Hospitality with a heart


A see-through philosophy and facility give rise to happy, informed clients at this Mobile, Ala., practice.

About once a week, a client interrupts Dr. John C. Courtney during an exam and asks to step into the hall to greet a friend he or she saw waiting in the reception area. Thanks to an abundance of glass everywhere in the practice, including between the exam rooms and reception area, socializing is easier than ever at Bit & Spur Animal Hospital in Mobile, Ala. And Dr. Courtney couldn't be happier.

"I wanted to create an environment where clients didn't feel like they were locked in some clinical room," he says. "I envisioned the place being more of a social hour. Sometimes I have to drag clients into the exam room because they're having so much fun in the reception area. And even that doesn't stop them from chatting when they see someone they know."

Floor Plan: Bit & Spur Animal Hospital

With a facility he describes as "transparent" and a life philosophy to match, Dr. Courtney enjoys coming to work each day at his 10,756-square-foot country club. Complete with a kids' nook, educational area, pet adoption center, bright colors, and comfy seating, Bit & Spur Animal Hospital is more than a culmination of years of work and planning. It's also a 2010 Veterinary Economics Hospital Design Competition Merit Award winner.


Two years after building his first practice, Dr. Courtney found himself in a pleasant predicament. He had outgrown his new digs. After moving all offices and the employee break room into a leasehold space next door, he managed to cobble together more clinical workspace to buy time until he could build again. "At that time, the economy was great and I jumped in with both feet," he says.

Little did he know the economy would tank partway through his latest endeavor to grow his facility from 3,500 square feet to nearly 11,000. Under new financing standards, Dr. Courtney wouldn't be eligible for the same loan today, and he's still trying to figure out permanent financing.

"We're doing OK, but not nearly as well as we'd hoped when we started the building process," he says. "The first time I built we doubled our revenue the first year, then again the second year, but that's not the case in today's economy." But Bit & Spur is surviving, and Dr. Courtney is anticipating the day when it will once again thrive. "I'm glad I built, but sometimes I wish I'd waited a bit longer," he says.


Just as Dr. Courtney is transparent in discussing his economic challenges, he feels that his practice should be open to clients. At Bit & Spur Animal Hospital, clients can sneak a peek just about anywhere they want—including into the treatment area from exam rooms. "We want clients to see everything that goes on behind the scenes, to show that we have nothing to hide," Dr. Courtney says. "I want them to see people running in 50 different directions beyond the exam rooms, so they know that we're not just taking a coffee break while they wait."

Not surprisingly, clients love being able to watch the action. And once given free rein to peek, some take it a step further and ask to accompany doctors to the treatment area. Of course, the doctors acquiesce. "Yes, we're on display, but that's part of selling what we do," he says.

As Dr. Courtney puts it, when people leave Walmart or Lowe's, they often come out happy, excited to go home and play with a new "toy." Visiting a veterinary practice generally doesn't elicit the same feelings. So it's his job to make the facility as fun and comfortable as possible, he says. So he chose bright, bold colors, whimsical designs, and open spaces to minimize the clinical feel.

The new facility also features a clean layout with no vital function more than a few steps away from the central treatment hub. "Where else can a patient be seen by a doctor 20 to 30 times a day, each time he walks by the ICU area?" Dr. Courtney asks. "We offer more visibility than a human patient receives."

Financial issues notwithstanding, Dr. Courtney loves the end result. And, he says, building would have been a much more difficult affair had he not studied up as much as possible beforehand.

A look at the numbers

"I've attended the Veterinary Economics Hospital Design Conference twice, once before each time I built," he says. "Sitting in on the lectures and talking with others in the know gave me a grasp on the enormous job I was coming up against. I still made plenty of mistakes, but it was a lot better than if I hadn't taken time to listen, and to learn from the mistakes of others."

Sarah A. Moser is a freelance writer and editor in Lenexa, Kan. Please send questions or comments to

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