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Thinking on Our Feet: A Self-Storage Operator Responds to and Learns From COVID-19

The coronavirus has sparked a new age, and self-storage businesses have had to adjust. One operator shares what happened at his facilities in the early days of the pandemic, how he and his team have adapted, and lessons he’s learned along the way.

In January, we Americans were just hearing about the coronavirus outbreak in China and hoping it wouldn’t come to the United States. We kept our fingers crossed, hoping to avoid our current circumstances.

But here we are. COVID-19 has changed everything. And like other businesses, self-storage has had to adapt. Here’s what happened in the early days of the pandemic at the facilities I oversee, how we adapted, and some important things I’ve learned along the way.

Jumping Into Action

In early March, I started buying gloves, masks and hand sanitizer to prepare for the government lockdown. My site managers were charged with purchasing these items, too; but personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies vanished from retail shelves within hours. Those who weren’t able to find necessities in stores reached out to their local contacts to find supplies.

Self-storage wasn’t specifically listed as an essential business in our state (it fell under “other real estate services”), so I had to figure out how to conduct business within the parameters of the governor’s directives. One day, the police showed up to close our sites. The managers were upset and asked one of the officers to speak to me. She said we had to shut down now or get a massive fine and possibly lose our business license, so we closed.

Four days later, with the help of other self-storage owners and after a conversation with the governor’s attorney, we were allowed to open. Self-storage became a documented “essential business,” but we had to operate under very strict guidelines, with the state police checking on us daily.

Adjusting Operation

I emailed all our tenants to explain what would happen during the disruption, for example, how payments would be accepted and how future rentals would occur. Some customers were worried they wouldn’t be able to access their units, and we had to calm them down.

We adjusted our operations so that all customer contact is made through a window, with staff wearing masks and gloves. Customers aren’t allowed in the office. Any in-person payments are submitted through a slot. We immediately stopped accepting cash. All payments have to be by credit card—either online or over the phone—or via money order. We had some initial complaints about the cash; but soon, other companies stopped accepting it, too, and tenants finally understood.

Any prospective tenant must set an appointment to see a unit, and he must wear a mask on site. We wear our own masks and maintain 10 feet of distance from the customer at all times. When we show a unit, he rides in his own vehicle behind our golf cart. If the person decides to rent, we have an outside table on which we complete the paperwork. We sanitize it before and after each use. If the customer wants no contact, we can send him an online lease.

Our management offices and facility equipment are sanitized before and after every shift, with hourly cleaning. We keep a cleaning log for any customer who asks to see what we’ve been doing at the property to ensure his safety.

Learning Lessons

What did I learn during this crazy experience? First, that our industry is resilient and can roll with the punches. There was no manual on how to deal with COVID-19, but we did what facility operators do well: think on our feet!

I learned that we are essential to the entire local population. My managers have stepped up to help their fellow humans, no matter the circumstances. We’re proud to help them through these chaotic times.

While this pandemic is uncharted territory, we need to stay vigilant. We need to establish safe health practices, ensure we have plenty of supplies on hand, and always have a backup plan. It’s also imperative to be flexible with our procedures, as this is all a work in progress. We need to keep tenants informed about operational changes by any means possible: email, text, social media, etc. We also need work with tenants who’ve fallen behind due to job loss. Personally, I offer a payoff discount to encourage these renters to vacate so I can lease the unit again. Good luck, and stay safe and healthy!

Andrew Kelly is principal of A B Kelly Realty LLC and Sierra Self Storage Consulting LLC, which was founded in 2004 to help new and existing facility operators enhance their return on investment. He offers facility brokerage, consulting for new development and due diligence, facility audits, owner and staff training, and property management. For more information, call 520.323.6169; visit www.sierraselfstorageconsulting.com.

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