Simon Hocken emphasises the importance of looking into the future when deciding where to site a new dental practice for long-term success

Recently I spent a day with a client who wanted to open a new squat private practice in a provincial English town. He had been looking for a suitable property for some months and the purpose of my visit was to view a property he thought would be suitable for his new practice. Finding a property for a new dental practice used to involve reasonably simple choices as property costs in a working dental practice need to be around 5% of turnover (in order to maintain the business’s profitability).

An average three-surgery practice grossing circa £700k/year needs around 2,000 square feet of space (186 square metres) and so the budget for property costs has to be around £35k/year or less. This kind of money will buy/lease 2,000sq ft (outside central London) of domestic property, or the equivalent commercial/retail property, (although premier, visible High Street retail property can cost a lot more!).

So, back to my client. Together we viewed 2,000 sq ft of empty retail space, an ex dry cleaners. It was positioned on a secondary shopping street in a residential suburb of the town and when I was there, on a week day afternoon, the street was reasonably busy with mums and pushchairs, retired folk and the inevitable stay-all-afternoon-in-a-cafe-and-do-my-emails-on-my-laptop people. There were half-full buses going by and cars parked on the street and in the many residential side roads. The shops were mainly: convenience stores, cafes, hairdressers, one-man businesses and a sprinkling of second-hand furniture stores. The rent and business rates on the empty dry cleaners seemed high (around £50k a year) and the refurbishment and fit-out (excluding dental equipment) looked to me like a £250k spend.

So my alarm bells were going off. My real problem with this property (apart form the expense) was that it needed to be a 15 to 25-year home for my client’s new practice and I was struggling to imagine that people would still be using this street for these purposes even 10 years in the future. Instead, I imagined driverless cars ferrying their occupants to air-conditioned out-of-town malls where they would shop, eat and be entertained while checking out goods, which they would go home and order online or click and collect! Maybe those that couldn’t afford this kind of life would still be living in this suburb but would those left behind be willing to buy private dental care?

And the other significant problem with this kind of property in this kind of location is that my client could end up with a practice perceived by patients to serve just this local suburb, thereby restricting its catchment and missing out on those potential patients living and working in other areas of the town. Clearly this could limit the reach of the new practice before it even opens!

Look around you

In short, I think my client (and any practice owner wanting to open or relocate their practice) needs to take much more notice of what successful businesses and in particular what successful retailers are up to! Where are these businesses relocating, opening and trading well? Where are their customers willing and wanting to travel to? The street we were standing on was probably at the bottom of its retail cycle and may not survive much longer as a shopping street or if it does as a street filled with businesses that are not the best company for a private dental practice.

These days, in most areas, town planners are (usually) dead against using domestic housing stock for dental practices and in my opinion, domestic dwellings no longer lend themselves particularly well to being used as a 21st century dental practice.

So, what are my client’s options? Well, in my view he needs to be looking into:
•    Retail units in new/existing shopping malls
•    Business units in business parks
•    New mixed residential and commercial developments
•    Finding the right amount of space inside of somebody else’s store, gym or business
•    Finding a new medical centre that is being built and take some space there. (Not necessarily a NHS GP Practice there are new private medical centres being planned and built!).
•    Finding a plot (in a good location) and creating a new-build

Future proof

Try this. The next time you go to a city that you are familiar with but which you haven’t visited for many years, look at what has happened to the focal points for the city’s businesses. Bristol is my version of this; when I was a student there, the centre of the city was the true hub and all the best shops were within a 10-minute walk from here. Service businesses like dentists, lawyers, accountants and private medical rooms occupied space in lovely Georgian terraced houses in Clifton and their clients, when visiting, parked on the streets nearby. 30 years later, several new out of town shopping malls (including Cribs Causeway Mall by a junction of the M5) have decimated and completely changed the city centre, which is now full of charity shops and student bars. The lawyers and the accountants have moved out of Clifton into business parks because nobody (staff or clients) can park in choc-a-bloc Clifton. Only the dentists are left (slow learners I’m afraid…).

Whenever our clients survey their patients (properly, not some CQC compliance charade) the reliable winner in terms of ‘What we like most about your practice’ is… ‘ease of parking’.

You and I know it’s not going to go away, not until we invent teleportation, and so you have to have the parking issues solved for any practice, both established and new. There are workarounds and compromises for this, but nothing beats a big car park next to the practice!

In my view the key question my client needs to answer when locating his new practice is where does it need to be so that it will be future proof? Where will folk be happy to travel to in 10 years’ time? Which other business might they want to visit alongside a visit to the dentist? The secret here is not to make it hard for your patients, make it easy and pleasurable to head in the direction of your practice! And watch where other significant business are heading to and hitch a ride alongside them – the retailers, especially the big chains, know exactly what they are doing!

A happy ending

There may be a happy ending for my client. He’s given up on the dry cleaners and has recently found 3,000 square feet of new build, retail space on a ground floor site, with lots of dedicated parking. First to say yes to the other units in the development are Costa Coffee and a corporate vets practice. The site is on a junction of an arterial road into the town and has lots of signage and visability. Now, if I were in his shoes, I would sign that lease quick and get on with opening a practice, before another dental entrepreneur finds out about it!


Simon Hocken established three practices as a dentist before founding the dental consultancy Breathe Business in 2007. He specialises in supporting principals and their management team in making change happen. He speaks regularly at major dental forums, as well as writing for leading publications, and lectures and writes for academic courses.
Tel: 07770 430576
Email: [email protected]
Website: www.breathebusiness.co.uk