As the world began changing in rapid fashion in late March of this year, and shutdowns began to spread across the country like wildfire in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Robin and Joe Whitright were anxious to hear what their immediate future held.
Gov. Ned Lamont had begun ordering businesses to be closed so as to slow the spread of the disease, with only a certain few allowed to remain open — those deemed “essential.”
“We haven’t missed a day since opening in 2007,” explained Robin. “I just distinctly remember waiting and wondering, ‘Will we be deemed an essential business?’”
The Whitrights are the owners and operators of Paws Pet Resort & Spa, at 312 East Johnson Ave. in Cheshire, a popular pet boarding and grooming facility that caters to all manner of dogs, cats, and other domestic pets. For local animal owners heading out on a short business trip or long vacation, Paws is usually the first stop on the way to the airport.
“We take pet care very seriously,” said Robin. “We just didn’t know what the Governor (would say) about us being essential.”
Eventually, the word came down from the state: Pet care facilities, like Paws, would be allowed to remain open. The news came as a relief to Joe and Robin, but it also meant that changes had to be made immediately.
“Our business changed quite a bit,” said Joe. “We had to rethink everything.”
Robin explained that, in the first few weeks of the pandemic, there was little downtime for everyone at Paws. Several conference calls were scheduled with industry professionals, during which trends were discussed and adaptations were recommended.
The first big change came in the way in which pets would be dropped off and picked up at Paws. Under normal circumstances, pets are brought into the facility’s lobby by the owner and handed to a Paws staff member. However, because of the pandemic, Paws decided to go completely contactless.
Customers now are asked to take their pets into the vestibule, remove the leash when appropriate, and then leave the pet there. A staff member then enters the vestibule from the lobby and takes the pet back into the facility, avoiding all direct contact with the owner.
The process is similar for pickups, as, when the owner arrives, the pet is left in the vestibule by staff to be retrieved moments later.
“It’s a quick process because people really want to come and go,” said Joe.
“We wanted to go no hands-on so the customers feel safe and the staff feels safe,” said Robin. “We are doing everything over the phone (arranging for drop-offs, pick-ups, billing) and everyone is really getting it. They are really good with everything.”
A video was recorded showing exactly how the new drop-off and pick-up procedures work, and customers are encouraged to watch it on the Paws website before arriving at the facility.
“It’s been good, but we do miss the face-to-face interaction,’ Robin admitted.
Early on in the pandemic, there had been some concern that pets could help to spread the illness to humans, and both Robin and Joe admit that some customers were anxious about dropping off their pets. However, as time has passed and more has been learned about the illness, all signs point to pets not being spreaders of the illness.
“Dogs don’t carry (the virus) but we really have gone above and beyond,” explained Robin. “We are still wearing masks when we are around the dogs.”
While procedures have changed at Paws, so too has the way in which services are being utilized. Much of Paws business has traditionally come from those going away on a trip, whether business or otherwise, and when the pandemic hit, those trips stopped. With the world essentially shut down for much of April and May, local residents were staying home.
But while the boarding business was down, grooming services were in demand.
“Grooming (services) are busier than ever,” said Robin.
“With people in isolation, and not being able to see (family and friends), I think it strengthens the bonds between owners and pets. People naturally turn to them to fill the void,” she continued. “And they want to care for them.”
Paws also began to put more focus on a robust daycare program, as they found that, while travelers weren’t looking to board their pets for extended stays, many individuals working in essential services needed a place to care for their pets while they worked longer hours.
“We really pivoted our business to meet the changing (reality),” said Robin.
Paws has been able to keep their entire staff on, and in recent weeks they’ve seen an uptick in pets being boarded at the facility. Many families seem to be staying “closer to home,” Joe explained, looking for shorter vacations that can be reached by car.
And the Whitrights are hoping that, if the current positive trends continue in Connecticut and surrounding areas, people may be more inclined to take short trips all throughout the fall and even into the winter.
“Summer, for us, is usually the busiest time of the year, and we are doing OK,” said Robin. “A lot of (industry) experts expect people will continue to travel in September and October, perhaps more than normal. Then, around Thanksgiving and Christmas, maybe people will be able to travel to visit family and friends.”
But no matter what the near-term holds, Robin and Joe remain dedicated to offering local pet owners a safe place to drop their furry loved ones. Safety protocols will remain in place for the foreseeable future, Robin explained, while some upgrades are made to the facility, including the lobby.
“We will be here for people when they need us,” she said.
“When the pandemic started, it was our intention to come through this stronger than ever,” she continued. “We weren’t going to let it knock us down.”
For more information on Paws Pet Resort & Spa, visit https://www.pawspet.com/.