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You Asked, We Answer: A Pet Care Business Expert Panel

Just one of the articles from Pet Care Pro Quarterly, IBPSA’s digital magazine for pet care services professionals. Read the current issue online here.

Earlier this year, the International Boarding & Pet Services Association (IBPSA) looked at all of the questions, concerns, and feedback provided in a survey of its pet care professional members. Along with that information, the hot topics discussed on IBPSA’s 650+ member Facebook group page were taken into consideration to structure an informative panel of pet care industry experts that convened in advance of the Sixth Annual IBPSA Pet Care Services Educational Conference & Trade Show in St. Louis, Missouri, on October 1, 2018. The panel answered questions for people who were building a new facility, renovating an existing one, and for those just making sure they were still doing it right.

The following highlights some of the pet care professional questions and, collectively, summarizes industry expert answers from the panel which included: Jeff Adney, Owner, PermaTek Coatings; Chris Danforth, President & CEO, Kennelwood Pet Resorts; Jessica Finnegan, Director of Operations, Greenbriar Veterinary Hospital & Luxury Pet Resort; Mel Forbes, Sales Consultant, Health Technologies; Fiju Job, Chief Development Officer, Kennelwood Pet Resorts; Ken Karmie, Sales Consultant, ForeverLawn Inc.; Scott Learned, President, Design Learned, Inc.; Mark Moore, Principal, FMD Architects; Paula Mosteller, Owner, PetExec; Heather Rinkol, Account Manager, CapitalSource; Greg Taylor, CEO, Mason Company; and Annette Uda, President, PetAirapy.

FINANCE, BUILDING, AND DESIGN

Are you seeing any trend in terms of larger facilities or smaller facilities?

From an expansion view, seeing larger facilities of 10,000 square feet and more. But, from a startup perspective, still looking at around 5,00 square feet. In urban areas, seeing multiple smaller locations.

Are there any “silver bullet” deciding factors when considering whether to buy an older kennel versus something new?

If cost is not a factor, building and design from the ground up is favored but older buildings can be renovated. However, older buildings do not necessarily mean big savings if you’re doing it properly. In some instances it can be cheaper to demolish the building and start over, but every case should be considered on its own merits.

What is the best practice for fire safety when establishing a facility?

Because evacuating a facility is “effectively impossible” as animals will panic in a fire, be educated, make sure your staff is trained to fight a fire in-place, and design the building from the start to eliminate the risk or give you early warning. Put a robust fire alarm system in place. All things being equal, if you can build with limited or no combustible materials, then a facility that is masonry with no sprinkler system would be better than one made of wood with a sprinkler system.

What should be considered when selecting a location to open a facility?

Look at density and competitors. Visit your potential competitors if you’re going into a new area. Consider boarding your pet there and see what the experience was like. What are their weaknesses?

Beyond looking at areas where median incomes are higher, percentage of people in that area who vacation, who and where is your competition, and what will differentiate you in that location, there are some more mundane considerations like setbacks, for example. One “horror story” shared was the purchase of a 3-acre parcel of land to build a new facility. The purchasers didn’t realize they had setback requirements of 100 to 200 feet which ultimately left them with an unbuildable lot. If you’re considering a property purchase, go to the local zoning and building authorities and educate yourself on setbacks and variances. Do your due diligence. Ask for a minimum of 60 or even 90 days if you can. Go through a preliminary review for what the city and community have in mind. Even if what you want to purchase is zoned for your type of business, you may still get pushback. From a financing perspective, zoning and permitting “are huge.” Get that established and have those permitting conversations up front because you do not want to end up not being able to do anything with your vacant lot.

For this type of investment, it is encouraged to not buy a piece of property without talking to a design professional, an architect, an engineer, and a real estate lawyer. Spend the money and spend the time upfront. Figure out a way to juggle financing and the extra costs. Real world examples cited of what others facility owners who did not invest that time and money before-hand faced after purchasing property included:

Being called in front of the local Planning & Zoning Commission seven times and spending $100,000 on traffic and noise studies just to appease neighbors half a mile away from the planned facility.

