It’s the Friday before the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, and the lobby of New York’s pet-friendly Hotel Pennsylvania is like a madhouse. Everywhere you turn, there are purebred canines strutting around the lobby with their doting owners: a mammoth, drooling St. Bernard with a wooden rescue barrel around its neck; a playful black-and-white Border collie with piercing blue eyes; a stalwart boxer sporting a golden robe; and pint-sized Chihuahuas in pricey designer dresses made of silk and satin.
Spectators are perched at high-top tables with coffees in hand as David Frei, longtime cohost of USA Network’s annual telecast of the Westminster show, interviews exhibitors and their prized pooches on stage for a live-broadcast satellite feed.
“You get to see such an assortment of breeds because there are so many dogs staying here,” says Jerry Grymek, an account director at LMA Communications who assumes the role of doggie concierge for the event. “On top of that, these are show dogs—they’re like celebrities in their own right.” He estimates there are nearly 1,000 dogs staying at the 1,700-room property in conjunction with the show, which is held across the street at Madison Square Garden every February.
Grymek leads a visitor downstairs for a tour of the hotel’s dog spa, salon, and gym in a converted ballroom. Here, dogs can use the his-and-her loo, walk on treadmills to loosen up before the big show, stretch with a physical therapist, or get washed and groomed.
The spa’s creator, Judy Davis, says the idea started small in 2000, with a gutted-out guestroom—layered with plastic and sawdust shavings—where dogs could go to the bathroom. The bathroom was such a hit that Hotel Pennsylvania General Manager Jim Flynn offered Davis the ballroom the following year to launch a spa, and the amenities have grown exponentially ever since. “The spa is all about what can we do for the dogs, and what can I do for the hotel and make it complement each other so it’s a win-win,” says Davis, who showed dogs for 40 years and is president of 1st In Line grooming products.
These on-site events and amenities provide additional incentives for Westminster show attendees to book the hotel, which leads to higher occupancy and drives incremental revenue. Playing host hotel to a massive dog show may be an extreme example of pet-friendly initiatives in the lodging industry, but it’s proof that successful programs can create a positive marketing buzz, foster community engagement, and boost business.
Promoting hotels as pet friendly can be a delicate balancing act. On one hand, it’s a huge market that can yield a lot of revenue. There are approximately 70 million dogs and 74.1 million cats in U.S. households, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s 2012 U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook. A TripAdvisor pet travel survey of more than 1,000 U.S. animal owners, released in August 2012, revealed that 49 percent of participants planned to travel with their pets in the next 12 months. Among that group, 56 percent will stay in hotels with their pets.
“Most pet owners consider their pets as part of their family, like their kids,” says Brian Harris, general manager of Kimpton’s Hotel Lumen in Dallas. About 10 percent of his guests bring pets. “They want to be able to travel with them and not being able to accommodate those guests would definitely affect our business.”
On the flip side, some hotels don’t overtly promote their properties as pet friendly because they want to avoid losing core business from travelers who might not appreciate having animals around. Chuck Mardiks, managing director of public relations for the global travel marketing firm MMGY, says hotels have to be careful in how they promote their policies and should think about the pros and cons involved. “I think it’s important to go to niche outlets with it as well and not overpromote it to the point where you may be turning off people who are not the audience,” Mardiks says.
More hotels welcome pets on their premises than ever before because the upside in guest satisfaction and market share increases is often greater than the downside in potential damages or disturbances. Of the more than 52,000 U.S. hotels polled in the American Hotel and Lodging Association’s 2012 Lodging Survey, 61 percent of properties said they are pet friendly. Midscale and economy scale segments lead this share at 92 and 94 percent, respectively.
“Nobody could justify to me why they wouldn’t rent to pet owners,” says Steve Segner, owner of El Portal Sedona Hotel in Arizona. “I’ve had far less bad experiences with pets than I’ve had with kids, weddings, and families.”
Segner and his wife Connie live on a small farm, up the Oak Creek Canyon in Sedona, with three basset hounds, 20 geese, and 20 chickens. When the couple decided to enter the hotel business about a decade ago, after working in the pet food and care industry for 30 years, they wanted to create an authentic Arts and Crafts–style luxury inn with a pet-friendly focus. They built the 12-suite El Portal hotel with wood and tile flooring throughout and fenced off more than 1,000 square feet of patio area to accommodate their pet visitors. “I was tired of sneaking dogs into hotels and being treated like a second-class citizen,” Segner says, “so I thought, ‘I’ll make it pet friendly.’”
