What’s one lingering effect of the pandemic that isn’t going anyway anytime soon? The rise of unmanned self-storage facilities.

Storage Asset Management (SAM), a York, PA-based third-party management firm, recently reported a 110% increase from 2020 to 2021 in the number of unmanned self-storage locations it operates. Of the 442 self-storage locations the company manages in 34 states, 105 facilities are now unmanned.

“During the pandemic, we got even more comfortable with technology that allows us to operate facilities in a hub and spoke model or completely unmanned,” said Melissa Stiles, VP of Marketing and Sales. “With this technology usage, we were able to find efficiencies, including unmanned facilities.”

At the same time, customers have become more comfortable with renting online and not needing to visit a rental office. Further fueling the growth of unmanned facilities, Stiles said the evolution in technology and the change in consumer preferences has created more acquisition possibilities for clients.

Challenging perceptions

Stiles said the biggest challenge in running unmanned facilities compared to traditional facilities is making sure the right combination of technology is in place, alongside having some local boots on the ground to make sure customer expectations are met if the need for assistance does arise.

Some operators are reluctant to switch to unmanned operations because of how facilities have traditionally operated. About 50% of customers have never used storage before, and in the past facilities have always been staffed with a person in the office.

“Having the on site team members can improve the experience while converting the rental,” said Stiles, “However, with a good website, customer care center, technology and tools, the customer can be as comfortable renting virtually as renting face-to-face.”

Stiles said the decision for a facility to go unmanned is a mutual one that depends on many factors such as geography, size of the facility, and identifiable operational efficiencies.

Boots on the ground

In some regards, unmanned is a bit of a misnomer in the industry.

“The unmanned facilities still need team members to be able to visit the property and perform onsite tasks such as cleaning, management of units, and maintenance,” Stiles said.

As the number of manned and unmanned facilities in SAM’s portfolio grows, additional corporate support is also needed to handle accounting, revenue management, marketing, operations and other administrative duties. In 2021, SAM increased its workforce by 29% ending the year with 712 employees.

SAM is the largest privately-held self-storage management company in the country. It does not own any facilities.

Impressive results

The company ended 2021 with strong numbers: same-store revenue increased 18.3% year over year, and net operating income grew by 26.6%.

“In 2021 rate management was a huge driver of our revenue growth. Operating expense management has also been a focus, especially in areas of the country with large increases in snow removal, property insurance and property taxes,” Stiles said.

As for how 2022 is expected to shape up, Stiles said they anticipate consumer demand to start to return to normal pre-pandemic levels.

“It seems leasing season will reflect the normal seasonality with college students, but the house market may be slower than normal with it being a tough market for buyers,” Stiles said. “We’re starting the ‘busy’ season with higher occupancy than we normally had, pre-pandemic, though.

Alexander Harris