Facing neighbors 2 miles away from the planned facility who claimed it would pollute their pond. The neighbors banded together and even started a Facebook page to speak against the facility.

What do bankers and lenders consider for financing a pet care facility?

Both what you are looking to do and your background are typically considered. Are you established or are you a start-up? For startsup, a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan might be the right fit while conventional financing might make more sense for those who are expanding.

Additional considerations for startups are whether the facility is a leasehold or if you’re building from the ground up. Also, startups should keep in mind upfront costs and cash on hand needed they might not think about for building, design plans, and land. Potential savings and financial help might also be available with certain tax credits, signage allowances, and even help cleaning up areas that cities and towns are looking to revitalize.

Bankers and lenders will look at two things: you personally and your experience. Ultimately, when it comes to financing a pet care services business, speak with a banker or lender who specializes in pet care, someone who knows the ins and out of the industry.

For those who are brand new to the industry, those considering entering it with no significant pet care industry experience, what should they know?

Do you love early mornings and late evenings? Do you love the smell of urine and feces? Do you love being understaffed? Do you love people screaming at you? Do you love those challenges? Customer loyalty is virtually extinct, so while your clients may love you today, bathe their animals wrong tomorrow and Facebook and Yelp will learn all about it. They will just go somewhere else. To succeed in this industry there must be more than just “I love animals.” You must have a fallback plan. You’ll have to make decisions and compromises. And when the doors open you be better ready and rested because it doesn’t get easier.

LAYOUT, FLOOR PLAN, AND SET-UP

General flooring considerations?

Epoxy with grit is a go-to favorite but for those who want something softer, there are options. Also important to recognize that flooring can be impacted by other facility environment issues like humidity. Even epoxy with grit can seem “slippery” if there is a drying and humidity problem. A facility needs moving air to sufficiently dehumidify and dry out. Further, you must adequately clean your floors. For example, soap build-up can be reemulsified once water hits it, causing a slippery floor.

When it comes to artificial grass, particularly when installed inside where you don’t have the sun and wind to dry it, it’s important to remember that it is not maintenance-free. Consider the size of the area, the climate, and that dogs shed. Hair should be regularly removed because it can build up over time and impact drainage, for example. Start on day one with maintenance otherwise you’re forever playing catch up. [Editor’s note: For more on flooring see “Paws to Consider Flooring”, Pet Care Pro Quarterly, Q3 2018.]

Should drains be installed?

One school of thought is if you limit the number of drains, you can limit the water introduced in the facility. Further, the trend toward flat floors (no sloping for drains) in facilities is because “banks hate new pet resorts.” If floors are not sloped, they can repurpose the building should they need to take it over. An example of a 450-run facility with zero drains was cited. Wet/dry rinse and vacuum systems have become very popular. In short, facilities can be done successfully with no drains.

When designing facilities, how do you try to plan for sound reduction?

In a nutshell, noise control is behavioral control, but there is a way to design buildings for stimulation-based composition of walls, ceilings, communicating corridors, etc. HVAC systems should be small dedicated systems. If done well, you should be able to walk in the lobby and hear nothing. It is definitely hard to do sound remediation after the fact and, ultimately, there is not a fix for every location, but smaller groupings can be used to mitigate reflected noises. For example, typically in shelters a few dogs will be the instigators, so if you can group those in smaller areas with sound control, then you can control the rest. Further, suite boarding with televisions in the room for the dogs originally became popular 15 to 20 years ago as a marketing feature for the animal’s owner, but what has been discovered is that the animals will actually listen to the television. They will notice a change in sounds and it can make a difference; it can make them quiet.

How is the industry trending in terms of space per pet?

