A llama therapy and entertainment business gains success on the back of wellness craze.
It began with one very sweet llama named Rojo.
Shannon Joy and her mother Lori Gregory originally bought Rojo to show as a 4H animal, which means an animal which is able to be around children in an educational setting.
“I swear Rojo thought he was part dog and part human,” says Joy, recalling Rojo’s gentle demeanor. “Someone saw his unique personality and said, ‘Oh my gosh, you should get him registered as a therapy animal.’ So we went to DoveLewis Animal Hospital and had him certified.”
Making money as a llama entertainment service wasn’t part of the plan at first. Joy and her mother began their therapy animal journey as a nonprofit, bringing Rojo and their second llama, Smokey, to retirement centers, hospitals and special needs schools for wellness visits.
Joy says she witnessed firsthand the value that therapy llamas can bring. “I call it the unicorn effect,” she says. “There’s something very whimsical and magical about being close to an animal you never expected you would.”
The llamas act as a breath of fresh air from people’s daily lives, and can give relief to those living with stress and pain. “When we visit nursing homes we always go to the bedrooms and people forget where they are, they’re so entranced.”
Rojo gives a big kiss. Credit: Classy Camelids
It wasn’t until a fundraiser for DoveLewis Animal Hospital that the for-profit side of the business got started.
“We had our llamas dressed up in bow ties since it was a black-tie event, and someone asked if the llamas could come to their wedding,” says Joy. “And so we started doing weddings, then birthday parties, then corporate events.”
And thus, Classy Camelids was born.
It’s a mission-driven business model, sometimes called a ‘hybrid organization’ that is getting more popular with startups. Hybrid organizations fund community work by having a commercial business side rather than rely on fundraising.
Twelve years since buying Rojo, Joy has quit her job as a restaurant server, moved out of her parent’s home, and began the task of owning and running full time a therapy llama and alpaca service, with both a for-profit and non-profit division.
Despite her ranch being in Washington, Joy says that 98% of her business is in Oregon. Her therapy animals have been inside most of Portland's swankiest venues, like the Hilton Downtown Portland, Tiffany Center and Portland Art Museum.
Although Rojo has since passed on, Joy keeps his memory alive by training more llamas to do what he did: bring therapy and relief to those experiencing high levels of stress.
Rojo on an office visit. Credit: Classy Camelids
Joy has seen her profit margins vary from quarter to quarter. About 60% of the business each year is not-for-profit, and around 40% of the llama rentals provide revenue from the entertainment limited liability company.
“It’s such a unique thing that we do, we’ve had to restructure ourselves plenty of times over the last decade,” says Joy. “But that’s where we find ourselves now.”
Joy says she gets such a high volume of requests for visits, she has to turn down 90% of inquiries. Not only does she have to turn down requests due to scheduling, but also made it clear the health and wellbeing of the animals is her primary concern.
That means not overworking them, making them go on long car trips, or exposing the animals to conditions that might scare them.
Luckily, the llamas don’t mind wearing costumes due to their protective layer of fur.
While Classy Camelids could be generating more revenue if its proprietor spent less time on the nonprofit side, for hybrid organizations, and for Joy, that isn’t an option.
Rojo on a hostpial visit. Credit: Classy Camelids
“Sometimes we go super viral and get a ton of requests, but we have to check ourselves,” she says.
“Our purpose isn’t to share these llamas in an entertainment fashion. Our mission has always been the therapy and education. I understand how unique and special these animals are. I want this to be accessible to everyone.”
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