Does your veterinary clinic need boarding?

2019-11-06
Jessica Finnegan

A boarding business run right can make your veterinary hospital the one-stop shop of pet services in your area. In a time of increasing competition for community clients, its time to revisit this chance to snag happy clients.

bulentevren/stock.adobe.comWhat could possibly motivate an established veterinarian with an active and respected presence in the community to add hospitality services to their practice? Most veterinarians consider services like boarding, daycare, grooming and dog training to be nothing but a headache in hospitals. Boarding dogs and cats outside the occasional medical boarding after surgery is considered dirty, smelly, unprofessional and an eyesore. And don't forget the stress of staffing those areas with unqualified, industry-uneducated people considered to be untrainable and a stain on their reputation as the veterinarian of choice. Sound familiar?

Well, as I tell my clients, “If you're not changing, you're dying.”

New problems demand new solutions

I know we're talking about boarding and ancillary services, but let's start with the business elephant in the room: your dwindling pharmacy business. Some practitioners are seeing prescription medication and other products accounting for about 25% of total revenue, which is down 5% to 7% from just a few years ago-and it's only getting worse. This industry is slowly being squeezed by other businesses looking to take a piece of your hospital's revenue pie.

The only way to win this battle is to ask yourself: What makes you better, faster and different from the competition? What can your veterinary hospital do that cannot be easily stolen out from under you? What's your “golden nugget”? At a time when your clients are still loyal and trust you, leverage that now. Your success depends on your willingness to be disrupted.

Pet grooming and boarding is hot. “The pet grooming and boarding industry has nearly doubled over the past decade,” reads one market research report. “Demand for pet grooming, boarding, training and daycare is at an all-time high due to rising pet ownership, improved disposable income and changing consumer preferences regarding pet care.”

As we watch veterinary hospital revenue drop, we're referring clients out to drop thousands of dollars annually on daycare, grooming, boarding and training programs in our communities that could find a home in or near our hospitals. Let's stop the insanity and look at how we can view these services differently. Let's consider:

Trust and loyalty. The secret power of the veterinarian is loyalty and trust with pet owners. Lean on those relationship values to create the buy-in needed for your new business.

You're the expert. Every day I get calls at my consulting group from people looking to start pet businesses. Many have never worked in pet services. When asked, “Why the pet industry?” the response is often the same: They love their dog (or cat), their veterinarian doesn't offer the service, and there are no reputable ones in town. Leverage your own education, talent and experience to provide these services using your reputation as your marketing strategy.

Cost-effective real estate. Many veterinary hospitals have unused real estate that could offer space for immediate new business. Once the business takes off (and it will), you could look for expansion.

Low overhead/high returns. As an advisory board member for the International Boarding and Pet Service Association, I see our annual surveys on pricing, revenue and expenses. It's not surprising how different they are from the veterinary profit-and-loss statement. With added resort services, I think you could see a 38% to 43% EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) vs. 21% to 25%.

One-stop shop. Today's consumer is looking for convenience and affordability. Leverage the needs of your client and offer the services they're looking for (and willing to pay for) under one roof: resort needs, medical needs and pharmacy needs.

Ready to think about it?

If I've convinced you to think about this, consider these few things first:

Ask clients what services are important to them. Survey pet owners to find out where they're looking for in a boarding, grooming or doggie daycare facility. The point is to get you talking to your clients. Ask three questions:

  • What do you love about your current pet service provider?

  • What do you dislike about what that provider offers?

  • What would you like to see changed at that pet service provider if you had the power to do so?

Talk to your veterinary team. Staff buy-in is important. Create excitement. Their support will help in developing processes for the business, in marketing the new services and even construction. The key to creating buy-in is to answer the question, “What's in it for me?” Added services for the facility could mean discounts on those services for the staff. Keep key people in the loop from the beginning and form a small internal “board” of leaders within the facility to give input on facility design, toy choices, equipment purchases and so on. They'll get excited and then help create excitement in the community, becoming staff recruiters and client builders.

Plan this right. Timing is everything. Hospitality and resorts are seasonal. Planning for the right moment is key! The highs and lows in demand are drastic. Think of the best time for you and your family to travel or vacation and that will give you a peek into peak times for your resort business. You'll also see peaks during unscheduled moments, like rainy or heavy snow days. Clients feel guilty on those days when they can't take their dog on its daily walk or hike, so day care services can see spikes in demand. These ancillary services are sometimes impulse- and emotion-driven buying decisions.

Plan your grand opening at least a month before a guaranteed holiday season-for example, a middle of October opening before the Thanksgiving through New Year's rush. This has two benefits: a soft opening in October helps you adjust and correct any kinks, and clients typically book at least one month out from large holidays. Waiting to open till right before a holiday is too late to capture clients preparing to travel.

Change is inevitable, and veterinary practice revenue is slowly being eaten away by online and big-box competition. But I say there's no better time to embrace the opportunities you have in bridging the gap between the veterinary and pet hospitality worlds.

Jessica Finnegan is CEO/Founder of Trinity Tower Consulting, a consulting company for veterinary practices and pet hospitality resorts. Finnegan has worked in all sectors of the pet industry-as a manager of a general practice to a regional director of veterinary specialty and general practice hospitals to director to one of the nation's largest hybrid veterinary/resort hospitality facilities.