With money to spend and time to fill, empty nesters Roy and Mary-Ann Ramsey travel the world with their canine "child," Zahra. The travel agency owners, both over 55, take their black British Labrador on at least three trips a year and are serious about ensuring Zahra enjoys them just as much as they do.
Luxury hotel groups such as Fairmont and Kimpton, and properties such as the DoubleTree by Hilton Asheville-Biltmore, are taking notice of travelers like the Ramseys and offering pet-related amenities to gain their business.
Recession or no, the pet industry is booming. It has enjoyed� average growth of 5% for the past five years and is estimated to hit $53 billion this year, according to the American Pet Products Association. In its 2011-12 Pet Owners Survey, the group reported that 10.6 million dog owners had taken their pet on a trip within the previous month. In addition, 23% of owners are willing to travel with their dog for more than two nights, compared with 21% in 2008 and 19% in 2006.
Ms. Ramsey, who has more than two decades' experience in the travel industry, confirmed that the demand is there and said her agency receives hundreds of requests for pet-friendly hotels. It's her second question, she said, after "do you have complimentary Wi-Fi?"
Bob Vetere, president of APPA, a nonprofit trade organization whose focuses include promoting pet ownership, said that these travelers are "baby boomers, empty nesters trying to be helicopter parents" and, partly as a result, "continuing to keep pets."
The average age of a U.S. pet owner is now 48. It was 47 in APPA's 2009-10 survey and 46 in 2003-04. So it seems that the trend is tracking the aging of the population, creating an opportunity for pet-friendly hotels to lure customers for these fee-based services.
Clearly, the travel-with-your-pet business has come a long way from a room at Howard Johnson's near the parking lot for puppy pit stops.
"Each year, more luxury hotels are embracing the concept of being pet-accommodating, not just pet-accepting," said Ms. Ramsey. "Hotels have been doing it as a convenience, and now they're offering it as an incentive to stay there. Hotels that are featuring and marketing upscale dog amenities and services recognize the potential."
"We've certainly looked to leverage the types of services and offerings we have on the pet front," said Mike Taylor, director-public relations for Fairmont, though the level of pet-friendliness varies by property. "This is something that is put out to the hotels to trade and develop to their markets—to offer products and services that are locally inspired," he said.
All Fairmont hotels are pet-friendly, but a third have specific services and menus. They range from the Santa Monica Fairmont Hotel's PAW Program, which offers spa services such as "blueberry facials and nail grinding," to the Vancouver Fairmont, which provides a bed, bowl and treat.
"We've seen more and more people that have traveled with pets," said Suzanne Wenz, Fairmont's regional director-public relations. "They're considered, for many people, a part of the family. I think that will increase over time."
As part of its KimptonPets program, the group's hotels accommodate all companion animals (including rabbits, birds and mice) and offer an array of services, including a referral for a pet massage while travelers enjoy their own massage at the hotel spa.
Word-of -mouth and PR appear to be the marketing devices for these services. Neither Fairmont nor Kimpton have dedicated promotional budgets for them, and information is spread through community services and pet-service partnerships.
Though there's still uncertainty about the growth of pet-friendly hotels and the ability of pet travelers to provide meaningful business, Mr. Vetere at APPA said he's hopeful. The improving economy will play the biggest role, he said.
Travelers "want to keep their own active lifestyle while making their pets happy," Mr. Vetere said. "All these services contribute to making that happen." After following these trends, APPA has identified hotels as potential future partners in promoting pet ownership and travel.
What about guests who leave their dog at home or are otherwise "pet-deprived"? Boston's Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel offers the Canine Adventure package, built around Catie Copley, the resident black Labrador who plays a role similar to that of Eloise at The Plaza in New York. It includes a stuffed Catie Copley Dog and a copy of children's book "Catie Copley's Great Escape."
"A lot of people take Catie for a walk, maybe five walks a day, whether or not they're on the package," said Ms. Wenz.