By ANNE KADET
Karen Goldberg may be single, but when she hits the road, she's hardly lacking for travel companions. Every year she joins her extended family for a long cruise or grabs a friend to explore new cities like New Orleans. Last summer, however, the 39-year-old CPA took a gamble and turned to someone new: Riley, her 86-pound golden retriever.
The plan was to spend $1,100 on a four-night stay at Canine Camp Getaway, a Lake George, N.Y., retreat for pets and their owners. But retreat suggests quiet -- in practice, the lodge in the Adirondacks was more like a madcap convention for the pet set. At night Goldberg and Riley shared a room, but each had a double bed. By day, the two joined 40 other humans and 70 dogs for goofy bonding activities, from decorating homemade dog biscuits to making paw paintings and drinking beer at "yappy hour." Just like at a human summer camp, Goldberg says, cliques formed; the labs and retrievers would congregate poolside, while the border collies hung out at the advanced agility course and the hounds gathered for a scent-detection workshop. The humans? They spent all day talking about dog training, dog nutrition and, of course, their pet-centric expeditions. Clearly, it wasn't exactly the typical family vacation. "All the conversations revolved around dogs," she says.
Groomed to Go
Gear like this has helped turn pet supplies and services in a $17 billion market.
Tales of pet pampering gone wild are hardly surprising in the age of Swarovski crystal collars and air-conditioned dog mansions. But for anyone out and about this summer, with or without Fido, it'll be hard to ignore the fact that dog mania has reached a tipping point. Upstanding citizens who might otherwise be considered perfectly lucid are taking the "animal companion" concept to a new level -- bringing their pets to the movies, shopping and out for dinner in fancy bistros. And, in an economy where a four-legged customer is better than none, businesses are happy to accommodate them. Well-behaved canines are welcome at retailers like Apple, The Gap and Pottery Barn, while some restaurants and hotels go a step further, offering pet menus and puppy-sitting. Even tourist agencies are boarding the gravy train. Washington state's Yakima Valley Visitors & Convention Bureau, for example, just launched a website listing the area's dog-friendly wineries, restaurants, museums and stores. "We want to be known as a very pet-friendly wine destination," says CEO John Cooper.
There's a reason the hospitality and retail trades are slobbering over pet owners. Over the past decade, even as the economy tanked and pet-ownership rates flatlined, spending on pets rose 73 percent, to $51 billion. And marketers scrutinizing this phenomenon reached a new realization: People who treat their pets like family are an especially attractive demographic. According to analyst Michael Dillon of marketing strategy firm Dillon Media, 72 percent of the money Americans lavished on pets last year was spent by folks with no kids at home. These consumers, who have a lot of disposable income, are often loyal -- and frequent -- shoppers, says Dillon. At hotels, pet owners who bring their buddies stay longer. At restaurants, they're repeat customers. Love the customer's pet, say business owners, and you've got a patron for life.
It's a balancing act, of course. For every customer who insists on shopping and dining with Fifi, there's a diner with a dander allergy and a patron who'd rather not share the changing rooms with a Great Dane. Home Depot Canada rescinded its pet-friendly policy last year after a shih tzu bit a store associate on the nose. And a recent TripAdvisor survey found that while 57 percent of pet owners welcome animals in a plane cabin, the majority of nonowners prefer to see dogs stashed in cargo. But the critics may soon be outvoted by Americans who believe their pets deserve a spot at the lunch counter -- and are voting with their dollars. Los Angeles retail consultant and interior designer Deborah Glovier takes Seven, her 103-pound Doberman pinscher, just about everywhere she goes: to brunch, the salon, shopping on Rodeo Drive. "If dogs aren't allowed," she says, "we won't go."
To truly experience life in the new animal kingdom, of course, you need to hit the road with a pet. That's why, in our role as one of our magazine's more recently minted pet owners, we found ourselves on the phone with United Continental, booking a trip to pet-friendly Portland, Ore., with Minnie, our excitable 19-pound border collie papillon mix. After learning that we'd have to stick Minnie under the seat, we agreed to the suggested upgrade for extra legroom ($205). And at the airport, we discovered Minnie's carrier counted as a carry-on, so we spent another $50 to check suitcases. Then there was the $250 charge for her boarding pass. What started as a $750 round-trip fare turned into a $1,255 bonanza for United.
