Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly. Because, as any marketing-savvy spider knows, once a visitor checks out your friendly staff and impressive facility, he’ll be hooked. Special events lure foot traffic to your site and ensnare future customers. Find a way to creatively link the function to a good cause and you’ll also generate positive word-of-mouth that reaches beyond those who actually show.
“I think community events are great for getting your name out and letting people know you are there,” says Melissa Hermes, president of Manager On-Call, a provider of call-center services. “It’s not so much about branding as becoming a business leader in the community, so people come to you without having to go to the Yellow Pages.”
Hermes frequently uses special events to promote her two Crown Storage facilities in Kentucky. Partnering with other businesses or community groups can magnify results while reducing costs, she says. At one grand-opening event, Hermes rounded up the usual suspects: a radio station hired to broadcast from the site, a blimp-like balloon soaring overhead, and inexpensive snacks. However, she also invited the high school drama club to hold a community yard sale in the parking lot. “We had a really good turnout—probably 250 people showed up throughout the day. All the kids from the school had been marketing it,” she says.
Innovative marketers don’t wait for a grand opening or a remodel to hold a special event, though such occasions do present golden opportunities. Bryan Feldpausch, marketing director for Michigan-based U.S. Storage Depot, organizes three or four events to launch each facility. “We want to bring people in so they can see we have more to offer than the typical mom-and-pop show,” he says. “We’ll do a business open house, then one geared toward the general public, then—based on the market—either a Realtors’ open house or contractors’ barbecue.”
Hermes likes to acknowledge a change in Crown management with an inexpensive meet-and-greet for tenants. Tenants are invited out on a Saturday to enjoy a free hot dog and drink, and to meet the new manager. The gesture of goodwill reassures customers they needn’t expect any nasty surprises such as a rent hike.
What if you threw a party and no one came? It happens. Crown staged a Family Safety Day that Hermes says “really tanked,” despite extensive flier distribution. The event featured police-led bicycle-safety training for kids and a coloring-book activity. “Our manager worked his heart out on it,” Hermes says. “No one came. It was basically my kids and one of my friend’s kids.” As it turned out, the venture wasn’t a total bust because people saw the fliers and were talking about the event. “They didn’t come, but they still remember thinking good thoughts about us,” Hermes says of feedback from customers.
Still, the lackluster response was a wakeup call for Crown. Every event should have a compelling aspect to attract visitors. As Hermes points out, spending a Saturday afternoon (widely acknowledged as the best time for an event) at a storage facility isn’t exactly a trip to Disneyland. In the spirit of Walt, however, Feldpausch advises choosing a kid-friendly event to maximize attendance. Child ID Day (see “Above & Beyond” in this issue) is a proven draw in many markets. Parents perceive the fingerprinting service as an opportunity to prevent kidnapping disasters, spurring them to action, unlike a generic bicycle-safety day, Hermes theorizes.
Incorporating a holiday or seasonal theme may attract crowds to your event as well. Crown Storage recently teamed with fellow shopping-center tenants to present a Fall Festival. The police department provided a canine crew to perform demonstrations; Crown gave away 100 hot dogs and pops; and store owners held drawings and offered coupons. Crown also has had success with Halloween haunted houses and festive lighting displays. Feldpausch suggests sponsoring a pumpkin painting, straw-bale maze and Santa visits by helicopter.
But plan your holiday event carefully, he says—you don’t want to end up with a public-relations disaster such as the Turkey Drop from TV’s “WKRP in Cincinnati.” Fans of the late-’70s show will recall the station manager’s horror when live turkeys dropped from a helicopter didn’t fly away in a dazzling display of Thanksgiving spirit as anticipated.
A springtime Easter egg hunt proved to be U.S. Storage Depot’s most successful function ever, melding the strong themes of family and holiday. Staged in April and publicized as “the world’s largest spring egg hunt,” it featured free hot dogs, a petting zoo, a 4-H Club display of barnyard animals, a giant rabbit from the Humane Society, and free instant photographs taken by a photographer who donated his services in exchange for exposure. About 4,000 plastic, candy-filled eggs were hidden throughout the indoor, climate-controlled facility’s empty units.
“We had the buildings sectioned off in three different age groups,” Feldpausch says. “It was kind of a free-for-all—the kids would run into a unit and pick up the eggs. The challenge was they had a large surface area—760 units, pretty much all empty.” Vacancy rates are a factor for the egg hunt, which will likely become a permanent part of the agenda for launching a new facility, Feldpausch explains.
