Learning by Observation
Do your research and identify the best aspects of other projects or small businesses around you before proceeding. For example, I’m a runner. I know several runners who organize trail-racing events, so I volunteered to help out, which gave me a front-row seat from which I observed how these events are put together and carried off. I began to transfer what I learned at these events and what I saw at the dude ranch to a dog camp format. As I researched, I refined what I wanted—dogs off-leash throughout their time at camp; a focus on play, socialization and basic obedience rather than serious competition training; and an experience that was simple and fun. Then I did a gut check: Was I truly willing to invest time and money, perhaps over several years, to make this idea a reality? I imagined my first year, worst-case scenario: invest lots of “free” time, lose maybe $1,000, walk away and never do it again. I decided I could live with that, and proceeded.
What’s in a Name?
Choose a word or phrase that’s easily spoken and remembered and will also look good in a logo. Many camps have whimsical names: Camp Dogwood, Camp Unleashed, Camp Winnaribbun. I ended up combining the names of my own dogs for Maian Meadows Dog Camp. I hoped the name would convey the joy of dogs romping through a mountain meadow. When campers hear me calling my dogs, they have an “aha!” moment about the source of the camp’s name, which makes it memorable.
Location, Location, Location
Early on, I received some valuable advice: Choose a location within a two- to three-hour drive of a major city, because after investing that much time in getting to a destination, most people will stay several nights, which makes for less administrative work. (Many camps solve this problem by requiring a minimum stay.)
That may be easier said than done, however. Finding a resort that would allow my guests to stay with dogs off-leash throughout the grounds took perseverance—I swear I heard laughter in the background during some initial phone inquiries. But then I discovered that organizations such as Camp Fire, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and various church groups, who frequently sponsor camps (for two-legged campers) themselves, often seek rental income during those times when their camps are not in use. Eventually—again, through a web search—I found a Camp Fire facility in the woods on a lake roughly two hours from Seattle. They didn’t laugh at my idea, and in fact, bent over backward to ensure it worked so that I could rent their camp years into the future, thus providing them with a tidy and reliable bit of extra income.
This particular camp is rustic, sure, but that’s a large part of its charm, and allows us all to stop worrying about the dogs damaging things. It has a large building with kitchen, and an open-air dining hall where the dogs are allowed, which is one of the features guests love—they don’t have to leave their dogs in their cabins at mealtime.
I negotiated the terms of my rental agreement, which included lifting a restriction on alcohol; allowing at least the dogs to swim without a lifeguard; and, most importantly, a last-minute cancellation clause that got me off the hook if I didn’t get enough guests to cover the minimum per diem. Developing a good working relationship with the Camp Fire organization has been the backbone of my camp’s success. (If you’re not comfortable undertaking these negotiations yourself, seek the help of an attorney.)
Liability and Insurance
Though running a dog camp is in many ways a labor of love, there are still real-world business concerns to be taken into account. Do your homework, study the financial and legal risks, and seek advice from a CPA and/or business attorney as to the best business format for you and your goals. You can’t anticipate every problem, but you can minimize your exposure.