Puppy love: Making your hotel pet-friendly

Do your summer guests like to leave their dogs at home? Absolutely not! People traveling with their pets can mean big business. By now it should be common knowledge for hotel marketers that this is a prominent — and still growing — segment of travelers.

My purpose isn’t to restate the numbers behind this trend, but to address the next steps for hoteliers wanting to target this niche group. And for others who might be reluctant to shift into the pet-friendly business, I hope I can convince you otherwise. 

To start, let me dispel some cons. True, pets require special attention and a particular set of skills, both equating to further costs. However, vacationing owners fully expect to pay a little extra for accommodating an animal, effectively neutralizing any added expenditure. Plus, we’re dealing with methods to attract new customers and drive up occupancy.

Next, the presence of pets may repel others from coming. In response, I’ve noted that most traveling pets are accustomed to such journeys and are very well behaved (otherwise they wouldn’t have made the cut). Beyond this, you’d have to survey your existing customer base to discern if pets are merely a tolerable inconvenience or an outright deal breaker. And to approach this from a positive angle, not owning pets doesn’t stop people from liking them. A friendly animal encounter may add to the experiences of other guests, heightening the flavor and overall appeal of your property.

Dogs are by far the most frequent traveling animal companions, so I’ll focus my attention on how to best appeal to dog owners. However, cats represent the next most common pet type, and most of my dog-friendly suggestions are easily transferrable. Here are some pet-owner behavioral patterns worth noting:

  • Most owners travel with their pets on average once a year. (Think repeat business.)
  • They will likely choose their hotel based on whether it has a pet-friendly policy.
  • Pet safety is the top priority — even above price.
  • Taking a pet on an airplane is still a nuisance, and as such, most pet owners will arrive by car, truck or RV. 
  • Also, due to the hassles of flying with pets, most of these travelers will not be international, but they won’t necessarily be local, either.

Based on these characteristics, you’ll likely to be able to formulate your own plan of attack to address incoming pet owners. Here are the steps I would recommend:

  1. Decision: You have to decide upfront whether the benefits of attracting pet owners will outweigh the costs of executing this shift, promoting this new positioning and possibly deterring existing customers. Look at your competitive set to see if any other hotels in your region are already pet-friendly or whether you can get first-mover advantage.
  2. Planning: Outline your pet friendly policy in its entirety. Are there any places in the hotel that will be off limits? How many pets per room? Are there any size restrictions? How will you deal with unruly animal guests? Moreover, what will you offer pets and their owners on top of general admission? What pet services will you offer? How will you make the experience both exceptional and fun?
  3. Room segregation: Reallocate a section of your rooms for people traveling with pets. This will give those under the “tolerable inconvenience” category an easy way to enjoy their stay while avoiding any potential barking or allergic reactions.  It also will make your housekeeping efforts more efficient.
  4. Local relationships: Make a list of vets, groomers, dog walkers and pet stores in your area, then connect with them to establish a rapport and a build a support community. They might have some great insider suggestions for getting off on the right foot as well.
  5. Pet guide: Develop a thorough guide for what owners can do with their pets around the hotel. This should also highlight parks, outdoor attractions and pet-friendly restaurants. Ideally, have this list available in print and web formats.
  6. Training: Front desk and housekeeping must be amicable to pets and comfortable dealing with pet emergencies. Your staff should be fully versed on your pet-friendly policy, your pet guide to the area and any other necessary procedures.
  7. Website: Design a section of your site to outline what pet-specific features your hotel has as well as any price considerations. Steer people here by putting a note on your home page and social media sites. Update your SEO keywords and tags to reflect this.
  8. Advertise: In tandem with getting all the elements in place, you have to get the word out that your hotel is now pet-friendly. Target pet magazines, and use your PR team to galvanize local newspapers, news websites and bloggers. Submit your information to websites that list pet-friendly hotels and their policies. Use social media to directly reach out to vacationers seeking a pet-friendly hotel. Host an event to launch this new positioning, making sure to invite the press and talk about it online.

Most of these steps are fairly straightforward, except for the planning phase, which opens the doors to a lot of creativity. To help inspire you, here are three excellent examples of hotels that have their pet friendly aspects down pat:

  • New York’s Hotel Pennsylvania: This property is the host hotel for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show held across the street at Madison Square Garden, and is often called the best dog hotel in the world because of this. For a week in February every year, the hotel hosts over a thousand dogs as well as their owners, groomers and handlers. For the event, the hotel sets up an onsite dog spa, fills and replenishes half a floor with hay for use as washrooms, and even has a Doggie Concierge to cater to individual needs. 
  • Ojai Valley Inn & Spa: This 5-star resort just north of Los Angeles has made a tremendous effort to extend its luxury pampering to pets. Specialized rooms are fitted with dog beds and adjoining lawn enclosures so animals can do their business without leaving the room proper. They also have a gourmet dog menu so pets don’t get left out of the fine-dining experience.
  • Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts: This brand has distinguished itself as the luxury pet-friendly provider with services like pet vet care, dog walkers and in-room spa treatments, in addition to special cots and pet menus. Not every hotel in the chain accommodates pets though, so check beforehand.

Garnering new business from this crowd might be precisely what you need to boost sales into the next snack bracket. In my opinion, just as you wouldn’t turn away someone who’s disabled, you shouldn’t turn away a pet. So what are you waiting for? 

P.S. I’m a dog lover, and I have a 110-lb Bouvier des Flandres named Caesar, who really is the head of household. He has never been sent to boarding!