By Tron Jordheim
Are you considering the addition of boat and RV storage into your existing self-storage facility? Perhaps you have some unused land you are tired of mowing. Maybe you are planning to add another self-storage building in two years and would like to bank on your vacant land in the meantime. Maybe your community just passed a restrictive covenant or zoning ordinance that prohibits people from parking boats or RVs in front of their houses or in their driveways. Or perhaps you do business in an area with a large concentration of retirees, known for their affinity for recreational vehicles, or one with good sport-fishing opportunities. Any of these scenarios could mean success for boat- and RV-storage operations.
Proceed With Caution
To offer this service, you are naturally going to have to deal with land-use policies. In some areas, you can offer outdoor, uncovered parking without disturbing any ordinances, which makes it easy to convert extra land into potential revenue. You may think if zoning allows you to put a building on a piece of land, you should be able to park vehicles on it before construction without issue, but that may not be the case. In cities where boats and RVs are being restricted in residential areas, they are also being restricted citywide. You may not be able to secure the approval you need.
If you are convinced there is a market in your area for boat and RV storage, forge ahead. But first, you will have to get creative in determining the local need for this service. Kevin Bowman, of Millstadt, Ill.-based JKB Consultants, conducts self-storage feasibility studies around the country. When folks ask him about the prospects for boat and RV storage, he shrugs. Though he has done the due-diligence research on vehicle storage, he has had a difficult time compiling solid numbers to work from. Determining a benchmark for a good ratio of vehicle storage to to self-storage on a particular site isn't easy. Information is limited on average rental rates, return on investment, or determining the appropriate unit mix (covered vs. uncovered spaces, spaces that provide electricity vs. those that don't). Bowman recommends proceeding with caution.
Ways to Proceed
If you are doing a brisk business in self-storage but your boat- and RV-storage effort doesn't fly, one possibility is to use the land to build a new phase of self-storage. In any case, you need an exit strategy in the event the venture fails.
One option is to phase in boat and RV parking the way you might build self-storage in phases. Pat Porter manages the Sunbelt Discount Boat and RV Storage Center in Baton Rouge, La. He says Sunbelt's owner, John T. James, experimented with phasing in the development of his facility, allowing time to evaluate each phase before moving forward.
Start slow. Perhaps begin with mostly open parking on limestone with some covered spaces. The biggest threat to a recreational vehicle is the sun and the damage it can cause, so a covered space might be enough added value to attract many RV and boat owners. Make sure your canopies are tall enough. With the radar towers and air-conditioning units found on many RVs, you probably need canopies at least 15 feet high.
Another consideration is whether to offer spaces with electricity. Try adding a few spaces with 20-amp electric outlets so tenants can charge their batteries. A nominal monthly surcharge should cover your electricity costs. You may have some tenants requesting larger amperage--be wary. Adding more amperage might encourage people to live in their RVs on your lot.
In the next phase, offer some concrete spaces and units that are fully enclosed with large roll-up doors. You will find there is a market for "good," "better" and "best" service. Do some experimenting and talk with boat and RV owners to determine the best mix for your facility. If your plan is to bank on the land before putting in self-storage, you may want to have only enough premium parking to maximize your return. On the other hand, you don't want to construct any structures that will have to come down or be converted to self-storage later.
You will need aisles large enough for people to maneuver their RVs and boat trailers. Forty-foot-wide aisles are not going to provide enough room to move. This also creates questions about profitable land use that you will have to answer for yourself.
Be prepared to offer 24-hour access. Fishermen get their boats at all hours of the day. RVers are on their own clock and may come and go at the strangest hours. Some folks like to be on the road when there is the least amount of traffic and pull into their storage space at 4 a.m.
Security is, of course, an issue. Your perimeter will need to be secure. RV and boat storers will likely require video surveillance on the premises to ensure no one breaks into or vandalizes their homes-on-wheels or prize possessions. Be sensitive to these tenants' needs, particularly those storing in unenclosed spaces. Their valuables are obviously more vulnerable to tampering.
How seasonal is the boat- and RV-storage business? That depends where you are. Some areas may have year-round boating opportunities, but only winter business for RVs. Get a feel for the seasonal patterns before you make too many decisions you can't change later.
One benefit to adding boat and RV storage is you can attract some long-term tenants. In self-storage, you get a lot of tenants who need a unit for several months and then might not need a unit again for a long time. Boat and RV enthusiasts usually stick with their passion over time and always need a place to leave their "toys."
Will you be satisfied storing strictly boats and RVs, or do you think a value-added service is called for in your area? For instance, some storage facilities have sanitation hookups so RVs can purge their systems. You may find there are many services you could perform that would add revenue. Or you may find it doesn't make sense to get into new businesses unfamiliar to you. Becoming an expert usually takes time and money.
Those with extensive knowledge of boats may find it profitable to offer dry-stack marina storage. This is a different animal than a boat-storage facility. You must ask yourself if you want to create care and custody obligations. Stacking boats in racks increases your revenue per square foot, but it also creates labor costs, racking costs and the potential liability of damaging an expensive boat. I have seen dry marinas overflowing with boats. Is it the right business for you? There are many operators offering stack storage successfully. You'll want to do some careful research before draining time and resources away from your core business.
Finally, execute some inspired marketing to fill up your facility. If your location and Yellow Pages ads are prominent, you should generate phone calls, but there may also be some boat- and RV-specific markets on which to focus. Does your area hold a sportsman's show? Do you have RV parks or fishing tournaments nearby? Any way you can get your name in front of boat and RV enthusiasts will help you. If you build on the right location, you might experience the "build it and they will come" phenomenon. It is more likely, however, you will need to shake the bushes to make the tenants come.
Tron Jordheim is the director of the PhoneSmart Call Center. PhoneSmart helps storage owners turn after-hours calls and missed phone calls into rentals. Mr. Jordheim can be reached at 866.639.1715 or firstname.lastname@example.org.