaya’s is decidedly local in spirit and in execution. New Orleanians (and others who are New Orleanians in spirit) can select items from her inventory of furniture and decorative objects to rent for special events, whether weddings, graduations or corporate events.
Pret a Fete Event Rentals was a natural for New Orleans, Shaya believes. According to the International Wedding Association, the city is the fourth most-popular wedding destination in the world, and the third most-popular in the United States.
“What are the combinations you want for a great party? You want great food and drinks, which we [have], music is so easy to get, [there are] great bands at your fingertips," Shaya says about why New Orleans is a popular wedding destination. "There’s just a lot of really cool authentic places where you can go and get married down here. You can go from huge, grand-scale hotels like the Roosevelt, or you can go to Race and Religious, which is a really small boutique place."
For her own wedding to local chef/restaurateur Alon Shaya, however, Shaya found that some things didn't come so easily. The décor elements she wanted to tie the event together logistically (for things like seating and lighting) and artistically proved a surprisingly big hassle, she says. She collaborated with a wedding planner to rent those items she felt most strongly about from local antique shops. But that was a complicated process, and she wasn’t sure if the items she’d set her heart on would sell before her wedding date.
Shaya also noticed that, in terms of style trends, New Orleans tended to lag about 10 years behind other major cities such as New York and San Francisco. So, recognizing a need in the market, she decided to start her own business, leveraging it with her longtime love of and experience with antiques and style. The project was an outgrowth of a New Venture Planning class while a student at the A.B. Freeman School of Business at Tulane University (full disclosure: I first met Shaya while also a student there, and have worked with her since). Her business plan, like that of many other entrepreneurs, went through several iterations.
“I was trying to figure out how I was going to stay in New Orleans and be viable," Shaya explains. "I knew I didn’t want to go back into real estate and I wanted to do something I loved. It started out as something completely different, but I’m happy about where I ended up."
Shaya has found in New Orleans a network of young professionals with complimentary interests and skills. Clandestine New Orleans, a custom event-planning company, frequently organizes events that use her services. A Craigslist ad connected her with Abigail Willets, a self-styled “Jackie of all trades” who handles the painting and reupholstering of furniture that Shaya finds that can benefit from an upgrade. Willets also helps Shaya with the laborious task of moving furniture around.
“I’ve become really familiar with the people at Budget Truck Rental,” Shaya says about what may be the hardest part of her job. The most difficult local challenge, she adds, is similar: "Driving the truck in New Orleans, on the potholes, with … all your fragile furniture in the back. That’s unique to New Orleans!”
So what would make New Orleans an even better business environment?
"We need to allow gay weddings in New Orleans," Shaya replies. "That would really open us up for a whole group of people who are unable to get married in other places. It’s a no-brainer. As far as I’m concerned, I’m like, ‘Come on!' We’d love to throw some fabulous parties for everybody, any type of wedding.”
Her opinion is not unfounded: After New York City made gay marriage legal, one study found that it generated $259 million for New York City’s economy.
Shaya finds many benefits to starting a business in New Orleans. The small-town, networking feeling of the city has helped her with business opportunities, she says, and overall, the people with whom she has shared ideas have been supportive, looking for ways to help her thrive. Her business is now about half weddings, half other types of parties such as lifestyle events, corporate events, baby showers, and backyard garden parties.
Shaya’s inventory is diverse and always growing. The careful way that she acquires each piece, as well as the updates and renovations that go into them, combines a surprising, worldly mix of elements that is sweetly reminiscent of the city itself. Thus, a set of chairs bought locally at an estate sale are halfway reupholstered with burlap from antique-fair mecca Round Top, Texas, purchased from a Belgian woman who specializes in the fabric. The other half is left as it was, with the original fabric.
Though Shaya likes to keep all pieces “true to what they are,” she does upgrade them, keeping them fresh and clean, and ensuring they fall along the spectrum of her contemporary aesthetic preferences. Each of her pieces has lived at least one life before it finds its way to her warehouse in the Lower Garden District. And all of them get to live again.