Quality, inventive design not only helps create a favourable first impression but keeps clients coming back, writes Kerryn Ramsey.
While clinical skills and knowledge are the foundations of a successful veterinary business, it is the design and look of the practice that invariably sticks in the minds of clients. You may be a consummate professional with exceptional surgical proficiency who is assisted by caring staff, but all that can be easily overshadowed by a badly designed practice. If the waiting room needs painting, the furniture is threadbare and there’s not enough seating, these are the things that clients will remember as they search for another vet.
It can be all too tempting to think that a coat of paint, a few Ikea chairs and some new posters will fix your image. However, if you really want to give your practice some impact, retain clients and express the professionalism of yourself and your staff, it can be worthwhile going the extra mile in regards to design.
When Dr Howard Smyth acquired an interest in the Rose Bay Vet Hospital in 2008, it had been running as a vet practice for years. At the time, the fit-out was for a purpose-built small animal practice. Dr Howard moved in to work at the clinic in mid-2010 with his new business partner, Dr Michael Linton, and the suburban practice soon started to outgrow its existing premises. Back then, the waiting area, reception and consulting space were cramped and the layout was impractical. Despite this, the two vets ran the suburban practice in Sydney’s eastern suburbs for three years while planning a major renovation. During that time, they purchased the premises next door to expand the general practice, and took a lease on the premises on the other side of the practice to establish the independent 24-hour Eastside Veterinary Emergency & Specialists clinic. Three years after this separate entity was up and running, it was time to start refurbishing and expanding Rose Bay Vet Hospital.
“The big thing was being able to afford to do the extensions and renovations,” says Dr Smyth. “It’s important not to rely on expected income. You’ve actually got to be sure that your business has grown sufficiently in order to be able to do something like this.”
Drs Smyth and Linton turned to Yvette Philips Interior Design to reimagine and reinvigorate their practice.
“It was horribly laid out,” Philips recalls. “The original practice was narrow and thin, and the finishes were outdated. It certainly didn’t represent the message they were trying to send as a business. They also wanted to expand into the adjacent shop in order to make their street frontage bigger. The whole space needed some personality injected into it.”
Philips had been a long-time friend of Dr Linton and his wife so they were very familiar with her work. Drs Linton and Smyth were so impressed with Philips’s design portfolio, they decided to give her free reign on the renovation. “It was quite exciting although a bit hair-raising at times,” says Dr Smyth. “It did, however, end up being a worthwhile thing to do.”
The practice now consists of three consult rooms, two of which are in daily use and one that can be used as a nurse consulting room. There’s also another room in the waiting area that can be closed off when privacy is needed for clients. “Unfortunately, situations do arise where clients can be very distressed and family members can become very emotional,” says Dr Smyth. “It’s nice to have an area where they can have some privacy for discussion, advice and sometimes even counselling about their pet, if required.”
The reception desk is made of Corian with a medical-grade finish that’s non-porous. The flooring is timber-look tiles with non-porous epoxy grout. This makes the surfaces easy to clean, particularly if there are any little ‘accidents’.
The doors of the floor level cupboards look like a white picket fence that, in turn, makes the product display area look like small beach huts. The vets requested vinyl on the walls to help keep the practice clean, but Philips had a more creative idea that would serve just as well.
“I eventually convinced them to use artificial turf,” she says. “It runs from floor level to waist height throughout all the consult rooms. It protects the walls, won’t get scratched and is easy to clean. It looks very cool and is a unique feature of the practice. We also added artificial turf on the ceilings in the bathroom for a bit of fun.”
According to Dr Smyth, feedback from the clients has been very positive. “Yvette’s design definitely has the ‘wow’ factor. The great design and pleasant features, along with the extra space, has made a visit to the vet better for clients and their pets. It has also improved working conditions for the reception and nursing staff, as well as for the veterinarians working here.”
Ascot Veterinary Surgery, located on the north side of Brisbane, has been in operation for 40 years. Owners Drs Scott Heinemann and Ben Charlton decided to upgrade the premises when they realised that its last restoration was back in 1997. It was looking a little old and tired.
“We were happy with our consultation rooms and the hospital back area; they just needed a facelift,” explains Dr Heinemann. “The big problem was that the waiting room wasted a lot of valuable space. Our design brief involved moving the entrance of the clinic and reworking the reception desk to maximise the space and allow for better merchandising opportunities. We wanted a refurbishment that was contemporary and sophisticated. When a client first walks through the front door, the look and feel are as important as the actual physical design.”
The 60-square-metre space was given a retrofit by Elite fit-out, with particular attention to the reception and product display areas. “The practice is friendly and warm with very welcoming staff, and we wanted the design to reflect that,” says Ian Shapland, Elite’s national business development and marketing manager. “We used neutral wood tones complemented by soothing greens. It was important not to have anything too clinical in the common areas as this can be confronting to some clients. The back-of-house areas have a minimalist white theme.”
An interesting touch is the casual and comfortable wicker chairs in the waiting area—a nod to Queensland’s tropical feel. It gives the space such a friendly vibe, you could almost forget you are in a veterinary surgery.
One element both these practices have benefitted from is using a professional designer. “You need an external professional who’s going to tie your business message to the reality of what your customers see,” says Philips.
“It’s almost brand representation—a way of consolidating your brand much more strongly than just through logo, signage and graphics. The interior designer brings out the soul of the business and translates your values into what your customers see in that space.”
Ascot Veterinary Surgery’s Dr Heinemann also sees value in using a professional designer. “Elite’s design of the reception and product display area saw an immediate and significant increase in product sales. I now feel that our clinic accurately reflects the premium, boutique service we strive to deliver.”