September 18, 2020 • By Xanat Hernandez
For Shana Martin MBA ’98, boarding her cats or hiring a house sitter while she travelled was never an ideal situation.
“I hated thinking that while I was off on a trip enjoying myself or traveling for business, my cats were stressed, lonely or in a cage. And I knew that there had to be others like me.”
After two decades of working traditional jobs, Martin was a seasoned marketing and communications professional. She even taught business at Orange Coast College—and it was while working there that she first dreamed up Club Cat.
Becoming a Chief Cat Officer
Martin enrolled at The UCI Paul Merage School of Business as a Full-Time MBA student to learn important skills and advance her career as a corporate marketer.
A standout professor was Professor Richard McKenzie who taught managing incentives.
“The tenets of that class stuck with me because I had never managed anyone before. I learned the importance of empowering employees so that they genuinely felt like stakeholders no matter what their position was.”
Martin emphasizes the importance of education in her career trajectory: “What you’re studying today, it will come around. You will use that skill or that class that you took, and it will be applicable at some point in your future. Challenge yourself and take classes that you don’t know much about. You are there to learn and if you do, the ROI is high.”
Martin took the lessons from the Merage School and her 25 years of experience in marketing and communications to build her business. In March 2019, Club Cat opened its doors as Orange County’s very first luxury cat hotel, offering spacious suites with balconies, live webcams in each suite, video calls and even “Catflix” (Netflix for cats). Suites are named after famous works of literature such as “Romeow and Juliet” and “The Wizard of Paws,” a nod to Martin’s love of books and the classics.
Strategically located near John Wayne Airport, Club Cat’s primary market is cat parents traveling for business or pleasure. Secondary and tertiary markets include customers needing extended stay boarding due to home improvement projects, escrow and relocating. But because bookings had increased so quickly over the first year of operation, Martin did not actively pursue these other markets.
In early February, a month before Club Cat’s one-year anniversary, Martin became somewhat concerned over early reports of Covid-19 impacting her bookings. Her fears were confirmed when a few of her customers cancelled their upcoming trips to Japan and Taiwan. By early March, virtually all of her customers cancelled their reservations at Club Cat.
“I expanded my team in January 2020 because monthly bookings kept increasing and I desperately needed additional staff,” says Martin. “Then the pandemic started, and everything changed. But I was determined to keep my staff on payroll.”
Falling back on her business school education, Martin revisited her marketing plan and adjusted her tactics accordingly.
To identify and reach new customers, Martin started promoting Club Cat to the real estate community, contractors and even pest control companies. She also leveraged her strong reputation among surrounding pet clinics to promote referral business to Club Cat. She regularly updated her base via social media and direct marketing. And slowly, new customers started trickling in.
“I will say we went from thriving mode to survival mode very quickly,” she explained.
Returning to Thriving Mode
With half of businesses on Yelp closing permanently due to the pandemic, Martin knows she is one of the fortunate ones.
“The type of services we offer are just not available in Orange County,” she said. “Helicopter cat parents like me find it a necessity – even in a global pandemic. While March through May we were on pins and needles, fortunately bookings picked up dramatically this summer and have continued on the upward trend. September has been our best month to date which is a testament that Club Cat will land on its feet.”
Her advice to entrepreneurs? “Don’t try to force it and follow your heart.”