SOMETHING TO BARK ABOUT
To ensure a robust pet-friendly program, Mardiks advises hotels to stay engaged in all outlets where they have a presence, from social media to pet-friendly travel websites, and also actively look for partnership opportunities. “Those that do enter into niche marketing in a robust way and make sure they’re very engaged in the communities that they’re trying to reach are going to see much better results,” Mardiks says.
Hotel Lumen stirred up publicity when famous zookeeper Jack Hanna visited the property in January with a penguin, a fox, a three-banded armadillo, and a clouded leopard from the Columbus Zoo. The animals stayed in the guestrooms with their handlers, but were fed and cared for in a Columbus Zoo bus. “They were the perfect guests,” Harris says. “They came in, they spent the evenings with us, and pretty much during the day they were out and about doing a lot of different things at the zoo here locally.” When the animals checked out, the Lumen shared the experience by posting a photo on its Facebook page of Marlin the penguin with his mini suitcase. The photo received plenty of likes, shares, and comments on both the Lumen’s and Kimpton’s pages.
“A lot of our guests know that we’re a pet-friendly hotel, and that’s what was interesting about seeing Marlin the penguin walking through the lobby,” Harris says. “The guests were surprised and excited to be able to see a penguin, but I don’t think they thought it was too unexpected knowing it’s a Kimpton hotel.”
The Lumen’s marketing initiatives include partnering with local animal shelters and rescue groups for on-site events that promote adoption and expose new audiences to Kimpton’s company-wide pet-friendly program. The hotel also participates in Kimpton’s annual Santa Paws event, where local and guest pets are invited to take holiday photos with Santa.
A comprehensive pet-friendly section on brand and property websites can also win over customers. Choice Hotels, one of MMGY’s clients, has more than 3,400 pet-friendly properties worldwide. The company has a special page on its website that let’s travelers search for pet-friendly hotels by location, and also features a list of dog-friendly cities, top dog parks, and pet-friendly travel tips.
The El Portal features a local directory for pet-friendly attractions, parks, and restaurants, as well as pet boarding and grooming, pet food and supplies, veterinary care, and local animal groups and resources on its website. “Everything you would normally do for your guest on the hotel website, we do the same for pets,” Segner says.
Pet packages are an opportunity to drive revenue and bookings and in some cases attract a new niche audience. Mardiks points to the Napa Winery Inn (part of Choice’s Ascend Hotel Collection) as an example. The inn offers a Pamper Your Pet package that includes a pet bed, dog bowl, and a welcome bag with a toy, biscuit, waste bags, and discount coupon for a local pet store. Pet owners receive a complimentary wine tasting coupon to pet-friendly wineries. The inn also works with its local chamber of commerce for
referrals, and provides information at the front desk for other services, such as references for local pet sitters. “If you’re thinking about introducing a pet program, find somebody on staff that’s as passionate about dogs, or pets in general, and have them be the champion of the program,” Mardiks advises.
THROW PET OWNERS A BONE
One of the biggest problems pet owners face is encountering properties that don’t have a consistent pet policy. Melissa Halliburton, president and founder of the pet-friendly hotel directory BringFido.com, says she doesn’t recommend hotels that determine fees by the pet’s size or breed on a case-by-case basis to customers. If any changes are made to a pet policy, Halliburton recommends hotels submit a policy update to any pet-travel websites they are featured on.
“Guests traveling with pets want to know the total price at the time of booking,” she says. “They also want assurance that their pet will be welcomed at check-in. They don’t mind paying a little more for their dog, but they don’t want surprises upon arrival. Establishing a transparent policy that doesn’t change at the whim of the front desk manager on duty is highly important to prevent customer service issues with pet owners.”
Kimpton Hotels has a cleverly marketed pet program with a simple pet policy that welcomes any pet, regardless of size, weight, or breed, for no additional fees or deposits. “For us to not charge puts ease and comfort in our two-legged guests so they don’t have to feel penalized,” Harris says.
They also include fun amenities and services, such as pet beds for loan, food and water bowls, fresh water and snacks in the lobby, and a concierge list of local pet-friendly attractions and businesses. If guests are sad to leave their pet at home, they can request a pet goldfish that will keep them company during their stay. Select properties have dogs on staff as directors of pet relations, who may be seen greeting guests in the lobby or mingling with other dogs at the daily wine hour.
