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Business Observer Friday, May 22, 2015 7 years ago

Pampered pooches

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High-end pet resorts on the Gulf Coast aren't begging for business.
by: Beth Luberecki Contributing Writer

Executive Summary
Company. Bayside Pet Resort & Spa in Sarasota Industry. Pet care Key. Growth opportunities abound in this sector.


Robert Huff's workdays typically go to the dogs.

But that's just how he likes it. As he walks around his Bayside Pet Resort & Spa in Sarasota, he greets the canine guests he encounters, giving a quick pet or friendly hello. He calls the regulars by name and delights in seeing pups big and small bounding around the facility's outdoor play areas.

“This business is built on the love people have for their pet family members,” he says. “It's just fun to do.”

It was Huff's own love for his Australian labradoodle Bella that led him into the pet-resort business. After he sold his $70 million Ohio nursing-home company to his children and he moved to Sarasota County with his wife, Huff wasn't ready for retirement.

The lifelong hard worker wanted a new endeavor, and incorporating his fondness for animals proved a good fit. “I wanted to develop a resort where I could bring Bella,” he says. “I want the dogs to play and enjoy the day, and I want the tail wagging coming and going. That's sort of my philosophy.”

It's one customers seem to appreciate, based on the industry's growth.

The American Pet Products Association, for example, projects around $60.59 billion will be spent in 2015 on pets in the United States, with $5.24 billion going toward pet services like grooming and boarding. That's up from the $58.04 billion spent in 2014, with $4.84 billion on pet services.

According to the APPA's 2015-2016 National Pet Owners Survey, there are 79.7 million pet-owning households in the country, a 50% gain over the past two decades. Almost 8 million people became new pet owners within the last year, many of whom are members of Generation Y — a demographic that tends to spend more on their pets.

“We've definitely seen a change in how humans perceive their pets,” says Carmen Rustenbeck, director of the International Boarding & Pet Services Association. “It's gone from the idea of we own the pets to now we're pet parents. People dress their pets, do birthday parties for them, call them their kids. They do a lot that humanizes them.”

'Steady growth'
Bayside Pet Resort & Spa opened in June 2012 in the former Rip Van Winkle Lanes bowling alley near Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, offering overnight pet boarding along with daycare and grooming services. A second site in University Park with spa and daycare services followed the initial location. A third location, boasting full resort services, is currently under construction in south Sarasota County and scheduled to open in December 2015.

“We've seen steady growth in our business,” says Huff. “It keeps going up, up, up.”

The number of pet overnight stays, for example, grew 24% from 2013 to 2014. Daycare visits saw a similar level of growth in 2014, while the grooming side of the business increased 31%.

And new customers keep coming in the door. In April 2015, Bayside received some 200 inquiries from potential customers, a typical monthly pattern. Spa inquiries almost always lead to new business, says Huff, while conversion rates for daycare and resort inquiries range from 60% to 80% throughout the year.

“The more customers you have, the more revenue you have,” says Huff. “But we invest a lot of that revenue back into the business. You have to constantly be reinvesting with capital improvements and that type of thing. You have to maintain your property to the high standards that you would want for your own pet.”

The luxury approach Huff took to pet boarding helps set him apart from the competition and appeal to customers who enjoy pampering their pets. At the original location, glass-enclosed suites ($28-$49 a night) come in a variety of sizes and feature elevated beds and, in some cases, individual TVs and online “doggie cams.”

There are indoor playrooms and three acres of outdoor space that includes an agility course, grassy zones for one-on-one walks and Astroturf-surfaced play areas for small and large dogs. Cats get their own section with “condominiums,” scratching posts and an aquarium. Everything is new, modern and stylish. It's like a boutique hotel, but one designed for four-legged guests instead of humans.

“Sarasota is a city that certainly is very sophisticated, so we've taken a slightly different approach,” says Huff. “Life is being lived to the fullest by a lot of people in Sarasota, and part of their life is their pet. Other places just don't have what I want for my dog, and what I want for my dog is a lot of fun when I'm not there.”

Creature comforts
Several other pet spa businesses on the Gulf Coast have launched or grown in recent years. It's somewhat a game of one-upmanship. Offerings include everything from acupuncture and massage therapy to plush bedding to swimming pools and fancy treats. “It's really come to the point where now we're spoiling our pets,” says Rustenbeck. “You're only limited by your imagination as to what you can bring to the table.”

Another example: Locations of national franchise chain Camp Bow Wow boast rustic campground-style decor. Overnight boarders stay in “cabins,” not kennels, and get plenty of opportunities to socialize with other dogs.

“A lot of our clients have adopted pets, and they're educated about the fact that dogs not only need love but also a well-balanced life,” says Bill Starck, owner of Camp Bow Wow Sarasota. “They're willing to spend the money to give them the best.”

The Sarasota location of the franchise opened in May 2009 and has grown each year it's been in business, from 24 dogs per day to now an average of 76 per day. During the holidays, says Starck, the facility hit its maximum of 105 per day.

Nationally Camp Bow Wow has almost 130 locations with at least 100 new franchises scheduled to open in the next three years. The company has locations in Tampa, Sarasota, Port Charlotte and Naples but still has 54 available territories in Florida. “There is still such a great need for services like what we offer,” says Renuka Salinger, Camp Bow Wow's vice president of development. “The markets in the U.S. are nowhere near saturation yet.”

One challenge Camp Bow Wow faces nationwide is securing sites. “We really have to make a big impression as we reach out to landlords and local zoning boards to explain what we do,” says Salinger. “We have to really allay fears that we are not noisy or smelly and won't reduce property values.”

A pet's paradise
Huff displays puppy-like enthusiasm when talking about Bayside Pet Resort & Spa's upcoming expansion in Sarasota. “I think I'm getting a jump on a niche market, and I see us being very successful in Osprey,” he says.

That $4 million, 14,600-square-foot project will transform an abandoned trailer park on U.S. 41 into a state-of-the-art facility featuring high-end suites and a doggie water park complete with a bone-shaped pool and palm-tree fountain. Building from the ground up means the site can be designed for maximum functionality and ease of use, an advantage over the company's bowling-alley retrofit of its first location.

“It was very challenging for us to come in and reconfigure that whole building into a pet resort, and pretty expensive,” says Huff of the project, which cost $5 million. “Building from scratch is a lot easier.”

The company currently has about 50 employees and expects to add 15 to 20 more when the Osprey location opens. Huff is always on the lookout for good hires, especially since he's been known to cause turnover himself.

“We have a lot of younger kids working here,” he says. “And young people need to go to school. I encourage them to go; I don't want them here forever. I encourage them to leave so we can bring other people in and train them. That's really important to me.”

Maintenance is a vital component of the business, whose furry customers are just naturally rougher on things than their human counterparts might be. “Things do get a lot of wear and tear,” says Huff. “But we're organized from the standpoint of preventative maintenance. Maintenance and upkeep are the No. 1 things we have to do in order to maintain the facilities.”
Kennels and the backyard are cleaned daily, drains are cleaned weekly and every effort is made to ensure the facility looks and smells fresh. “We're open for tours any time a customer comes up to the desk,” says Huff. “We have to be customer ready at all times. That keeps you on your toes.”

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