What started out a few years ago as mere tolerance has now burgeoned into a major travel trend the hospitality industry is keen to cash in on. Hoteliers have found that many people hate leaving their dogs at home; and when they do travel with their pets, they want them treated as valued family members. In fact, an entire sub-industry has coalesced around the concept of pet-friendly hotels and assorted luxury amenities.While this is especially true in the United States, which leads the world in catering to canines, Canada in its own quiet way has also gotten into the game.
Angela Lynch, founder of petfriendly.ca, the Calgary-based web site, says that although pet travel is not yet as widely accepted here as in the States, attitudes are changing fast. Her business, founded in 2001 out of a personal desire to travel with her own two dogs, has grown exponentially since that time. So, too, have pet-friendly policies in hotels across Canada – particularly those of the five-star persuasion.“It’s taken time, but hotels are finally keying into the fact that pets are really important to people,” Lynch explains. “These days, pets are part of the family. Some people even refuse to travel without their pets.” As for the sometimes gratis, sometimes expensive doggie extras offered at many deluxe accommodations, Lynch sees nothing wrong with pampering one’s pet a little: “Just like you, they enjoy special amenities and the attractions of a holiday place.”
Doug Poindexter, executive VP of the California-based World Wide Pet Industry Association, agrees. He sees the canine kid-ification that has occurred over the last few decades as a natural extension of people taking better care of themselves, and their own.
“Dogs are now members of the family, more like children,” he says. “You don’t ship your kids off to a kennel when you travel, you want them to be with you. It’s the same thing with dogs. Hotel businesspeople have started seeing the advantage of capitalizing on this humanization trend.”
So much so that in 2003, the Starwood Hotel chain, headquartered in White Plains, N.Y., commissioned a survey of 400 dog owners on the subject of travel with and without their pets, and shortly thereafter used its findings to create one of the most comprehensive pro-pet policies in North America. Perhaps it’s not coincidental that Barry Sternlicht, Starwood’s chairman and CEO, happens to be “the proud papa of ‘Comet,’ a Jack Russell Terrier, and ‘Potter,’ a Labrador [Retriever].”
The chain, encompassing such brand names as the Sheraton, Westin and W hotels, discovered that of their respondents, 43 per cent indicated their dog definitely seems sad when they go away without them, 23 per cent said their dog gets mad when they depart, and 43 per cent feel guilty for leaving the dog behind.
While away, 94 per cent of owners ask how their dog is when they phone home, 26 per cent actually talk to their dogs on the phone, 49 per cent think of their dog “very often,” 65 per cent buy a gift for their dog and 97 per cent say their dog is very excited when they return home – a great deal more so than their spouse (six per cent) or kids (five per cent).
Most important to the researchers was the fact that 37 per cent would “definitely take their dogs on more trips if they knew more hotels accepted dogs, and 76 per cent said they would be more loyal to a hotel chain that accepted dogs, even when they weren’t travelling with their pet.”
This “aha” moment led to the near-immediate launch of Starwood’s Love That Dog program throughout its top three hotel brands. Canines are now welcomed with not only open arms, but plush robes, bones and toys, special beds (with complimentary dog treat turn-down service), plus home-away-from-home leashes, collars (complete with temporary ID tags), poo bags and doggie Do Not Disturb signs.
An earlier competitor for the North American dog dollar was New York’s Loews Hotel Chain. Its Loews Loves Pets program rolled out in June 2000, across an 18-hotel network that includes Loews Hotel Vogue in Montreal and Quebec City.
It offers the same type of amenities, including “a personal welcoming note from the hotel general manager with a listing of pet services available… dog-walking routes, veterinarian information, pet-shop and grooming locations, pet attractions, pet-sitters, pet-friendly restaurants, and other resources.”
Room service boasts such vet-approved entrées as grilled lamb, chicken with rice, and vegetarian platters; bottled water, plus dry and canned pet-food selections. The mini-bar stocks $10 gourmet dog biscuits, with all proceeds going to a search-and-rescue dog foundation.
Best of all, for people who want only the best for their pets, are the special “learning vacation” packages Loews initiated at three of its hotels in 2005. At Loews Coronado Bay Resort & Spa’s Su’ruff Camp, an extra $300 U.S. will get your dog into board shorts or a bandana, up on a surfboard for a day’s training at the beach, and a dream surf ’n turf chowdown afterwards.
Canadians lagging behind
To date, no Canadian hotel, five-star or otherwise, provides anywhere near this level of canine amusement and amenities. Although pet-friendly, Loews’ two Quebec hotels offer no such gold-plated goodies; neither does Starwood’s Canadian chain. Worse, many places still have a “no pets” policy in place, and those that do allow dogs often set serious weight restrictions. The prestigious Four Seasons chain, for instance, accepts only animal guests weighing 15 pounds or under.
One bright light, however, is Vancouver’s Five Diamond Sutton Place Hotel. Peter Bruyere, director of sales and marketing, points with pride to his hotel’s comprehensive dog concierge service and complimentary biscuits, as well as its $95 VIP package, which includes bed turn-down featuring treats from Three Dog Bakery, a “gourmet dinner of grilled Alberta beef T-bone steak or seared fresh tuna fillet topped with caviar [served] on charming porcelain dishes alongside a bottle of the best Evian water,” a weather card for planning special outdoor romps, and a just-for-pets bedtime storybook.
Bruyere’s own experience bears out both the Starwood chain’s survey (wherein 78 per cent of respondents said they considered their dog an “equal member of the family”) and Angela Lynch’s claim that pro- pet policies are helping hotels build business.
“It is a growing trend,” he says. “My wife works for another hotel that recently ran a very successful campaign in a dog magazine, which resulted in quadrupled pet stays.
“I think in the future pet policies will be standard hotel procedure. All of us are fighting for market share, and we’ll do anything we can to increase that.”
Moreover this is not, repeat, not a fad. “It’s no longer ‘just the family dog,’ but a part of the family. And our business is all about making our guests and their families as comfortable as possible.”
Leslie C. Smith is an award-winning writer who shares her life and Toronto home with a Standard Poodle named ‘Tally,’ one of the great loves of her life.