As with so many other industries, the self-storage industry is on the brink of an evolution as owners and managers seek to harness new tools and technologies to make operations more efficient, cost-effective, and productive.
But are there trade-offs for letting a machine do the work? What are the opportunities and the potential challenges of remote management?
To understand the impact of remote management on an individual business and on the industry as a whole, it’s important to understand the capabilities of this technology as well as the benefits and potential drawbacks.
How Do Remote Management Systems Work?
Most self-storage companies already have websites or mobile apps that allow customers to browse available units, collect, price quotes, or make reservations online. Yet many of them maintain a human connection through remote call centers for 24-hour customer service.
A true remote management system goes one step further with self-service kiosks on site for users to complete the check-in or rental process. Using a touchscreen computer, customers input their reservation details, confirm their identity, and provide documentation. The kiosk assigns a unit to the user, and customers access their units immediately typically through an access code entered into a wall-mounted keypad or keyless entry via the user’s smartphone. From start to finish, the user interacts with technology instead of a live associate.
In addition, technology companies offer a host of other services tailored for self-storage owners to manage their facilities remotely. Some of these services include call centers that are always available to connect a customer with a storage expert; online portals that track customer activity and trends; smart utility systems that optimize thermostats, lighting, and locks; and mobile apps that allow tenants to make online payments and access their account history.
Much of this technology empowers the facility owners. With these systems in place, contracts are digital, enabling termination of storage unit access at the touch of a button when payments are late. Real-time, trustworthy, and valuable data analysis is also readily available to help owners determine when to raise or lower rental rates and how to modify operations.
Safety Concerns Of Automated Management Systems
Without personnel on site, are self-storage facilities unsafe? Could they be a greater target for thieves or vandals? While those concerns are valid, security features integrated with remote management systems typically mitigate or minimize any risk.
Ample security technology exists today to ensure customer safety and facility security. Surveillance cameras, alarms, and motion sensors are now standard at most self-storage facilities regardless of on-site or remote management; however, they are vital when relying on technology to facilitate transactions and access. These technologies, coupled with personalized access tools to enter gates and individual storage units, ensure that only valid, registered users enter the facility. Such security features are even more critical in remote or rural markets with less street traffic and lower visibility.
But just because boots aren’t on the ground, it doesn’t mean eyes aren’t watching. Remote management often entails 24/7 monitoring by off-site personnel to monitor all activity within the facility. While requiring personnel, efficiencies are realized as one associate can oversee multiple locations and is equipped with an emergency call button(s) that connects to the appropriate police district or security personnel from anywhere in the world.
See, humans are still needed. But where does technology make the greatest impact?
Where Are Automated Systems Best Suited?
Rural self-storage facilities are ideal candidates for deploying an automated, remote management system. As these facilities often see less, regular transactional traffic than those in more populated markets, particularly for new rentals, staffing can be costly, even more so today as labor costs continue to rise with the shrinking of the workforce pool.
Remotely managed self-storage facilities also thrive in urban markets where customers typically use automation on a daily basis and are more comfortable with technology.
Installing an automated system ensures that new customers are not turned away and transaction opportunities are not missed. Customers can rent and access storage units as needed, while owners and managers can remotely monitor transactions as well as activity without needing to be on site.
The same technology also permits accessibility to the facility for extended hours, which is important for rural markets with non-traditional work hours and drive-time considerations and urban markets for both work and transportation schedules.
Remote management systems not only give customers access beyond traditional hours, but it also allows operators to lock down a facility when faced with a security issue. Customers can now be protected from known crime, facility operational failure, and other dangerous situations with a click of a button.
Weighing The Costs And Savings
The initial investment of deploying a remote management system is significant. Is it worth the cost? How long until a return on investment is captured?
Self-storage owners must analyze the total costs of both on-site and remote management options before making the investment. Do the costs to install and operate a remote management system outweigh the costs of ongoing hiring, training, and compensating on-site personnel? The results of this cost analysis vary from site to site, market to market, and even owner to owner; it’s influenced by many factors.
The average cost of implementing a remote management system ranges from $10,000 to $35,000. Initial expenses include purchasing and installing the necessary technology, upgrading existing infrastructures, integrating the automated systems and processes into a facility’s standard operating procedures, and customizing the interfacing digital platform. Managers and employees also need to be trained on the new technology and new procedures.
Once installed, remote management systems also require ongoing maintenance. As with all other technology, regular upgrades and servicing are needed. Periodic hardware upgrades also may be required to comply with industry and regulatory evolutions. Also, most technology platforms require a monthly or annual subscription cost for call centers, surveillance, and video monitoring.
