The Ritz of Doggie Day Care


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This past winter, just days before Ray Goshorn and his wife were leaving for a trip to Cancún, Mexico, their beloved bichon frise, Frosty, had surgery that required serious post-operative care. That put the Aurora (Colo.) couple in a bind: Who would watch their 9-year-old pooch and give him the proper love and medical attention while they were on vacation?

Goshorn turned to Camp Bow Wow, a Denver doggie day-care company. With a veterinary technician on site, the outfit tended to Frosty's needs -- changing bandages, giving medicine, taking him in for checkups. "When we picked him up, he was running around with all the puppies," Goshorn says. "It was an incredibly comforting feeling to know that Frosty was O.K. while we were away, especially in that kind of emergency situation."

Camp Bow Wow, the nation's only franchised doggie day-care center, is much like a children's nursery where working parents drop off their tots. Pet owners leave their canines during the day or check them in for overnight stays. In climate-controlled facilities, they romp with toys, run on exercise machines, and swim in "paw pools." Overnight campers are given their own beds to curl up on, rather than kennel-style cages. "I wanted to have a comprehensive, safe, fun, place for dogs," says Heidi Flammang, Camp Bow Wow's founder and CEO.

DOGGED DREAMER. For most owners, dogs have long been considered part of the family. But families today are spending more and more money keeping Fido happy, as an increasing number of goods and services become available for those on four legs: Pet therapists, designer doggie shampoo, and aromatherapy products, to name a few. Indeed, this penchant for pampering now feeds a $34 billion industry, up from just $17 billion in 1994, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Assn.

"There are two groups that are feeding this," says Bob Vetere, the APPM's chief operating officer and co-managing director. "The baby boomers and young professionals who are delaying marriage or having families. And they're turning to their pets as companions. They have more disposable income that they're putting into the marketplace, which has ramped up the total spending."

About 10 years ago, Flammang and her husband Bion channeled their love of dogs into a business plan for Camp Bow Wow. But when Bion was killed in a plane crash in 1994, Flammang, then a pharmaceutical sales rep, put her dreams on hold. She briefly switched careers, and in 1996 she became a certified financial planner. But her original dream kept nagging at her. "I'm an entrepreneur, and it was really my passion," she says.

CHECK UP ON YOUR PUP. In 2000 she decided to move forward and plowed her savings of $100,000 into Camp Bow Wow. She took care of the marketing and enlisted her brother, Patrick Haight, to handle operations. In order to entice her target upscale clients, she went to dog parks with buckets of milk bones and talked to people walking their pooches. She also tapped into her experience in pharmaceutical sales by networking with area veterinarians for referrals.

The first site was located in an old Denver war veterans' hall. Immediately, clients began dropping off their dogs to be cared for. The venture proved so successful that within six months, Flammang expanded the operation to include overnight boarding. A year later she opened a second location near Boulder. The idea caught on.

With the success came copycats, but Flammang distinguished her business from the start by providing an expanded menu of services. Unlike many facilities, Camp Bow Wow will care for older, sickly pets as well as puppies. Other features include on-site vaccinations and grooming care. And the strategically placed Webcams that ensure owners can check in on their "babies" anytime, from anywhere in the world, have become a hit. Prices run between $20 and $25 per day session and between $30 and $35 for overnight boarding.

OVERSEAS INTEREST. Flammang's original plan was to establish just three or four centers in the Denver area. Then, in November, 2002, a regular client who happened to be a sales representative for Mrs. Fields Cookies suggested franchising, and the idea clicked. "For me, franchising took the best parts of my personality," Flammang says. "I got people excited about building a concept, and I could get more of these places up and running while growing a system."

Flammang sold her first franchise in August, 2003. Today Camp Bow Wow has 11 locations. By the end of 2005, Flammang plans to have 75 sites, from Florida to Indiana. In two years, she predicts, the count will be 150 centers across the country. "We're on target," she says.

The concept has drawn lots of interest, with inquiries coming from as far as Germany. Franchisees pay an initial fee of $30,000 for a license and an additional $125,000 to $300,000 in capital costs, such as real estate and renovations. In addition, franchisees pay a typical 6% royalty fee on gross sales and 1% toward advertising.

Flammang says her goal is for each franchise to make between $750,000 and $2 million in revenue annually, depending on size and location. In turn, they get the kind of support and training that will allow each unit to succeed using the company's proven system as well as its brand name.

LOOKING FORWARD. Wendy Caldwell opened one of Camp Bow Wow's first franchises in Broomfield, Colo., in October, 2003. Laid off from her account-supervisor job with Weyerhaeuser (WY), she decided it was time to make a change. And as a dog lover, she figured Camp Bow Wow was a natural fit. "In five months we were bursting at the seams," she says. "We were getting 40 to 45 dogs a day." So the following November she opened a second location in nearby North Glen. Caldwell says each shop is on target to make $500,000 in sales this year.

In fact, business is going so well that in March, Caldwell decided to sell her franchise and move to her native Calgary, where she'll head Camp Bow Wow's Canadian operations. She expects to open at least 15 franchises in the next two years. "I think there's really a need for a place for dogs to have fun instead of being left alone," she says. "Owners are more concerned with their dogs' mental and social welfare. And this is a much better alternative then leaving them in a cage."

Now, Flammang is readying the business for phase two. In May she'll open the first of a planned series of retail kiosks in malls, beginning in Durham, N.C., that will sell branded logo T-shirts and dog accessories. At the same time she'll open Camp Bow Wow Barkeries at the kiosk sites, offering doggie treats. A dog's life indeed. By Stacy Perman in New York


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