Typically when bed bugs appear, pest management professionals step in to eradicate them. And while this work keeps the industry very busy, the revenue it generates is not recurring. It’s more of a one-time thing, and that can be hard to predict or count on.
Now, after years of exploring ideas and developing programs, a growing number of PMPs are offering proactive bed bug services that deliver consistent revenue.
Clients are increasingly open to the idea. Managers of hospitality, senior living and multi-family housing facilities, in particular, are fed up with the unpredictable and seemingly never-ending cost of controlling bed bugs. One month they may spend nothing to control the pests; the next month they owe thousands of dollars to cover the cost of treatment.
“They just don't want to be ruled by bed bugs,” said Kevin Thorn, president of Thorn Pest Solutions in Pleasant Grove, Utah, of clients’ evolving mindset. He knows of apartment complexes spending $150,000 to $200,000 a year to control the pests. “That definitely is not sustainable,” he said.
Clients also have come to realize that a curative approach to bed bug control is not good enough. This is especially true at hospitality properties where the risk of bed bugs being reintroduced is high. Rooms taken out of circulation for treatment can cause significant loss of revenue, and one customer complaint about one bed bug on social media can have serious financial consequences.
WHAT’S INVOLVED? The industry is responding with programs designed to catch bed bug introductions before they become a bigger problem. Typically, this involves inspecting every hotel room or apartment multiple times a year.
Chris Christensen, owner of Truly Nolen franchises in greater Lexington, Ky., inspects the 1,600 apartments of his public housing client twice yearly. If bed bugs are found, those units are put on a treatment regimen. “That’s been very successful to reduce the incidence of heavy bed bug infestations,” he said.
Other programs combine inspection with treatment, even if no bed bugs are present. Treatment is targeted to where the pests normally are found, such as beds, couches, chairs and surrounding areas. PMPs apply residual products (aerosol, liquid and dust insecticides) tailored to the situation or surface being treated.
Every six months, technicians at American Pest Management in Manhattan, Kan., inspect and treat units at multi-family and senior living facilities. If a property has more than 30 percent of units infested at the start of the program, the company inspects more frequently (and charges for this). When the level of infestation in those units reaches zero activity, the program switches to its normal biannual inspection and treatment protocol.
As a result, major bed bug infestations are not occurring. “Instead of having to deal with hundreds of them, you’re dealing with onsie-twosies at the most,” said American Pest Management CEO Ravi Sachdeva, an early adopter of proactive bed bug services. He launched the company’s ProActive program in 2011.
The Orkin ProAct program was introduced for the hospitality industry in July 2017. It involves inspecting every room and treating those found to have bed bugs. Then rooms are inspected and treated on a rotating schedule. The program has helped “normalize the cost” of bed bug control for clients, said Chelle Hartzer, technical services manager at Rollins, which owns Orkin. Costs are predictable and that helps clients from a budgeting standpoint.
In some cases, proactive programs have reduced the cost of bed bug control. “We’re actually seeing people save a lot of money,” said Kevin Thorn of Thorn Pest Solutions. He inspects hotel rooms for bed bugs one to four times a year, depending on infestation history, and proactively treats them in advance of the busy Utah ski season.
Proactive bed bug control for the residential market exists as a standalone and add-on-to-quarterly service but it has yet to catch on like it has with commercial clients. Even so, some PMPs see the market potential. Single-family homes were the biggest market for bed bug control last year, reported 43 percent of PMPs in the 2019 PCT State of the Bed Bug Control Market survey, which was sponsored by Zoëcon and conducted by Readex, an independent research firm. Apartments and multi-family housing were second at 39 percent; the hospitality industry was the third biggest market at 8 percent.
IS THIS THE FUTURE? Even on the commercial side, proactive beg bug services face some challenges. For instance, applying insecticides to control pests that are not present could increase the risk of developing bed bug resistance. “That’s the one drawback to the proactive treatments,” said Stephen Kells, a bed bug expert at the University of Minnesota.
It also can be hard to get clients onboard. “It’s challenging for them to dedicate a portion of their pest control budget to something that isn’t an active infestation,” said Garrett Thrasher, owner, Thrasher Termite & Pest Control of So Cal in San Diego, Calif.
And it isn’t a good fit for every client. Sachdeva of American Pest Management found his proactive service is not cost- effective for properties with fewer than 10 percent of units infested. It also can take time for clients to see the value of proactive service compared to how they dealt with bed bugs in the past. As such, he requires a two-year minimum contract for properties with more than 10 percent of units infested.
PMPs also may wonder: If clients save money with proactive services, does that mean I will lose money by offering this service? “You could see that as a revenue loss,” said Hartzer of Rollins. But the potential exists to sell additional services as well,since you’re at the property more often, she said.
And some clients, even those that traditionally award jobs to the lowest bidder, are slowly starting to evaluate bed bug services differently. Christensen was surprised his bid for a public housing complex was chosen since it was $75,000 more than his closest competitor. “Many of them have realized, ‘This is not getting me anywhere.’ So they’re really looking a lot more carefully at what are we going to get for what we’re spending,” he said.
And the future of bed bug control for commercial clients, at least, “definitely” lies in proactive services, said Kells.
Hartzer agreed. “I think there are a lot of advantages to it both for the customer and for the company,” she said.
The author is a frequent contributor to PCT magazine.