A San Antonio-based business best known for catering and hospitality is building something new, and it’s big enough to suspend an airplane from the rafters with room to spare.

The RK Group, a group of hospitality and event services companies, recently established yet another division to supply temporary structures to clients across the country for major sporting events, music festivals, auto shows, galas and weddings, and disaster response camps. It has increased by fivefold the existing inventory of tenting equipment previously supplied under its Illusions division, which specializes in party furnishings and decór.

RK’s National Structures Events & Services company now has one of the largest structures and tenting inventories in North America, with more than 250,000 square feet of tension structures, such as those commonly used for weddings, and more than 750,000 square feet of clear-span structure tenting, which are more like buildings than tents.

National Structures’ largest temporary structure measures 50 meters wide, which is a 164-foot wide clear span – with no poles or columns.

“We hung an airplane from the rafter in a tent the other day for a party,” said Travis Kowalski, corporate director of operations for the RK Group.

RK Group Director of Operations Travis Kowalski (left) and Vice President of Tenting Sales and Operations Rick Freeman

The new structures division is being established to take over that portion of the business for the RK Group, he said, and allow the Illusions division to focus on its core business.

As such, the company invested $4 million in new inventory this year and established the structures division at a 5-acre property with massive warehouses and storage yards near South Zarzamora Street and Interstate 35. A former recycling plant, the property is undergoing renovation while crews sort and clean existing inventory – rolls upon rolls of white and clear vinyl and sailcloth, stacks of aluminum framing in every length and width, and large bins of cable and wiring and hardware.

Aluminum framing is stacked and organized for a variety of jobs.

In the center of it all are two state-of-the-art, specialized washing and drying machines used to clean thousands of square feet of vinyl and fabric at a time so events look top-notch and the materials last longer.

In addition to the San Antonio home for National Structures, the RK Group also plans to set up regional facilities in Louisville, Kentucky, to support existing operations at the Kentucky Derby Museum, as well as in Phoenix, Atlanta, and Seattle.  

Heading up the new division as vice president of tenting sales and operations is Rick Freeman. In the past few months, Freeman and the structures team have traveled to a dozen locations to support events, including the prestigious Barrett-Jackson Auto Show in Arizona and the Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee.

Starting next year, the company will provide temporary structures for more new clients, the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Kentucky Motor Speedway.

The business in temporary structures has grown in both demand and product since Freeman started out 27 years ago. “I remember, back then, the big thing was like a big pole tent … if someone had a 40-wide pole tent they were big. If you had a 65-pole tent, you were huge,” Freeman said. “But the biggest [change] I’ve seen is the size of events grow … especially on the corporate level and weddings. I mean, everybody wants to outdo each other.”

A tent is deployed for a Palm Springs, California, event.

National Structures has 15 full-time employees in San Antonio and about 15 others who travel the country doing installations.

It can take over a month and 30 people to build structures for events like a recent jamboree in West Virginia, which used 350,000 square feet of tenting. Advances in engineering have also increased capability and complexity in structures to the level where walls and doors can be installed within and items as large and heavy as a vintage prop plane can be suspended from the ceiling.

But while events and structures grow in size, the rates for renting and installation haven’t changed much over the years, Freeman said, even as the cost of doing business has gone up. “So the size of the event has to get to a certain scale to be able to produce enough revenue to generate a profit in this business,” Freeman said.

Hundreds of thousands of square feet of white tent fabric is sorted, washed and dried, and organized for future use.

The RK Group, founded 72 years ago by Rosemary Kowalski as a local catering business, has been building its capabilities within the event and hospitality industry for the past several years.

Led by her son, CEO Greg Kowalski, RK is now made up of nine companies providing culinary and hospitality services and contracted venue management. Two years ago, it added mobile kitchen and emergency service assets under the division, RK Emergency Management Support.

“We’ve been very fortunate and we always just keep pushing for more, for more ways to bring all of us together,” Kowalski said. “Somebody finds a job that needs ‘X,’ but they also need all these other things we can provide. Our out-of-state growth has pushed a lot of this. Once you have something, now you’ve got to figure out what to do with it. The [equipment] we have is very unique, there’s not a lot of it in the country.”

In 2020, the RK Group plans to consolidate operations and move from its longtime East Commerce Street campus to the Red Berry Estate at 856 Gembler Road on San Antonio’s far East Side.

Disclosure: The RK Group is a Rivard Report business member. For a full list of supporters, click here.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.