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Create Connections: A Dog Festival Attracts Crowds of Thousands

Make use of a dog fest to get to know your local pet store and service providers.

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PATTIE BODEN HELD the first DogFest in 2013. The owner of Animal Connection in Charlottesville, VA, set up shop along with 12 rescue groups, veterinarians and trainers at a local dog park. More than 500 attendees played games with their pups and got to know their local pet store and service providers. By 2018, 45 vendors and more than 3,500 pet parents took part in the fun.

(Left) Pattie Boden

THE IDEA

Help Pet Parents Find Resources in Charlottesville

Boden says, “The community grew so quickly. We needed an event to introduce our business to new people moving in and to those who had been here for years but hadn’t gotten to know us.”

She sees DogFest as an extension of her customer service.

“I’ve always wanted my store to be the place where people could find out about dog trainers or holistic vets or animal communicators or other resources. That’s why I called it Animal Connection in the first place.”

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THE EXECUTION

Make a List, Then Mix It Up

In 2013, Boden began the planning process by inviting businesses and groups that complemented her store. In 2018, she even asked two friendly competitors to participate.

“We’re all a part of the holistic pet community,”she says. “We all compete with big-box and online stores. It’s good for us to join forces, to encourage people to shop local.”

Once vendors are set, Boden creates the festival layout. She starts with a Welcome Center at the entrance, where attendees can pick up a map and register for the popular costume contest. Next-door sit four Animal Connection booths, complete with an 18-foot sample bar that offers food, treats and more. Last year, reps from The Honest Kitchen, Primal, Whitebridge Pet Brands and Pet Food Experts also were on hand to answer questions.

She then alternates business and rescue group booths, creating a varied flow and helping to keep the adoptable dogs as calm as possible. Vendors pay a fee to help cover expenses, even the rescues at a reduced rate to ensure they show. Further incentive: A videographer interviews groups and produces a 60-second spot they can use for promotional purposes.

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Humans can dine at food trucks on-site and swing by Three Notch’d Brewery, located adjacent to the park, for a Big Dawg Blonde Ale brewed especially for the fest. In 2018, she also added a live band.

These pups and their tiki bar won top prize in the DogFest costume contest: a $500 gift card for Animal Connection.

THE RESULTS

Boost Awareness, Raise Funds

Boden says DogFest brings Animal Connection increased attention and sales.

“A lot of people who attended didn’t know about our store or were new to the area. Or they knew us as a store, but didn’t know about our services,” she says. “I don’t have exact numbers, but I have noticed far more new customers coming into our store.”

The fundraising aspect also helps Charlottesville’s pet community as a whole. Rescue groups held individual raffles at their booths, and for every pint of Big Dawg Ale served, the brewery donates $1 to Charlottesville Albemarle SPCA — it raised $2,000 in 2018.

Do It Yourself: 5 Steps to a Dog Fest

  • START SMALL. Throw a mini-fest in your parking lot or a nearby dog park as a test run to gauge interest. Have a rain plan!
  • PARTNER WITH MANUFACTURERS. Dozens of product companies provide samples for DogFest, and some plan to have their own booths in 2019.
  • PAY FOR SOCIAL MEDIA. Boden hires an agency to boost visibility for the fest and increase attendance.
  • HAVE MORE THAN ENOUGH HELP. Not only are Animal Connection employees scheduled to work, but friends and family get in on the fun. Outfit everyone in store shirts.
  • DRIVE POTENTIAL CUSTOMERS TO YOUR WEBSITE. Boden hires an event photo booth company. Attendees must go to animalconnectionva.com to see and download their pics.

Pamela Mitchell is the senior editor at PETS+. She works from her home office in Houston, TX, with Spot the senior Boston Terrier as her assistant.

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Best of the Best

A Day Care That Offers Dogs Hikes and Swims in the Ocean

It’s adventure time!

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CERTAIN DOGS DON’T do well in day care. Andrea Servadio, CEO and co-founder of Fitdog in Santa Monica, CA, explains: “They need more activity or different mental stimulation, or they get overwhelmed in larger play groups.”
Or all of the above. To give such pups the best possible care and a fun-filled outlet for their energy, Fitdog offers Adventure Classes.