The business world's growing animal mania can be controversial -- after all, almost 40 percent of Americans don't even own a pet. Here, some areas where the fur has flown.
Tim Ford, president of Sherpa, a pet-travel-bag outfit that works closely with airlines, says there's a lot at stake. A major airline typically accommodates 500 pets a day, he says, and at roughly $150 in extra revenue per pet, it adds up -- that's $27 million a year. No wonder all the major U.S. airlines now allow pets on board. Still, flying with your dog can be a nerve-racking experience. Would our furry buddy bark? Throw up? Explode in midair? Then there are the horrified looks from fellow passengers -- it's worse than showing up with a baby. To appease pet-free fliers, most airlines limit the number of animals per flight and confine them to carriers. (For good reason: In 2010, US Airways had to ground a flight after a traveler let a terrier escape; it bit a fellow passenger and a flight attendant.) Perhaps the only positive aspect of flying with Minnie was getting waved past the nudie scanners at security. Even the Transportation Security Administration, it seems, draws the line at x-raying a border collie. (The agency says it doesn't x-ray animals, but their owners can still be scanned.)
But while the airlines appear to be accommodating pets only grudgingly, hotels are throwing a welcome party for the furry set. Mary Ann Dennis, VP at Caesars Entertainment, says eight of her outfit's Las Vegas resorts opened their doors to dogs last year, after a pilot program showed that the policy appealed to everyone from trendy singles to high rollers. Going dog-friendly required dozens of changes, ranging from the addition of pet-relief areas to rejiggering the reservations system. While it remains a small slice of the business -- Caesars books 1,200 pet reservations a month on its 23,000 Vegas rooms -- Dennis says it differentiates her brand from the competition. Besides, she adds, pet guests book slightly longer stays and may also book more frequently.
Although Caesars charges a $50 pet fee, a growing number of hotels do not -- a surprising development, considering the cost of accommodating animals. David Berger, general manager of the Sheraton Miami Airport, says his hotel has no surcharge even though every room gets a rug shampoo, curtain steam cleaning and mattress-pad washing after a pet visit, which costs about $20 per room. It's worth it for the incremental bookings, not to mention the added excitement: The hotel says it recently hosted a penguin that slept in the shower on a bed of ice. Still, while Rover can stay at the Sheraton, he still can't get the penthouse -- Berger says he limits pets to lower floors near the exits (closest to "relief areas"). And hotels in general tread a tricky line as they try to avoid affronting pet-free travelers. Most ban big dogs, and many frown on pets left alone in the room.
In Portland, we chose Hotel Monaco, which, like most hotels in the Kimpton chain, offers pet-sitting, bowls, treats and beds, along with -- by special arrangement -- pet massage, walking service and sessions with a pet psychic. Best of all, the place has its own director of pet relations, a 6-year-old yellow lab named Timmy who has his own e-mail address. Minnie appeared to enjoy her stay: She promptly tore up her complimentary leopard-print squeaky bone, spreading the cotton stuffing all over our suite. She devoured the organic carrot biscuit (very Portland!), and held her tail high when the doorman greeted her by name. Dogs were welcome in the lobby, and Minnie spent an afternoon lounging on the plush carpets as the piano man sang Gershwin at the baby grand. One disappointment: Timmy. We were suspicious when his e-mail reply to a note "from Minnie" was cosigned by a human interloper. When we first tried to meet him, he was "busy in the back room learning the phone system." And when he finally made an appearance, he gave us a doleful look and stuck his nose in the trash can. Minnie, who takes a different approach to greetings (32,000 kisses!), looked a little hurt.
The pet-travel phenomenon has created all sorts of opportunities for clever entrepreneurs. Manufacturers offer accessories ranging from $200 strollers and booster seats to pet passport wallets and car hammocks. The number of online pet-travel directories has mushroomed, with developers churning out smartphone apps that locate the nearest pet-friendly restaurant, hotel or church. Then there's the boom in events catering to dog lovers. New York City accountant Erika Searle loves planning vacations for her terriers Ginger and Cubby. She's taken them on a canine cruise in Washington, D.C., (they have their own life vests); to doggy walkathons in Virginia and Maryland; and to BlogPaws, a Salt Lake City conference for pet bloggers. She recently attended a pet fashion show in Philadelphia, at which Ginger and Cubby wore custom dresses. A real highlight: Woofstock, an annual festival in Toronto where 300,000 dog lovers gather for pet tricks, high tea and costume competitions. "There's something every weekend," says Searle.
