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Hotels are going to the dogs to win customers


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Duke (with Melva in the background) likes to show off his pet-friendly room in the Kinzie Hotel in Chicago, where he accompanies Carrie Friduss, sales and marketing director, to work every Friday.

Sheila Ronning, founder of Women in the Boardroom based in New York City, was a typical traveler, choosing conveniently located and well-appointed hotels where she could rack up loyalty points. But then she fell for Roxy.

How much does she love the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel she adopted two years ago? “Well, more than I love everybody else,” she says. “It’s sad to say but she’s the love of my life. I just live in Roxy’s world.”

Her hotel calculation quickly became more complicated—this hotel had a dog run in the parking lot but it was all cement. “They could at least put in fake grass.” That hotel had a rule saying she could not leave her pet alone in the room, something not stated on the website, she says, so she had to call Rover for a pet sitter.

She believes hotels that truly commit to pet mamas and papas could do big business. “More and more people are obsessed with their animals,” she says, but then quickly corrects herself. “I can’t believe I just called Roxy an animal because she’s my child.”

Hotels under the Marriott and Hyatt umbrellas are her go-to. “I’m a loyal customer to those brands so I do expect them to accommodate my child.”

Trainers, groomers and Zen

Ronning is exactly the type of customer hotels are courting feverishly, and her strong opinions can serve as a roadmap for how difficult that customer is to woo.

Susan Smith, president of Pettravel.com in South Florida, started her website in 1998. “Back then finding a pet-friendly hotel was very difficult,” she says. “We started a database and got about 2,000” listings. Today that number tops 40,000, and of course multiple other databases abound.

Roxy

“I just live in Roxy’s world,” says Sheila Ronning, parent of this Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, shown here luxuriating at a Westin in Edina, Minnesota.

“Hotels realized that accepting pets was really important because people who traveled with pets stayed longer, if they had a positive experience they talked about it, and they were loyal,” Smith says. “The industry realizes that the pet business is big. It grew right through the recession at about $2 billion a year.”

She notes “one-upmanship” in the biz. “It’s all about, for a hotel, creating an experience for a pet owner. The amenities that are offered to pets now are pretty significant,” she says.

At the Mandarin Oriental in Miami, for example, “They have room service menus for dogs. They have pet sitters. They have a trainer that will work out your pet. They have groomers,” she says.

The Hyatt Regency in Scottsdale boasts a Zen experience for pets, and the Ritz-Carlton in Aruba gives pets a lifejacket, because guests want to take the whole family out on the water.

She figures she gets 250 emails a day, most from people asking how to find accommodations for their pets. “Snakes. Bearded dragons. Flying squirrels. Scorpions, things that sort of give me a little bit of a shiver,” she says. “I was asked how do you take a boa constrictor to Panama. Some of the questions take a tad bit of research.”

Her advice: Call in advance and question the hotel in detail about their policies, which often include weight, number and other restrictions, and especially their fees, which can range from zero to $150 or more and are often not well-explained.

An operator’s view

Elie Khoury operates seven hotels total, four independent hotels in the French Quarter in New Orleans, two franchised Holiday Inn hotels in the city, and a large franchised Westin in downtown Dallas with 326 rooms.

He’s decided against accepting pets in his New Orleans hotels, at least so far, because the demand isn’t there. “Frankly a lot of people don’t bring pets. They’re there to party,” he says. Also, his French Quarter hotels are beautifully refurbished older buildings that he doesn’t think would handle pets well.

His Westin franchise in Dallas, though, is pet-friendly and is well-suited to the business, accepting pets under 50 pounds and charging no fees. Noting recent changes at airlines, he may re-think his policies in the future. “More people are bringing pets on planes, so if you think about it, they have to stay somewhere,” says Khoury.

Parker the pug

At Park Hyatt Chicago there is no doubt about the elevated place of the pet. Exhibit A: Parker the pug, the “senior lady” of the hotel, says Ivy Forester, marketing and communications manager.

Founder Jay Pritzker built the brand around “everything he loved,” art, culture, beautiful objects. “It was meant to be your home away from home,” Forester says. In the luxury segment, people often mix business with pleasure. They’re bringing their family for the weekend, “and the family includes pets.”

About three years ago a manager at the hotel wanted to help a difficult-to-adopt dog from PAWS, a no-kill animal shelter in Chicago, and they found Parker, now a 9-year-old. “She was in rough shape,” with one eye and many medical needs. The manager thought, “wouldn’t it be great if it was 24-hour people to take care of a dog,” and so Parker became a fixture. The entire $100 pet fee charged at Park Hyatt goes to PAWS.

Parker can play with the kids who visit as much as she wants, but don’t ask her to pal around with other animals. “She’s an old lady. She’s kind of anti-social with other dogs,” Forester says, and that’s just fine with everyone at the Park Hyatt Chicago.

Sounds like just the sort of place suitable for people like Sheila Ronning and Roxy.


Hilton's Millie

The Hilton’s Millie

How to find a pet-friendly hotel? Ask the ‘canine concierge’

Many hotels slap the “pet-friendly” label on their website, with 96 options in Chicago, 59 in Boston, 81 in Atlanta and 103 in Dallas, for example. But when you call or visit it becomes obvious there’s wide variation in the meaning—from “we’re checking the box” to “wildly passionate about pets.” Here are three of the latter.

■ The Kimpton Palomar Hotel in Chicago, under the IHG umbrella, is where we turned the corner from meh to passionate about pets. A black chalkboard behind the front desk lists the dogs visiting each day, in this case Millie and Henry. “We write their names on the board, make them feel welcome,” says a staffer. There’s no fee for pets, big dogs are allowed and it rates five bones on BringFido.com, one of the many websites listing pet-friendly accommodations.

■ At the Kinzie Hotel in Chicago, Duke and Melva are ready to pose in a pet-friendly room. “They come with me to work every Friday. Best job ever,” says Carrie Friduss, director of sales and marketing. “The dog-loving culture has always been in the hotel.” Pets are mostly housed on the second floor, with housekeepers who love dogs assigned to the floor; they do a deep clean after each stay. For a $50 fee for up to two pets, pets get a “pamper your pooch” package with a Frisbee, waste bags and treats, and dogs get their own special bed in an open kennel with their name printed on it. The Kinzie hosts three to four pets a week, she figures, including sometimes to fill requests from the bride or groom. “Sometimes they’re ring bearers.”

■ Then there’s the Hilton Milwaukee City Center, where Millie is the “canine concierge.” The hotel has always been pet-friendly, “but this takes it to another level,” says the human concierge with Millie, declining to give his name but saying his email is the same as Millie’s. “Many people will drop their luggage first thing and go to find Millie,” said a bellman. Her business hours are Tuesday through Saturday 10-6, and when she’s done she’s “exhausted,” says her parent, as is he. “Follow her on Instagram,” he urges, @millieatthehilton.

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