THE IDEA

Fun-filled alternatives. Two types of classes are available: Canyon Hikes and Beach Excursions. Three hikes, 4 to 6 miles each, happen every weekday in the Santa Monica Mountains. Dogs get to explore the trail, stopping mid-hike for a break.
Fitdog offers one trip to Huntington Dog Beach every weekday.

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“The dogs who know how to swim go out into the ocean,” Servadio says. “The ones not fond of the water stay in the shallow end, digging and playing fetch.”

Pups come from seven neighborhoods with pickup and drop-off included in the cost. Hikes are $40, and beach trips are $49. Staff-to-dog ratio runs one to six.

THE EXECUTION

Coordination and expertise. Pet parents whose dogs have met behavioral requirements can book Adventure Classes through the Fitdog app. Reservations go to the Sports Coordinator, who groups dogs geographically and by activity level, then chooses appropriate trails.

A Sports Leader picks up the pups between 8 and 10 a.m. in a company van. Servadio uses the fleet-management system Samsara to create efficient routes and to maximize safety, the latter as it monitors driver speed and phone usage. The system also gives location information.

“We can update pet parents in real time, ‘The van is only 15 minutes away,’“ Servadio explains.

Once at the destination, dogs approved for off-leash fun are given that freedom. Otherwise they stay on leash with the Sports Leader or assistant. Drop-offs happen between 1 and 3 p.m., with notes and photos from the day arriving soon after.

Sports Leader Scott Korchinski gets ready to lead pups on a canyon hike.

THE RESULTS

Happier dogs, more bookings. Adventure Classes give pups the opportunity to expend both physical and mental energy, and to socialize with a small group of dogs in a fun setting.

“Once people start incorporating these types of activities into their dog’s schedule, they become addicted because their dogs are a lot happier,” Servadio says. “By doing something a little bit different, mixing up their routine, it makes time in day care a lot better.”

The classes have grown to 18 percent of the overall Fitdog revenue since being introduced in 2015. In addition to having a positive impact on day care bookings, they also lead to training referrals.

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“If a dog is pulling on a hike constantly or not responding to their name or reactive to other dogs on the trail, we recommend that the owner take some of our training classes. Approximately 25 percent of dogs in training classes were referred from Adventure Classes.”

Do It Yourself: 5 Steps to Adventure Classes

  • Survey dog-friendly recreational areas nearby and determine which are good fits for your business.
  • Draw up procedures, agreements and waivers that cover all aspects of travel and activities.
  • Purchase dog-friendly transportation and a fleet-management system.
  • Dedicate and train staff accordingly. Fitdog assistants spend two months with a leader and must pass a practical exam before they get promoted.
  • Create a supplies kit for classes that includes water bottles and a first aid kit, plus protective gear such as paw wax.

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Best of the Best

5 Steps to Create Your Own Locally Made Products Section

A section devoted to locally made products gives an edge over big-box stores.

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WHEN STOCKING THEIR shelves, many independent pet business owners give preference to products made in the U.S.A. Danielle Cunningham also looks closer to home for her store, Lewis & Bark’s Outpost in Red Lodge, MT. She seeks out manufacturers in the city and state for its “Made in Montana” section.

THE IDEA

Sell local. “There are no corporate stores in Red Lodge, only small businesses,” Cunningham says of brick-and-mortar retail options for the population of around 2,100. “We know everyone who owns a small business and their families.” Because of that, “We understand the importance of supporting locals.”

She added the “Made in Montana” section in 2018, a year after opening. It appeals to residents and tourists alike, the latter who stop in on their way to and from Yellowstone National Park. “They want to buy local, too, to have something to bring home.”

THE EXECUTION

Source big and small. Some manufacturers are an easy find, such as West Paw in Bozeman. “They’re our best-selling toys.”

Lewis Barks Outpost bowls

Others she discovers through the Montana Department of Commerce’s Made in Montana program, which certifies products made or grown in the state. Participating companies feature the appropriate logo on their packaging, and stores can hang signs in their windows.

“The stickers and signs go a long way. People today really like seeing where things are made, and they are paying more attention to sourcing.”

Cunningham also finds items through contacts in area agility groups and at veterinary clinics.