Maybe the oddest of the new businesses is the traveling pet nanny. Sit 'n Stay Global founder Carol Martin charges $500 a day to entertain pets when their owners attend conferences or go scuba diving. Trained by the American Red Cross in pet first aid and CPR, Martin and her team of five often accompany pets on private jets. Armed with a pet oxygen mask and doggy seat restraints, they serve the dog an airplane meal while the "pet parent" reads or works. Once landed, Martin, who says her firm worked with 150 clients last year, entertains the dog with a custom itinerary. She's taken a schnauzer to the Washington Monument, a poodle to the Colosseum and a Yorkie to the Louvre. She recently accompanied a couple and their Chihuahua on a trip to Colorado. The dog went skiing during the day with her parents, but when the couple went out on the town, she relaxed in the lodge with Martin, playing with puzzles, noshing on baby carrots and watching HGTV. "It's hard to amaze me anymore," she says.
No need for a nanny on our trip, during which Minnie had our undivided attention. Portland lived up to its pet-friendly reputation: A Starbucks barista offered Minnie a free "puppuccino" -- a small cup of whipped cream. A homeless bottle collector gave her a chew treat and engaged her in a drunken game of patty-cake. At Powell's Books, the famed Portland megastore, we were surprised to be stopped by a manager: "No animals allowed in the store, period." Marketing manager Michael Drannen later explained that the store was dog-friendly until there were several incidents involving "non-customer-friendly animals." But Powell's was the exception: At a dozen other retailers, from Crate & Barrel, Anthropologie and West Elm to a bevy of local galleries, furniture shops and gift shops, and a bank, Minnie was greeted with smiles and pats.
Some businesses say a pet-friendly policy is simply a nice amenity. TD Bank, one of the nation's 10 largest banks, says its water bowls and organic biscuits are an effort to offer convenience in cities where people do errands while walking their dogs. The Container Store says its open-door pet policy helps prompt conversations with sales clerks. But there's a business benefit as well. Though about 40 percent of Americans own dogs, country-lifestyle retailer Orvis says dog owners represent 80 percent of its customer base. The company puts a heavy emphasis on canine culture, donating a portion of sales to dog causes and running an annual dog-photo catalog-cover contest. "It's, 'Be nice to my dog, and I'll be willing to spend more time and money in your store,'" says marketing director Bill Eyre.
Of all places, restaurants may face the biggest hurdles on the pet-friendly path. The combination of food, animal hair and enclosed space still remains largely taboo: Most municipalities have health codes barring pets from indoor areas in restaurants. Dining alfresco, though, is a different story. Many towns now allow pets in street-side caf s and patios, and locales from Clearwater, Fla., to Santa Barbara, Calif., are revising their health codes accordingly. The National Restaurant Association says it has no stats on the topic, but accommodating pets at restaurant patios seems to be a trend. The latest escalation: the pet menu. The Living Room, in East Hampton, N.Y., offers Rover Easy (scrambled eggs) or a Weight Watchers Pet Treat (for the dog watching his figure) for $8. Art and Soul, a Washington, D.C., soul food restaurant, provides two cuts of steak and a $4 Bowser Beer.
Chef Didier Poirier, owner of 71 Palm, a French-American brasserie in Ventura, Calif., says he opened his patio to dogs as soon as the law allowed. While the pet menu doesn't generate substantial revenue, he says it made his place a hot destination for pet owners. It's listed on several online pet-travel directories; folks from all over California flock to his patio as they pass through town. It's also helped him cultivate a local following. Poirier says customers tell him, "I come back to you because you take care of my dog."
Still, there's a limit to the fun you can have dining with your pet. Was it our imagination or did the waiter at Blue Hour, Portland's fanciest pet-friendly restaurant, approach us warily, as if we were both wild animals? It's one thing to dine alone. Dining alone with your dog on a damp and chilly Oregon evening suggests you've lost your mind. It was our third meal of the day spent shivering at an outdoor caf as the pet-free masses ate in their cozy heated dining rooms. Note to self: Dogs are magical, but they cannot control the weather. Our last Portland meal was enjoyed indoors, while Minnie made friends with the hotel's very own pet sitter. The cost: a very worth-it $10 an hour.