Mel Holsinger, president of Professional Self Storage Management in Tucson, Ariz., firmly believes in involving the chamber of commerce and other business-referral groups in facility events. “We recently sponsored a chamber breakfast up in Pinetop, Ariz.,” he says. “We bought breakfast for 70 people, gave out some shirts and fliers about the property, and invited them to visit the store. We got to talk to 150 chamber members all at one time, and we ended up donating a unit to the Humane Society for an auction, which made us look like good guys.”
Target chambers of commerce, and your facility can more easily reach the valued commercial client, says Brad North, president of Cincinnati, Ohio-based Advantage Business Consulting. Plus, the chamber will often handle publicity. “I feel the industry needs to utilize chambers more often than they do,” North says. “We’re planning on hosting a chamber mixer. We’re going to have entertainment and food, and give tours of our entire facility. The chamber will coordinate everything—they’ll promote the event three months ahead, put it in their newsletter and send out broadcast e-mails.”
Holsinger says he’ll offer to present projects to just about any community groups—Rotary, Lion’s Club, even college business students. “Anything you can do to get your name in front of a group of 30 to 50 people is worthwhile because you gain instant salespeople,” Holsinger says. “That’s really what they become. If they like it and they like you and your managers, they’ll pass the word to someone who needs storage.”
If you are going to go to the trouble of holding an event—any event—make sure you have a publicity plan or all your work will likely be for naught. Distribute the standard media release to publishers and radio stations, including the little freebie newspapers in the neighborhood since they are most likely to print it. When mailing invites to specific groups such as apartment managers, don’t be shy about picking up the phone to follow up, advises North. “That personal contact is really key,” he says. “It creates an energy for people to know you are now open for business and gets everything off to a great start.”
Hermes enlists the help of schools and churches in distributing fliers. “Churches will put it in their Sunday bulletin or make an announcement,” she says. “But they don’t like it when you want something from them and don’t want to give anything. We make sure we have an ongoing relationship with nearby churches, asking if we can advertise any of their events or be a drop-off place for fundraisers like Toys for Tots.”
Crown Storage also visits businesses directly to spread news of its events. In one day, for example, the assistant manager dropped off 600 fliers at 61 different business locations, informing readers of the Fall Festival. “Even if people don’t come, they still go, ‘Oh, that’s neat,’ and we get our name out there,” Hermes says.
Worth the Investment?
Unlike some other kinds of advertising, it isn’t easy to track the results of a special event. Thomas Berlin, vice president of operations for Pogoda Management Co., based in Farmington Hills, Mich., says roughly 90 percent of customers will come from the Yellow Pages, but special events can help build brand awareness.
“So when they see your ad, they either consciously or subconsciously remember you,” he says. In planning the scope and budget of an event, Berlin recommends a basic criterion: Consider the fact the industry standard rental is worth $400.
“So if you are doing a function that costs $10,000, how many tenants is that going to have to generate?” he asks. “The name of the game is how many rentals do you have to get out of this particular thing.”
One of Berlin’s pet peeves is staff who forget to ask a caller how he found out about the facility. Sometimes a prospective customer will mention he saw a special-events flier or attended a function. Usually, though, he needs to be asked. Leads from events can take months to materialize. Go ahead and poll callers, and you’ll have a better idea if special events are leading to higher storage profits in your community. It’s an inexact science, acknowledges Holsinger.
“What you are looking for here is maybe not direct sales, but exposure—so when people do need storage they think of you first,” says Holsinger. “On a grand opening, if I rent three units, I think of it as a bonus. But if you can get 200 to 350 people through your store, you may be amazed at the business you generate. It certainly has a long-term positive effect.”
Giving Away the Store: Premium Tips
Many self-storage promoters use giveaways emblazoned with the company name as part of their marketing mix. Without a clever distribution plan, however, even the most prized promotional product is nothing more than an expensive dust-catcher. Industry professionals share their top tips on getting maximum impact from premiums:
- Melissa Hermes of Crown Storage says high-quality mugs are the best promotional product in which her company has invested. “People don’t throw them away, and they use them all the time,” she says. To distribute the mugs, Crown rents a “wheel of fortune” game for about $40 for its booth at festivals and community gatherings. Visitors spin the wheel and have a chance to win a pen, magnet or mug.
- When holding a special event, try to register visitors to your facility. Offer a free keychain or T-shirt as an incentive for prospects to give you their name, address, e-mail and even phone number, advises Brad North of Advantage Business Consulting. Use the information to build a database for future mailings or prepare a legal call list.
- Around patriotic holidays, Thomas Berlin of Pogoda Management Co. likes to give away American flags at self-storage sites. The offer is publicized on signs in facility windows.” We can get flags inexpensively; it’s patriotic, it’s no-obligation, and it increases people’s awareness of your store,” he says. A facility business card is attached to the flag pole. “Roughly 90 percent of customers will come from the Yellow Pages, but special events can help build brand awareness.”