The “Made in Montana” section features a handpainted sign by local artist Lee Walker.

Edible products include freshly butchered beef bones from the Emmett family’s Stillwater Packing Company in Columbus, and Arlene Paul’s Just Meats Dog Treats in Reed Point. Paw butter and dry dog shampoo come from Jenny Travis’s

Ginger Red Naturals in Red Lodge. Fleece snuffle mats get made by Cristy Carpenter’s K9 Kreations in Fromberg. Bandanas come from Marcia Sullivan at So Sew Sullivans and Headwaters Studio Design and Screen Printing, both in Red Lodge.

THE RESULTS

Feel the love. Cunningham says that “Made in Montana” products make up about 5 percent of her overall sales. The goodwill she creates by selling them, though, has a much higher value, as residents of Red Lodge and neighboring communities frequent and recommend her store because of it.

“It all comes around, all of that love.”

Do It Yourself: 5 Steps to a ‘Made In’ Section

  • FIND LOCALLY MADE PRODUCTS. Look to area departments of commerce programs for leads and also manufacturer vetting. Cunningham says, “I’ve found a few on my own I thought were really cool, but they didn’t have a business license or quality control. I don’t want to ever make someone’s dog sick.”
  • BUY, DON’T CONSIGN. Consignment requires additional work. “I just buy everything and sell it.” Plus, “I have more freedom that way.”
  • START SMALL. Create a table display with a few products to see how they sell, with “Made in” signage. Scale accordingly, merchandising to suit as you grow the selection.
  • PERSONALIZE THE PRODUCTS. The “Made in Montana” section at Lewis & Bark’s also features a “Meet Your Makers” display with photos and bios.
  • PROMOTE IN-STORE AND ONLINE. Display any print and electronic “Made in” signs and stickers. Don’t have such a program in your area? Create your own logo to use.

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Best of the Best

This Store Gladly Accepts Wooden Nickels

Bucking the idiom, this store gladly takes wooden nickels.

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WOODEN NICKELS DATE back to at least the 1930s. Local banks used them during shortages of national currency. The Chicago World’s Fair introduced wooden nickels as souvenirs. And merchants have given them as tokens redeemable for specific products or cash value for merchandise. Lindsay and John Webb do the latter at Just for Paws, their grooming salon and boutique in St. Charles, IL.

THE IDEA

Create a better “coupon.” Lindsay says, “We wanted to give our customers a value, but we didn’t want to give it as a coupon that would be underused.”

They hit upon the idea of a wooden nickel with a $5 cash value for merchandise, no minimum purchase required. It appealed to the business owners on multiple levels.

“There’s the nostalgia factor, which goes along with our vibe,” she says of the boutique and salon’s rustic design and old-fashioned approach to customer service. “We felt that tapping into that nostalgia, creating an emotional connection, would get the customer excited to use the nickel.”

Lindsay and John thought the tokens would resonate with their customer base, those in their 40s and 50s who may remember when their use was more common, but also interest millennials who have never seen them before.

And they counted on eco-conscious shoppers of all ages to appreciate their reusability, which also provides savings to Just for Paws.

THE EXECUTION

Order online, mail to customers. The owners used NationalPen.com to print their logo on the front and “Same as Cash $5 Coin” on back. They ordered 500 wooden nickels in January at 20 cents each and began sending them to first-time grooming clients with a handwritten note. Lindsay also keeps a few on her.

“For when I’m out and about and meet a potential client,” she explains, adding that the token’s weight and shape makes much more of an impact than a business card with coupon.

Just for Paws has given out 125 wooden nickels in the grooming salon, and another 25 through various promotions. The cash value approach allows them to be used for anything, from pushing sales of a particular food to meeting a sales quota.

“Super-simple, creative and effective,” Lindsay says of the tokens, which employees track redemption of through 123Pet Software.

THE RESULTS

40 percent redemption rate. John reports that 60 wooden nickels were redeemed in the first three months.

“We don’t track them by specific promotion, but we can see when they are being used per transaction. So far, every sale has exceeded the $5 token amount. We have not had anyone use the $5 token without spending additional money in our boutique,” he says. “The sales in our boutique continue to climb month after month.”

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