Major puts DOD travelers at ease with rental options
The accommodations included five bedrooms, a pool, and a hammock. The Gantts stayed for 10 days. When Gantt submitted the $980 travel voucher for reimbursement, he was denied because the property did not meet federal government regulations.
“It’s like, ‘We can get you reimbursed, but you’re going to have to come up with a different receipt,’’’ Gantt said. “All types of innovative and adaptive stuff that would have compromised my integrity. I didn’t want to go down that path. I was like, ‘Is there another way that we can fix this?’’’
That experience led Gantt, 41, to become the co-founder and CEO of At Ease Rentals, which lists properties for active-duty military and veterans, federal employees, and military contractors that meet travel guidelines.
The rejection of his expenses bothered Gantt, a Marine officer instructor at the University of Texas in Austin, so much that he pored over hundreds of pages of regulations in search of an answer. He sent emails and kept getting redirected until he was put in touch with the General Services Administration’s travel department.
The GSA informed Gantt of a one-day meeting about travel reimbursement in Washington, D.C., in October 2019. Gantt was granted leave, boarded a flight and learned more about how a property is certified for government approval.
Is the neighborhood safe? Does the property meet fire safety standards and have a working sprinkler system? How many floors is the rental? When was it last inspected? And, most of all, is the property a real listing?
“I started looking at the data, and I was like, ‘Man, a lot of people rent their units out for way less than what the government is willing to pay hotels. This could be a lucrative opportunity,’’’ Gantt said.
Planning the business took 14-16 months, Gantt said, and At Ease Rentals’ website, pcsatease.com, launched in January. He and Greg Rollins, the COO of At Ease Rentals, raised $209,000 toward the $500,000 goal for their startup through early October.
“It’s been one massive lesson, going from flying in the military, where it’s extremely structured …,’’ said Rollins, a Marine veteran. “You come up with a plan. Obviously, you’re going to flex on the plan and all that stuff, but it’s all laid out for you. Going into the entrepreneurial world, there’s no handbook, no playbook. You’re winging it.’’
Known for its high-tech startups, Austin sometimes is referred to as Silicon Hills, a play off Silicon Valley. As he built At Ease Rentals, Gantt usually left his office by midafternoon, then headed to Silicon Hills to network, listen to speakers and learn the ins and outs of being an entrepreneur.
At Ease Rentals has properties in Texas, Florida, Virginia, Arkansas, Georgia, California and Washington, Gantt said. Listings may be added in Oregon and Colorado soon, he added.
“He’s walked properties himself,’’ property manager Mickey Kropf said of Gantt. “He cares that much, and he even got a little worked up on one of the properties that wasn’t compliant. We had to explain that, ‘Hey, we don’t actually control the real estate. We control the management operations within it, so chill.’’’
Gantt said it has become more difficult to inspect properties during the COVID-19 pandemic, although there has been one benefit. While the movement of service members’ families has decreased because of the coronavirus, federal workers at large still needed places to stay while relocating.
“I didn’t even think about them,’’’ Gantt said. “I was only focused on the military.’’
Gantt, who has been in the Marines for 21 years, advised military members looking to start their own businesses to begin by researching whether the idea solves a need. Gantt did a quick Facebook survey of about 200 people, and after receiving favorable responses, he forged ahead.
He said it is important to manage risk by starting small so costs can be managed appropriately. Just don’t begin too small where the business isn’t making anything, Gantt said.
“You have to make sure that whatever you are putting out in that space is actually going to solve someone’s problem, and that the problem is significant enough that they’ll give you some money for it,’’ Gantt said.
As for that $980, Gantt never was reimbursed. “I still complain about it,’’ he said.
Visit https://pcsatease.com/ for temporary lodging options ahead of your next trip.