FOCUS: There’s No Business Like Dog Business
ALLISON WALSH | CONTRIBUTOR
Jessica Brush knew from an early age her life’s work would be to care for animals. As a kid, she would sketch layouts of boarding facilities, and they always included an area for the animals to cut loose and have some fun. She worked in a number of kennels as a teenager, learning the business from the ground up and identifying practices she knew she wouldn’t include were she ever to run her own facility.
Ten years ago, Jessica had the opportunity to purchase the boarding end of the veterinary practice she was working for at the time, and today she and husband Derek are living her dream as owners of Wood“Ruff” Pet Resort and Spa in Greer.
“The most important thing to me is to give my clients peace of mind,” Jessica says. “I really wanted them to feel comfortable leaving their pets with me.”
Americans are projected to spend more than $60 billion on their pets this year, with more than $5 billion of that going toward where Fido spends his days when Mom or Dad are away. And Mom and Dad’s expectations for what will happen during that time have expanded well beyond food, water and a few potty breaks a day. More and more kennels are branding themselves as “pet resorts,” touting luxury accommodations that include spacious suites, customized playtime, one-on-one cuddles and turndown service. Many also offer doggie day care for the working pup parent.
“People spend money on their animals, and they care about the treatment of their animals,” says Bert Holcombe, proprietor of Woodlands Pet Resort in Greer. “As more facilities like mine are showing up, people are realizing there are alternatives to putting their dog in a cage in the back of the vet’s office.”
Like Brush, Holcombe did a few tours of duty in traditional kennels and believed he could do better. Where most facilities operate on a pay-to-play basis when it comes to recreation, baths and administration of medication, at Woodlands these services are built into the boarding package. Each dog in Holcombe’s care receives two walks a day in addition to four opportunities to luxuriate in their personal privacy-fenced pea gravel garden just through the French doors from their suite.
“My business model is built on being all-inclusive and providing the best care and nicest place for the animals to be,” Holcombe says.
This approach seems to have borne out as Holcombe says he maintains 70 percent occupancy year-round and is turning potential boarders away during the peak summer season. When he started having to say “no” to some of his most loyal customers, he decided an expansion was in order and recently grew his facility from 12 rooms to 27.
Brush acknowledges that many people choose accommodations based on what they can afford, and says it is on her industry to educate consumers that you get what you pay for. New clients to Brush’s facility are encouraged to come for a tour, and to bring their four-legged friend.
“It’s really important for them to see what kind of care they will receive, and for the dog to sniff around and check things out, and then they leave together,” she says.
The care they receive at Brush’s facility includes a private suite with the bedding of their choice, as many as six walks a day and multiple opportunities for play yard activities. This could mean a game of fetch with a staff member or a spirited romp with their fellow boarders, depending on their social skills. Pet parents receive text and picture messages throughout the stay.
Bo Stegall is banking on the fact that Greenville pet parents are in the market for next-level luxury for their four-legged loved ones. The proprietor of a number of successful Greenville salons and master of the customer experience, Stegall now has his eye on the pet resort business. His foray into the industry, The Noble Dog Hotel at Hampton Station, is slated to open in early 2017.
The idea for Noble Dog grew out of an ongoing conversation between Stegall and his business partner about creating the Canine Healing Project, a nonprofit focused on rescuing dogs from kill shelters, setting them up in the lap of luxury while they train to be therapy dogs and then adopting them out to community-minded individuals willing to facilitate their service projects.
Their search for local facilities to partner with didn’t turn up any that aligned with their vision, and The Noble Dog Hotel was born.
“I felt like there wasn’t a place for me to take my own dog. I interviewed a lot of places and never felt comfortable with what they had to offer,” Stegall says. “These are our babies. We want them to have just as much as, if not better than, we have.”
The 10,000-square-foot Noble Dog Hotel boasts accommodations Stegall claims rival those fit for humans — soundproof suites with therapeutic flooring, a state-of-the-art HVAC system, flat-screen TVs, twin beds, fitness center privileges and bedtime stories.
“We’re able to offer very similar rates with far different amenities,” Stegall says.
The Canine Healing Project will operate within The Noble Dog Hotel, taking in one to two rescue dogs at a time, and Stegall is energized by the relationships he has formed with rescue groups and shelters in the Upstate.
“These people don’t want to kill dogs. They’re excited to have someone like us to partner with,” he says. “We want to educate the community and general public and hopefully get more people rescuing dogs instead of buying designer breeds.”
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