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Flying in the Face of Adversity: What It’s Like to Open a Self-Storage Facility During COVID-19

What It’s Like to Open a Self-Storage Facility During COVID-19
Opening a new self-storage facility is trying under normal circumstances, much less a global pandemic. Read how SecureSpace navigated the unknown to successfully open and lease up new locations during COVID-19, and the three company values that helped get them across the finish line.

As we’re all learning, operating a self-storage facility during a global pandemic has some real challenges. Now, imagine launching a brand-new store during this time: completing construction, hiring and training personnel, abiding state-mandated orders, differentiating the business from competitors, and ensuring the rental process is safe and optimal for customers and staff.

Opening a self-storage location is an epic feat of coordination, teamwork and focus, even under normal business conditions. People of various disciplines must come together to execute their respective roles. Contractors build and install; local officials inspect and permit; corporate managers prepare and train; store teams learn and operate; and ownership approves and pays. Internally, several departments must collaborate as a team, from marketing and accounting to technology and operations. It’s often an all-out sprint to the finish line, with everyone laser-focused on the steps to reach opening day.

What do you do when a national health crisis throws one or several wrenches in the works? You adjust and forge ahead! Read how our company did it, and the values that allowed us to do so.

Timing is Everything

When the coronavirus started to impact the U.S., SecureSpace Self Storage had more than 20 projects under development. We’d just opened our first two East Coast locations, including one in Titusville, Fla., that opened in February and one in Piscataway, N.J., that opened in early March.

During the first quarter, our management team flew from Los Angeles to Orlando to Newark, N.J., and then back again to hire and train employees, oversee construction punch lists, meet with city officials and cut ribbons. We shook hands with fire marshals, hugged grateful customers, high-fived team members and huddled for selfies in front of the newly opened sites. Then, about halfway through March, New Jersey issued a stay-at-home order that changed everything and left us with the existential question: “Are we essential?”

That all seems so long ago, and we’re still learning. We were fortunate to navigate these unprecedented times together by concentrating on the following three values, which helped our decision-making in the face of such change and uncertainty.

1. People Are Priority

As a company, we were confident with the in-store talent on the roster and believed they’d be the foundation on which we could build success. Still, we were concerned about everyone’s physical well-being and the financial fitness of the business. We wanted to keep our employees informed, empowered and healthy.

Video conferencing helped corporate leadership stay in touch with facility teams. Listening to staff concerns and ideas in real time helped refine our workflow. Store managers collaborated with each other across state lines, sharing best practices and encouragement. We issued company-wide guidelines and recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and reminded everyone about paid sick leave and the newly enacted federal leave options.

We had to be resourceful to ensure each location was stocked with appropriate supplies. Products such as hand sanitizer, disinfectant, masks and gloves were limited, so we searched as a team and creatively sourced items. One district manager even stepped up and shared her personal supplies from home to ensure staff could stay safe and keep their sites clean.

Our store managers became beacons of compassion as tenants came in, not only with boxes and belongings, but some with broken hearts. Customers shared stories of loss—both jobs and loved ones—and staff demonstrated patience and care that traveled across the six-foot divide of physical distance. It was in those moments in which we truly understood that our work was, in fact, essential.

Finally, we sought to maintain perspective. Our people were worried, lonely, scared and even grieving. Kind words and inspiration were shared across all levels, and we saw our people rise to meet these challenging times with fortitude and optimism.

2. Collaboration Is Crucial

Throughout the pandemic, the states have enforced varying degrees of lockdown, and orders and regulations have changed frequently. We combed through state and local executive orders to ensure we were complying. We called city halls and state emergency-management departments for clarification. We reached out to our network and consulted with each another. We read guidance and perspectives from industry resources. Decisions had to be made quickly and as a team. We also had to formalize new procedures at our locations to accommodate sanitation and social distancing.

Our third store was slated to open during the second quarter. Trying to get materials, vendors and utilities on site proved to be difficult toward the end of construction. There were even delays due to supply-chain disruption. Fortunately, city officials were extremely understanding and available. While many offices were closed to the public, applications for licenses and permits were accepted and reviewed online. Responses to phone and email inquiries were prompt.

City inspectors in face coverings made their way through our building, and contractors worked during flexible hours to accommodate the sporadic arrival of equipment. Internally, we worked with our technology, marketing and accounting teams as we always do, but respective timelines changed as mail service, banks and even review platforms struggled to balance safety and responsiveness.

The oft-difficult road to opening day was exacerbated by COVID-19, and we learned early on that we couldn’t press on by willpower alone. Due to the coordinated efforts of numerous dedicated parties, we were able to open the doors to our newest facility, on time, in mid-May.

3. It’s Important to Invest in Innovation

From the outset, SecureSpace was built to be technology-forward, thanks to a team heavily populated with software developers, designers and marketing specialists. Prior to opening any of our stores, we decided online rentals were going to be a necessity and made that functionality live so we could take pre-reservations. The goal was to allow tenants to reserve and pay for a unit, and sign a rental agreement in less than five minutes, then move in without having to visit a leasing office. We closely studied offerings from market leaders and identified ways to differentiate our user experience.

When the crisis hit, it triggered a sudden demand for contact-free offerings across all businesses. We were prepared! Our marketing team pivoted to convert more online traffic by emphasizing “contact-free move-ins” via search engines and social media. As a result, we saw an uptick in online rentals, which we believe will continue. Physical distancing is still recommended for the foreseeable future, and customers are adjusting to the new reality of doing more online. Our investment in technology helped us stay on track with initial lease-up projections, avoiding the need to launch “hurry-up” solutions.

Plan Well, Remain Strong

Change is inevitable, but the self-storage industry is no stranger to adversity. Our long-term approach is to remain guided by our values, relying on our strengths and revisiting areas of improvement as we continue to grow and open new stores.

Storage is clearly essential to our customers, and we may never return to our old ways of doing business, even in a post-COVID world. Being responsive and innovative will be vital to survival. Our advice is to rely on your talented people, embrace a collaborative culture and leverage technology as we forge ahead to the next big challenge. That’s the SecureSpace plan!

Emily Hyun is director of operations at InSite Property Group and its self-storage brand, SecureSpace Self Storage. InSite is a specialized, vertically integrated company that brings the three major aspects of commercial real estate together under a single roof: acquisition, development and management. For more information, visit https://insitepg.com, https://securespace.com.

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