Ex-NFL player Mitch Marrow takes on pet care with big expansion plans for his luxury doggy day care business.
NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- With the pet industry booming, there are a lot of ways to take advantage of the spending habits of pet owners, and so-called luxury dog day care centers are leading the trend. There is a huge market for these at times eccentric services.
The Spot Experience is separating itself from the pack. The New York City business offers daily care for dogs only and offers an outside area for dogs to run around, cage-free overnight boarding, grooming, behavioral training sessions and dog-walking services. There are also concierges who will schedule vet appointments for owners, pet hair dye jobs and even shuttle services to get the dog from the home to the day care center. There are a lot of ways to take advantage of the spending habits of pet owners, and so-called luxury dog day care centers are at the top of the list.
Ex-NFL player Mitch Marrow opened Spot a year ago, inspired by his own difficulties finding reliable care for his two large dogs (a St. Bernard and a Bullmastiff). Marrow's days in the NFL were short after being drafted to the Carolina Panthers. He left just a year later in 1999 after a serious back injury and became a hedge fund manager, but his long workdays and frequent travel and left his two dogs under-attended.
"I lived in New York City. I'm working 13 to 14 hours a day. I was dying to find a place to bring these dogs to let them socialize with peace of mind when I leave them. I went to an array of dog day care places. I could not comfortably leave my dogs with them," says Marrow, who now lives in Westchester with his wife and children.
"There was no training -- mostly minimum-wage employees hired to stand in a room with sometimes 30 to 40 dogs. The dogs jockey for alpha position, they start to fight, they're scared and stressed and people picked them up at the end of the day and the dog is tired," but not for a good reason, Marrow says.
Marrow believed he could do it better. Using his experience and contacts in the hedge fund world, Marrow, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, was able to cull a group of willing investors and trusted business advisers.
In just one year, Marrow has opened four locations in Manhattan (the first two were dog day care centers he acquired) and a facility at Newark Airport, as well as Spot Country, a long-term boarding facility in upstate New York. Marrow has plans to expand his business further, hiring up to 500 people.
New York is "one of the most dog-friendly cities in the world, and people want a top-tier safe environment for their pets when they can't be with them. It's very similar to the quest for schooling and day care in the city. The bar just keeps rising," Marrow says.
But spa treatments for their dogs?
Apparently so. The pet industry, especially high-end services, is one of today's hottest industries. According to the American Pet Products Associations, consumers are expected to have spent about $51 billion on their pets in 2011. The industry is expected to grow roughly 10% over the next five years, according to APPA figures cited by Spot.
Marrow's business plan is working. Spot has a list of celebrity clients that includes Mariah Carey, Glenn Close, Kelly Ripa and former New York Giants players Jim Finn and Todd Pollack, among a host of others.
Earlier this week, Spot announced it had entered into a strategic partnership with Bideawee, a pet adoption and pet welfare organization in the Metro New York area. Bidawee doesn't typically partner with for-profit companies, Marrow says, but the agreement allows for Spot to be included in the nonprofit's co-branded marketing materials, events and adoption packets.
"The industry is very hot and it's growing, and it's developed the high-end service of the business. But the safety and the professionalism is a very new thing," Marrow says.
K-9 Resorts Daycare & Luxury Hotel is also looking to expand its doggy day care business. The company was founded in 2005 by two brothers, Steven and Jason Parker, who had experience in the dog-walking and pet-sitting business in New Jersey but decided to combine those operations and expand in the quickly growing business of luxury dog day care. Last year they started to franchise their operations.
"Our eventual goal is to be the No. 1 name in pet care," co-owner Steven Parker says. "No. 1 for us doesn't mean No. 1 in terms of units. No. 1 for Jason and I is No. 1 in quality."
Spot's Marrow is similarly passionate when he speaks of the extensive training his employees get. He feels this is one reason why the business is set apart from its competitors. "We put people through 50 hours of intensive training prior to ever even interacting with the dogs," he says.
Spot dog trainers are certified and specialize in obedience and behavioral training, and the company has recruited a group of professional groomers, many who have worked with champion dogs, as well as those doggy concierges to help with round-trip transportation, scheduling vet appointments, in-home care and setting up play dates.
"It is the safest atmosphere out there as far as vet incidents and other issues. The dogs are totally stress free, safe and calm, and that's what allows them to have a good time," he says.
It also means owners become happily paying customers, although -- not surprisingly -- it's not cheap. Customers pay a $200 annual membership and an additional $40 for daily care ($50 for nonmembers). Or they can pay a $675 member monthly fee for unlimited day care. The company says the prices are on par with competitors.
Marrow is aware that to make the business sustainable, the business plan must be supported by strong back-end systems.
Spot has implemented technology that documents "each and every interaction" with a dog, he says, including when they are dropped off and picked up, if they are given medications and special dietary needs. "Having that back end is what now allows us to scale and open up the 25 to 30 facilities that we have in our game plan," Marrow says.
-- Written by Laurie Kulikowski in New York.
To contact Laurie Kulikowski, send an email to: Laurie.Kulikowski@thestreet.com.
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