Is Crate-Free Boarding Right for Your Business?
By Ashley Caywood
As the pet boarding industry has evolved, crate-free options have become increasingly popular for overnight care. Rather than the traditional suites or enclosures, crate-free boarding allows for a more “like home” experience—usually, dogs sleeping together, often in a cozy environment that has been curated to feel like a room that might be in their homes. Invoking thoughts of puppies snuggled up together on a couch, being doted on by an overnight supervisor, it’s easy to see why this option might be an attractive one to pet parents.
If you’re considering adding crate-free boarding to your portfolio of services, you should ask yourself these five questions before committing.
1. Are your clients interested?
Before you consider adding any new service, it’s critical that you understand whether it’s a service your clients value. If your business is established, you may already have the answer to this question, because perhaps they’ve already been asking you for it! But, maybe they don’t know to ask for it. In that case, how do you figure it out?
Take a look at who your best clients and biggest fans are. Is your clientele largely made up of people who use boarding in an infrequent, more traditional way? If so, it’s possible that they prefer the privacy and familiarity of traditional boarding enclosures.
Alternatively, is your client base made up of people who value high-touch services like daycare and customizable service add-ons? If so, they may be open to one more option to tailor their dog’s vacation precisely to his or her needs.
Once you have a sense that this might be an attractive offering for your client base, talk to some of them! Ask them what they think, if they’d use a service like this for their pups and even how much they’d be willing to pay.
And don’t forget to look more broadly at the people who aren’t yet your clients. Adding a new service should be more than an opportunity to upsell your current clients—it should bring in new business for your facility. Do a little research; the last thing you want to do is invest in a service that doesn’t resonate with your clients.
2. How will you price this service?
A huge part of making the decision to add a new service should be understanding the bottom-line impact it will have on your business. Pricing is a critical decision that helps drive the success of a new service—and also the profitability that enables you to offer it.
A few factors to take into consideration when thinking about pricing:
What is this service worth to your clients? Will they see it as a premium service that they’re willing to pay more for? If so, charge more!
How does this service change your expense model? Does it increase labor? Are you adding incremental capacity by offering this new service? What additional supplies and maintenance will it require?
How does this impact the value of adjacent services? For example, if your traditional overnights were not previously supervised, but you’re adding overnight staff to support crate-free boarding, will your clients pay more for all overnights now that there’s someone in the building 24/7?
What is your profit margin? Given all of the revenue and expense implications, where do you need to price to meet your margin goals?
3. Do you have the space?
Once you’ve decided to offer crate-free boarding, it follows that you need to find the space in your facility to do it. But how much space do you need? And what is the ideal layout?
The first order of business is to find a space that is large enough to allow for the number of dogs per night you’re projecting. You want to be sure there’s plenty of space for each dog to relax in their own quiet space, if that’s what they prefer.
Then, think through how you plan to make the room comfy for the pups while they’re sleeping over. How will you handle meals and separating the dogs to eat and/or medicate? You will likely need to add incremental space to account for these operational necessities.
We have about 1,000 sq. ft. for an average of 5-7 dogs per night in our crate-free room. This is relative to the 58 enclosures we have available for overnights in our private suites. Our crate-free space is set up much like a living room; a comfy couch, cots for the dogs, and plenty of space leftover to comfortably accommodate their beds and blankets from home. Just as we do with our play spaces, we make sure our sleepover room is fully puppy-proofed.
You may have more or less space to dedicate to your new offering. So be sure to take the time to understand whether dedicating it to crate-free boarding is going to give you the best return on your square footage.
4. Are your overnights supervised?
This is one of the critical differences when it comes to offering crate-free sleepovers. Groups of dogs must be supervised and, if your overnights are not already supervised, this may change your labor model significantly.
When we opened, we always planned to have supervised overnights, regardless of whether we had dogs in our crate-free room or not. So, it was easy for us to make the decision to add crate-free boarding to our service offerings. However, if you’re used to boarding with traditional, secure enclosures and no overnight supervision, you’ll definitely need to do the math to determine whether this additional service could supplement the cost of introducing overnight staff.
5. What are the criteria?
You likely already have an evaluation process in place for dogs entering your group play programs. Crate-free sleepovers are no different. In fact, in most cases, they require an even more stringent evaluation process.
Think about it; in group play, you likely offer more than one group, so you can divide your pups by size, temperament, play style, etc. But when it comes to sleepovers, you may not have the space to offer this kind of separation overnight—or the payroll to ensure the supervision of more than one group of dogs. Because of this, you should determine what your ideal crate-free boarding group looks like, and the criteria you’ll need to evaluate whether a dog is a good candidate or not.
At our facility, a dog must first pass our temperament evaluation in order to join our overall program. Then, if a parent expresses interest in a crate-free sleepover, we let them know that there’s a secondary evaluation process that their dog must go through in order to be considered.
It’s important that our team have the opportunity to really get to know the dog and see them in a variety of situations with a variety of dogs. Because of this, we require that each dog be a client of ours regularly (2-3 times per week), for at least three months, before we determine whether crate-free sleepovers are the right fit for that dog.
We’re looking for dogs who are good with all other dogs. They must have the ability to rest in the presence of other dogs, be adept at reading other dogs’ cues, show no signs of resource guarding and, of course, have no history of incidents with people or other dogs.
Even then, the management team may decide, for whatever reason, that crate-free is not the right fit for a dog. This evaluation is as much art as it is science, and we take our responsibility to keep all of our dogs safe seriously—no matter which of our services they’re utilizing.
Crate-free boarding has the potential to set you apart from your competition, provide a new, unique way to connect with your furry clients and create an incremental revenue stream. But like any service, it’s critical that you take the time to evaluate whether it’s right for your market, your business and your team.
Ashley Caywood is managing partner at Zolvy.com, empowering pet care entrepreneurs to take control of their business so they can continue to pursue their passion. Zolvy provides targeted solutions for the behind-the-scenes challenges facing business owners every day. In addition to her work with Zolvy, Ashley is founder and co-owner of Roscoe’s Bed + Bark in Portland, ME, the city’s first 24/7 supervised dog daycare, growing it to seven figure revenues in less than three years. Ashley holds an MBA in Entrepreneurship from Boston University.