“It’s important to have a structured program,” Harris says. “If you’re going to have any costs or restrictions associated with having pets staying at the hotel, make sure guests are aware of them in advance. I don’t think you’d want to surprise anyone with additional charges.”
Forty-two percent of 2012 Lodging Survey respondents said they charge extra for pets, down from 46 percent in 2010. Halliburton has found that most dog owners are willing to pay an extra fee, provided that it is reasonably related to the hotel room rate, but says it depends on the hotel segment. Economy and midscale accommodations face competition from the likes of Motel 6 and La Quinta, she says, which have consistent pet policies allowing pets to stay for free. Mid-level properties tend to charge modest pet fees—approximately $25 per stay—that travelers are often willing to absorb. Halliburton says top-tier pet-friendly hotels fall into two classes: those that allow pets to stay for free and truly cater to pet owners, and those that have larger pet fees but usually include pet amenities. “Regardless of price level, the best way for hotels to attract pet owners is to welcome pets for no extra fee.”
The El Sedona, which has an average rate of about $270 to $300, doesn’t charge any pet fees. Segner suggests charging more for the room rate rather than adding a fee. “Don’t be confrontational, if you want to make life easier.”
DON’T PUT GUESTS IN THE DOGHOUSE
Halliburton says guests simply want a hassle-free experience with the same service that non–pet owners receive. BringFido.com customers are often wary of hotels that only allow dogs in smoking rooms or “select guestrooms,” which at some properties can mean the least desirable rooms.
“Not surprisingly, dog owners also appreciate having a grassy area nearby to walk their dog, and many of our customers prefer ground-floor rooms and/or rooms near exit doors to make it easier to walk their pets late at night or early in the morning,” she says.
“Don’t stick them in a smoking room,” Segner agrees. “If you’ve got nicer rooms you don’t sell as often, make them your pet rooms.”
Hotels undergoing renovations may even consider converting a few guestrooms to pet-friendly. Cicero’s Development Corporation recently introduced a new renovation service, Welcome Waggin’ Lodging, that does the conversion for you. The company’s founder Sam Cicero wanted to find a way to cater to the needs of travelers with four-legged friends while also helping hotel owners profit from this lucrative market segment. “There are a lot of things hotels can do to make guests with pets feel welcome instead of like an outcast,” says Cicero, who has a yellow Lab named Bailey and a Lab-husky named Stanley.
The pet-friendly renovation service helps protect guestrooms against costly damages, such as soiled carpets or ripped furniture. The process begins with removing old carpet and replacing it with wood-look vinyl flooring and area rugs. Next, decorative wall panels are installed to absorb sound and avoid complaints from guests about late-night barking. Finally, the old furniture is swapped out for sofas and chairs that are made of stain-resistant, durable materials, and mattress liners are added to protect against pet dander and accidents. Bathroom stations and leash-free dog runs can also be installed in the back of the property to prevent the hotel’s landscaping from becoming unsightly.
Harris says Hotel Lumen has certain rooms that are set aside for pet owners, as well as rooms that are pet-free zones for people who may have asthma, allergies, or other sensitivities. Any time pets stay in a guestroom at the Lumen, the housekeepers do an inch-by-inch deep cleaning to make sure they don’t miss any kind of pet dander and perform spot treatments when needed. “We make sure the next guest who comes in has a fresh, clean stay and most of our guests have never even realized a pet may have been in the room,” Harris says.
HAND IN PAW
By being pet friendly, Segner says hotels can pick up business they might not otherwise have received. “Be as accommodating as you can and you’ll get a good repeat clientele,” he says. In the last 10 years, he’s only had two instances where he had to charge for damages—one time a dog freaked and ate the Venetian blinds—and has never had to ask a pet owner to leave because of bad dog behavior.
Segner thinks back to when El Portal first opened and received a recommendation from Harper’s Hideaway that helped boost business. Segner e-mailed the writer of the luxury travel newsletter and asked for advice. “He said, ‘Most small hotels and B&Bs have too many stupid rules. Don’t have any rules,’” Segner recalls. “Whenever I go to do something, I stop and think about how important that is. We’re in the hospitality business. We’re in the business to say ‘yes.’”
At his property, there’s only one simple rule when it comes to pets: “They can’t pee on my lawn,” Segner says, laughing.