Now, compare this investment to the average cost of personnel to operate on-site management. According to Franklin Street’s Senior Analyst Zach Levine, the cost of self-storage staffing and personnel averages $1.10 to 1.50 per net rentable square foot, depending upon facility size and number of employees. Staffing includes managers to oversee each facility and complete rental transactions, custodians to clean and maintain the common areas, and security guards to monitor the site. In addition to employee salaries and benefits, the cost of hiring and training must also be considered.
There’s no doubt that remote management systems have the potential to vastly change the operations of a self-storage facilities. Beyond lightening the humanity lift, what else do they offer?
Not only can these systems reduce the need for personnel onsite, but these sophisticated systems also offer a wealth of valuable data. As facility activity is tracked, valuable data on customer usage is compiled that can ultimately advise on important operational decisions.
Analysis of usage rates, rental transactions, customer visits and other data can inform owners of well-timed and potentially lucrative strategies. For instance, when to:
Schedule facility maintenance to avoid minimal customer inconvenience
Adjust rental rates to align with supply and demand and market factors
Plan for expansion and the optimum unit size to be added
Schedule employees to align with traffic patterns
Increase security to ensure safety of both customers and personnel
Likewise, the dawn of remote management technology has broadened the investor pool for the self-storage sector. No longer must owners be located within the market or even within the state. This has led to the growth of a middle market filled with private owners with portfolios across a region or stretching coast to coast in an industry once dominated by either institutional investors with vast platforms or “mom-and-pop” owners of one to three facilities in a single city.
The Downsides To Technology
However, as with most technology, drawbacks and downsides do exist.
Particularly in today’s market, with downward pressure on rental rates, it is more challenging to justify increased rental rates without the cost (and benefits) of on-site personnel, making it more difficult for a remote management strategy to succeed.
For those facilities where remote management systems are deployed, many operators have reported savings of at least 10 percent. But there are no guarantees. There are also facilities that have lost customers (and subsequently revenue) due to the lack of on-site personnel to address challenges and concerns with immediacy. While call centers can respond within minutes to an inquiry, associates have limited knowledge of the market, the facility, or even the unit. How could they from overseas?
For more institutional owners, and those with larger portfolios, deploying remote management systems has the potential to negatively impact the valuation of a facility. For those owners that rely upon the personal touch and face-to-face interactions as differentiators and brand cultivators, using automation could weaken market position and detract from intrinsic value. And a drop in occupancy ultimately reflects in a drop in asset value.
For instance, for customers with questions, who encounter technical challenges or have complicated needs, frustration is possible and could lead to the ultimate cost of a losing a customer. While computers and machines are efficient and cost-effective, addressing problems and seeking solutions requires the power of human connection.
Also consider that not everyone is digitally connected. Although technology seems to have infiltrated all aspects of our lives, not everyone relies upon it or is comfortable operating on a digital platform. For many, it’s easier to have a conversation or shake a hand. These consumers will be challenged with online booking system, self-service kiosks, digital access gates, mobile apps, and other automated processes. Well-written directions with visual cues may help to overcome these obstacles.
With all technology, the concern of cybersecurity threats, data breaches, and other issues is real. Data such as customer credit card numbers and personal information stored in the cloud must be protected with robust security measures. The investment to protect user data and ensure that automated systems are not hacked or otherwise compromised is significant and must continually be upgraded.
Ready To Deploy?
As technology evolves, so does human nature. But at the core of all humanity is connectivity—a lesson we all learned from the recent pandemic.
So why has remote management technology emerged so quickly within the self-storage marketplace? By limiting costly overhead and informing efficient operational strategies, the deployment allows investors to underwrite more aggressively due to a lowered expense load. By doing so, the acquisition of smaller facilities is made possible, opening up a previously locked asset class where investors can leverage more due to less costs.
Ultimately, it takes careful analysis, thoughtful adoption, and intelligent monitoring and analysis, both of people and technology, to bring the best management solutions forward. Self-storage operators who strategically and carefully harness the power of remote technology can craft an efficient, convenient customer experience that just might surpass the upside of personal interaction.
Frank DeSalvo and David Perlleshi are senior directors with Tampa, Fla.-based Franklin Street. Within the self-storage sector, they oversee a team that buys and sells, finances, insures, develops, and manages self-storage facilities throughout the United States. They have facilitated a combined $100 million in self-storage transactions throughout their careers.