Depends on your clientele and if you can charge more for larger rooms. Have some big runs, some small runs, some with top cover and made of steel because you will get a jumper, but don’t put tops on all of them because will “look cagey.” Have a few runs in every bank with some guillotine doors side by side – allows housing together. Ultimately, “the headline for this question is flexibility.” Don’t have every run the exact same size and materials.

Is there an “ideal” dog suite size particularly when it comes to cleaning?

Your very first decision to make is: are you using that one compartment to house one dog or two? If you have two runs with a guillotine door, you can safely isolate the dogs on one side while you clean the other. The theory for this approach is that it saves staff time for leashing and walking while the compartment is cleaned. On the other hand, building just one compartment is cheaper. There are pros and cons to both approaches.

Should dogs be able to see each other?

There really is really no right or wrong or answer. Thought leaders in the industry will tell you that dogs looking at each other will be overstimulated, while others are “laughing all the way to the bank” with dogs looking at each other.

When considering whether to board cats, what’s the typical dog/cat split?

Typical split is about 90% dogs and 10% cats. While cat condos can be “very profitable” on a per square foot basis, they are “never going to be anywhere close to the volume of dogs.”

How can odor be effectively mitigated? What about injecting scent into the air?

Animal sensitivity to smells is considerably greater than a human’s sensitivity and introducing a fragrance can make dogs even more hyper. Injecting a scent is not recommended. [Editor’s note: For an in-depth resource on this topic see “Fragrance Stinks: The Health Risks of Chemically Products for Pets and People”, Pet Care Pro Quarterly, Q1 2018.] Odor and odor mitigation have much to do with your HVAC’s filters and coils and air flow. Your facility’s ventilation is the lungs of your business, make sure you have enough air flow.

Why are air sanitization protocols needed if vaccine requirements are in place?

Beyond mitigating odor, sanitizing the air with the right ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) can also prevent “sick building syndrome” which can not only impact the pets in your care but your staff, as well, as VOCs are trapped inside with you along with infectious pathogens. The simple fact is vaccines can’t do it all. Viruses don’t live outdoors, they live inside. One animal can release thousands of particles into the air. You need a multi-prong approach to give your facility the best chance. The right UVGI, working in conjunction with proper air flow (your HVAC system), will not create ozone and will be powerful enough to kill pathogens on contact.

TALENT, BRAND, OPERATIONS

What exactly is “branding” for my business and how is it achieved?

To understand your “brand” you need to sit down with yourself and ask what you want to be. You want to be “the best” but what does that mean? Understand what you are, what you stand for, and what makes you unique. Maybe you offer something no one else offers in area. Understand what you are and “match” your image to that. If you’re a pet lodge in a pastoral setting, an edgy, industrial look wouldn’t make sense. How is your staff presented? Do they wear clothing that coordinates with your overall look? Identify the message you will bring to the community. Make the right impression the first time.

There are so many pet care industry software options, how do I choose?

It comes down to the details of what you’re offering and what you want to achieve. For example, if your reception area is small and can only accommodate two staff members, then your software must help make things be very automated, be self-sufficient, and improve flow. Better that the heads of your staff be up and greeting people than bent over a computer. When choosing a software, read reviews and ask for references.

How do you find good employees and how do you keep them?

Hiring and keeping employees is no doubt the biggest challenge but the best success has typically been found with those provided education and training and allowed to succeed. [Editor’s note: For an in-depth resource on this topic see “Need Staff? Think Outside the Box”, Pet Care Pro Quarterly Q3 2018; and “Hire Slow, Fire Fast”, Pet Care Pro Quarterly Q4 2018.]

How many “extras” should I offer?

Having choices and ancillary services is a feel good for the clients. Clients will embrace that for their peace of mind. But, because pets can’t communicate “thank you” for spending $1,000 on them for that  ultimate spa experience, you must think of ways to show their pet parents the value of the extras. Think webcams, Facebook, Facetime, photos of how things went. Find out what will impact that client. Figure out how you can make that happen.