Protecting Customers' Investments

Liz Martínez DeFranco Comments
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WHEN SELF-STORAGE OPERATORS ADD THE SERVICE OF STORING BOATS AND RVS to their businesses, the potential for profit increases. At the same time, the potential for complications is also raised. Because of the nature of recreational vehicles--they're large, motorized or trailered, often used seasonally, and very expensive--they have to be accommodated differently in storage than other traditionally stored goods. For this reason, more attention must be paid to the issue of security in the facility that offers to store them.

A surface look at adding boat and RV storage to a self-storage facility takes into account the expansion of services, an increase in customers and a swelling of the bottom line. However, lurking in the depths are other considerations. More land--which is generally expensive--is necessary to accommodate the larger size of these items. In addition, extra security measures must be implemented to keep boat and RV owners happy, or just to win them as customers in the first place.

Land costs and security are areas often considered profit drains more than sources, but neither can be avoided when deciding to store boats and RVs. The land issue is pretty straightforward: You have the land or the means to acquire it. Security, on the other hand, is a little trickier. It is a given that security is required. The question becomes: What kind of measures are necessary, and to what degree?

The answer will vary by the type of storage and the area in which the facility is located. "Location, location, location," says Terry Curry, operations manager of Anderson Building Co. in Clovis, N.M. The old real estate adage plays a part in the kind of business a facility might attract and, therefore, the type of security measures it must take.

"If you're storing RVs in Montana, for example, your customers are going to be snowbirds who go down South for the winter," Curry says. "They need to store their RVs when they're at home. Sometimes, a mini-storage in an area with snowbirds might not do well with traditional storage rental because retired people don't have a lot of stuff."

On the other hand, facilities that offer boat storage in places such as California, Florida or Texas should know customers are looking for places where they can wash and wax their boats in addition to simply parking them, Curry points out. These varying needs will determine the type of storage areas facilities build. There are four options for boat and RV storage: an open lot, a lot with covered canopy storage, three-sided storage spaces or individual, enclosed units.

"Except for dedicated facilities, most boat and RV storage comes as an afterthought," says Douglas Carner, vice president of marketing at Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based QuikStor Security & Software. This means, more often than not, an open lot is constructed--with or without protective overhangs to shield vehicles against rain, hail and bird droppings. Dedicated facilities are more likely to offer large, drive-in units customers can secure with their own padlocks.

Threats and Responses

"Service and protection are critical," Carner stresses. "Boat and RV owners consider their vehicles their 'babies,' and nothing had better happen while they're in storage to mar or mess them up in any way. They do not want to come back and find any physical alteration to their vehicles."

In an open lot, there is always the threat that another customer might find something interesting in someone else's vehicle. "Once they're inside the lot, fellow customers could do a little shopping in their neighbors' boats or RVs," Carner warns. Fishfinders, GPS units, fishing poles, batteries and spare tires are the sort of small, easily transported items that tend to walk away from these recreational vehicles.

One way to cut down on unwanted visitors taking a shopping tour through the storage lot is to fence it off and allow entrance and exit only with an access code that must be manually punched into a keypad. Only those whose storage fees are paid to date will have access or be able to leave the lot.

In addition, adding surveillance cameras above and beyond what would normally be found in a traditional self-storage building is recommended. That way, all angles and views are covered. Some camera systems are set up so a boat or RV owner can watch his individual vehicle remotely by logging onto the facility's website. This is particularly useful when there are concerns over issues such as weather. "If a storm is coming, boat owners worry about the cover coming off the boat in high winds," Carner says. If the owner sees something going wrong, he can call the facility's management office to ask assistance in fixing it or take care of the problem himself.

The cameras also act as a deterrent to anyone who might be tempted by another customer's goods. If they go for it, their actions are recorded on tape, and they can be identified. Similarly, the access codes for entrance and egress record who came and went and at what times, making it even easier to pin down an individual's actions.

To add to boat and RV owners' peace of mind, facilities can also install portable, tabletop motion sensors inside their vehicles. A code is entered when the owner wants access. If someone tries to get in somewhere they're not supposed to be, the sensor sets off a siren and dials the management office or the police automatically using wireless technology. For the facility owner, these motion sensors can be a big selling point and can generate a revenue stream of their own. Facilities often charge customers $10 a month or so for the privilege of using the equipment.

While self-storage facilities are not required under law to provide insurance against the loss or damage of the contents stored on premises, there is no way to become immune to being sued for failing to do so. Gregg Hughes, manager of the self-storage group at Butler Manufacturing Inc. in Kansas City, Mo., says owners and operators must make a "good-faith effort" toward keeping stored property secure to avoid costly judgments should a customer sue. Fortunately, the good-faith effort encompasses measures a storage operator would probably take anyway. "If you say you've got surveillance cameras, they'd better be operational," Hughes says.

"Boat and RV customers look for a higher standard of protection for their stored items," Carner summarizes. The additional cost of adding cameras and other security devices shouldn't put off the facility owner, though. There can be a very high return on investment with very little risk. According to Hughes, "People who can afford to pay for storage [for boats and RVs] can really afford to pay."

Liz Martínez DeFranco is a freelance writer based in Sunnyside, N.Y.


Drystack Storage

An alternative to traditional boat storage is drystack storage, long-term storage in which boats are stacked on top of each other. "Drystack storage is a trend that is coming," says Patrick Farrell, president of Coastal Marine International Inc. of Huntersville, N.C.

Drystack storage has several advantages. First, on the same parcel of land where one boat is usually stored, three boats can be kept, and three times the fee collected. This type of storage is also in an enclosed building. "Customers don't have access to the boats, so they can't swipe their neighbors' property. That's a selling tool," says Farrell. "You can honestly tell boat owners they can leave their stuff on the boat and it will be safe."

This type of storage is also a deterrent to organized crime rings that specialize in boat theft. "They can strip outboards off boats in seconds in the middle of the night," Farrell says. But boats that are stored stacked are less vulnerable to this type of vandalism.

While drystack storage can be inland, such as in the Northeast where boats are used only part of the year, it is also a desirable addition for marinas to maximize their space. Marinas often have other amenities, such as restaurants, that attract a lot of people who mill around. Storing boats in an enclosed building reduces potential problems that go along with increased traffic.

However, like any storage facility, dry-stack owners should take the minimum precautions of good lighting, surveillance cameras, motion sensors and a well-trained staff. One important distinction in drystack storage, says Farrell, is "It is not self-storage," he says. "Self-storage units are often added to dry-storage facilities, not the other way around."

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