Economic Development and Technology and Small Business

Pet website enables owners to book kennels

April 23, 2011

A south-side Indianapolis entrepreneur is embarking on an online venture that could make it a lot simpler to book Fido’s next kennel reservation.

Chris Tilson, 29, unveiled petbookings.com to area kennels in May last year, and after a trial run is launching a national campaign to attract scores of others from across the country.

Booking hotel and airline reservations on travel websites has become big business. So why not apply the concept to pets while their owners are vacationing? Tilson reasoned.

“I felt it was an obvious move for the kennel industry,” he said. People are “going online to book all their other travel plans, so this seems like a natural process.”

Tilson should know. He oversees daily operations of Arbor Lane Kennel at 4835 E. Edgewood Ave., where his mother, Kathleen, started the family business as a child on her parents’ farm in 1963.

He graduated from Purdue University in 2005 with a degree in organizational leadership and business to help prepare him to join Arbor Lane Kennel.

During his transition toward ownership, Tilson implemented a paperless central management system to track reservations and customer information.

Later, in September 2009, he began tinkering with the idea of an online reservation system for pets. That most kennels are operated by mom-and-pop outfits lacking the resources to employ such an arrangement gave Tilson confidence that his concept might have merit.

To design petbookings.com, he sought out Canada-based HBCWeb.com, which specializes in travel-type websites and is owned by Priceline.com, a site for arranging hotels, flights and other travel needs. Development took about 18 months and an investment of roughly $35,000 of his own money.

Tilson introduced his site to 11 area kennels, including B&S Boarding and Grooming Kennels in Avon. Kyle McInnes, who purchased the business with his wife nearly four years ago, said he’s pleased with petbookings.com.

About a quarter of his clientele—mostly younger pet owners—chooses the online reservation service over the more traditional phone call, or even e-mail, McInnes said.

“Believe it or not, it is something that this industry needed, in the sense that we’re all mom-and-pop shops,” he said. “Technology isn’t always friendly to us.”

Indeed, petbookings.com is proving demand for the service. The site recently surpassed $100,000 in reservations, Tilson said.

With the bugs seemingly worked out, he’s sent letters to 630 kennels across the country hoping they’ll embrace it. Tilson has received interest from a kennel in Manhattan and another in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The challenge, however, is generating revenue. He isn’t charging kennels for the service. Rather, he hopes to attract advertising, which could be made easier if the service gets listed on a major travel website such as Expedia, Orbitz or Travelocity.

“I’m dealing with a bunch of small businesses,” Tilson said. “Rather than nickel and diming them for every reservation booked, I don’t want them to have to worry about costs.”

He hoped to build participation in his site through the Colorado-based Pet Care Services Association, which distributed a services listing to every kennel in the country, but economic hardships recently forced the organization to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

A major upside to petbookings.com is that it seems to have little, if any, competition.

It works by pet owners’ entering the city where they want to make the reservation, and then “check in” and “check out” dates and the number of rooms needed. Owners can follow up with kennels advertising vacancies.

Included in the listings are boarding rates, operating hours, amenities and customer reviews.

Providing as much data as possible is key to making the site work, said Dr. John Swengel, who owns the south-side Swengel Animal Hospital and is familiar with Arbor Lane Kennel.

“People today who really care about their pets want to know the condition of the facility will be up to their expectations,” Swengel said. “As long as they can put that out on their website, I see no reason why it wouldn’t work.”

A portal on participating kennels’ websites also enables owners to make a reservation without visiting petbookings.com.•

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