WHILE I AGREE WITH THE ASSERTION OF NOTABLE 1920S JOURNALIST WALTER WINCHELL that "Today's gossip is tomorrow's headline," I prefer the more contemporary rendition of columnist Liz Smith, who wrote, "Gossip is news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress." This relationship between rumors and reports is precarious. Gossip is a powerful force in social and business circles, but when media gets involved, you end up with a full gale. It can sometimes take credit for fueling progress, but generally, gossip does little more than wreak havoc.
Self-storage has been making headlines lately, in some not-so-positive ways. The rumors being generated from the media exposure have caused--I won't say a panic--but certainly a stir throughout the industry. For those unfamiliar with the recent news coverage, here is a summary:
On Sept. 26, the L.A. Times published an article titled "Storage Niche Overpacked," the gist of which was supply is overwhelming demand in our industry. The author refers to Public Storage's "humbling setback" from early this year, when the company was forced to drop prices. He includes quotes from Public Storage President Harvey Lenkin and Shurgard Regional Vice President Jim McNamee admitting an errosion in rates and occupancy. The article paints a dire future for self-storage, professing it too enticing to new investors and officially overbuilt.
Shortly after the Times article, on Oct. 6, CNBC and The Wall Street Journal ran a piece called "Storage Units, the Creeping Menace," in which author M.P. Dunleavey expounded on the social implications of the storage industry, the supposed "wretched trend of excess." She writes, "As self-storage becomes an increasingly indispensable part of consumer culture, there will be less and less incentive for people to examine their acquisition habits." You might think it unreasonable to be concerned about Ms. Dunleavey's issue with the luxury storage provides. But then there's the whole issue of credibility. Roped into her commentary were none other than Michael Kidd, executive director of the Self Storage Association, and Cris Burnam, president of StorageMart.
So what is the real impact of this? I was trained as a journalist, so trust me when I say there is plenty to be upset about here. I doubt Lenkin, McNamee, Kidd or Burnam had the slightest clue of these authors' intentions when they consented to an interview. But that's not the issue. Do we care whether the public views storage as a societal hazard, luring unsuspecting citizens into the den of glut? Not really. Anyone who has ever had need for storage knows its value in a pinch. Commercial users are fully aware of the cost benefits. And if you are one of the guilty, if you use storage as a means of managing luxury, let you be aware of it.
The real issue is the message this sort of press sends to those surrounding the industry, mainly the backers. When self-storage is painted as a suffering breed, red flags go up to investors and financial institutions. Suppliers begin to rethink their marketing strategies. Tire-kickers run screaming (which, some may argue, is not such a bad thing). Owners tighten their purse strings. People start to whisper, "The ship--it's sinking!" The rumor mill starts churning. And there she is folks, running down the street in her red satin dress.
You can't believe everything you read. You can't believe everything you hear, either. As British novelist George Eliot so eloquently put it, "Gossip is a sort of smoke that comes from the dirty tobacco-pipes of those who diffuse it: It proves nothing but the bad taste of the smoker."
While on the topic of things whispered furtively in corners, let's talk tradeshow. Ooooh, what a dirty word it can be in this industry: tradeshow.
Everyone involved in self-storage knows there are two large entities that produce expos: Inside Self-Storage and the Self Storage Association (SSA). (Yes, there are now many state associations producing their own events. More on this later.) And everyone knows there are too many shows, and they are scheduled in too much proximity. And people--exhibitors in particular--are starting to get more than a little irked.
I don't blame them. They should be irked. Tradeshows are an investment, for attendees and exhibitors alike. Who wants to be in a position where they have to go for broke to be represented at key events, or choose between important marketing venues? Expos were intended to bolster the industry and its participants, not create strain and financial hardship.
At the recent ISS expo in Orlando, Fla., Sept. 25-27, I was frequently asked about attendance. Did we think Hurricane Lili and Tropical Storm Isidore, which were raging just off the Southern coast that week, had an impact on our numbers? The more bold asked the real question: "Don't you think you would have had a better turnout if you and the SSA had not scheduled your shows within weeks of each other?" The answer would have been a very simple "yes."
Each fall, ISS and the SSA compete for attendees. We also now contend with the Florida, Massachusetts, New York and Texas associations. Do we all have a right to produce and market these events? Absolutely. Are we doing a good job? Sure we are. Are we being responsible and considerate toward the members of the self-storage community? Well, that's a whole other ball of wax. The multitude of tradeshows is diluting the budgets of all participants. Eventually, someone will have to relinquish a revenue stream for the greater good of the industry.
Inside Self-Storage is exploring ways to do its part. There have been discussions about fewer shows between ISS and SSA. Eventually, there will be a resolution between the camps. The immediate problem is all the state associations that now think they can make a buck hosting their own expos. What they have not stopped to consider is the pressure this creates for all the vendors to be at yet one more show. It obviously also affects the success of national shows by thinning the attendee pool.
We at ISS do not personally feel exhibitors or attendees are reaping real value from tradeshows, featuring exhibits, being sponsored at the state level (with very few exceptions). The role of an association is to provide education, legal support, networking venues and administrative options. All of this is beneficial to members. Forcing the issue with an expo only does the industry a disservice.
I know what you're thinking: "ISS doesn't want the states to host shows because it hits them where it hurts--in the pocketbook!" But before you scoff at me, think about the state of the industry. While ISS and SSA may not be thrilled at the concept of losing their corner on the tradeshow market, there is a larger issue here. The overall health of the industry depends on solidarity, especially when the media seeks to mar our good name and the public begins to second guess our good intentions. It's just something to think about.
Please feel free to respond with whatever colorful comments you may have. My mailbox is always open.
Teri L. Lanza