The new deluxe travelers: Humans welcome, too
BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. — In the stove-lined kitchen of the ritzy Loews Beverly Hills Hotel, sous-chef Michael Thrash is a man on a culinary mission. He delicately slices scallions and carrots, flambés prime filet mignon, and scrambles eggs with rice in a clarified butter sauce. He slices the steak into bite-size chunks and arranges a room service tray for Room 12 - replete with bottled Evian water.
Minutes after delivering his creation with a discreet rap on the hotel room door, Chef Thrash receives an animated compliment: the high-pitched yap of a Wheaton terrier.
It is a trend that is driving some fellow vacationers completely around the dogleg, but is luring thousands of Americans out of their stay-at-home cocoons. A growing number of travel industries are making new efforts to design ways so that the furry, feathered, and fanged can join in on the great American vacation.
• At Colorado Canine Adventure Trips in Boulder, dogs and owners raft and camp in the Rocky Mountain Brown's Canyon.
• At Dog Days of Wisconsin in Waukesha, campers and their pets can sign up for First Aid, agility classes, and Barks and Crafts as well as enjoy water sports and hiking trails with their favorite pooch.
• At the Aquarium at Key West, Fla., dogs, cats, hamsters, parrots, and other pets are all welcomed at sting ray and shark feedings as well as guided tours of fish tanks and turtle quarters.
"There is a great social shift in America where pets have transitioned from being ornaments and playthings in backyards and family rooms to being considered part of the family," says Tierra Griffiths, spokeswoman for the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. "The travel industry has begun to tap into that deeper sense of companionship between pet lovers and their pets."
With their eyes on the $32.4 billion that pet owners shelled out last year for amenities ranging from doggie goggles to pet-sleeping bags, she and others say more companies are catering to this demand. According to AAA, the number of lodgings now accepting pets has perked up this year - 8 percent in 2003 compared to 4 percent in two prior years - partly because of 9/11.
"The word is getting out that you can travel widely and do more activities with your dogs and other pets and so its becoming normal and even expected by more and more people," says Tara Kain, president of dogfriendly.com, a website that publishes guidebooks to dog-friendly hotels and tourist destinations. Five years ago the trend was building slowly, she says. Now, aided in part by the Internet (such as takeyourpet.com or pettravel.com) which makes it easier to find and schedule pet-friendly accommodations and activities in every state, the idea is taking off.
"The hotel and travel industry has been depressed for the past couple of years and travel operators of all kinds are trying to come up with ways to reverse that trend," says Janie Graziani, spokeswoman for AAA. Of those who travel with pets, AAA studies show 14 percent travel with cats and 78 percent with dogs. Thirty million canines are first mates of the open road. Why not give them more to do?
Also bolstering the interest, she and others say, are US demographic trends. There simply are greater numbers of singles and the elderly - many of whom rely on pets for companionship. Research on the health benefits of owning pets (promoting calm amidst overscheduled lives) is finding a responsive audience. The US pet population has reached 353 million animals - with some 62 percent of all US households owning at least one pet - and travel operators are playing into the fact that people are loath to leave them alone.
"Every year we sit around and wonder why we are shelling out money for sitters and kennels when we'd rather take our dog with us anyway," says Andy Spann, an Encino father of two and owner of a 5-year-old collie named Jingles. "My kids would rather take him with us to the wilderness where they have room to really let loose."
Pet services of all kinds (walking, grooming, day care, obedience training) have been growing hand over paw for years. Pet-friendly accommodations not only widens the net of possible first-time customers but creates loyal repeat customers.
"We often see that businessman are returning when they come here for business because they had such a good time here on vacation [with their pets]," says Tony Phillips, spokesman for Loews Hotels' pet program.
The amount of money Americans are shelling out for four-legged vacations as well as canine backpacks and hiking boots is an unhealthy obsession to some observers. Some hotels have gone so far as to offer the pet's choice of filler for pillows - from feathers, to foam, to barley.
"I recall the Romans, just pre-fall, became renowned for their decadence, luxuriating in the most shallow, venal, and sensual of pleasures," says Craig Kinsley, chairman of the psychology department at the University of Richmond. "Can treating pets and catering to them as one of the family ... be any less silly? As the world closes in on us, with its ever-tightening noose of hatred, disgust, and anger, we sit in our plush SUVs, gas streaming and air conditioning blasting, pondering at which doggie spa to drop off Fido. Where does it stop?"
Mr. Kinsley is not alone. Karen Perkins, owner of Three Dog Bakery in Santa Barbara, which serves gourmet treats for dogs and has a "Yappy Hour" for owners and their pets, hears snide comments all the time.
"Every day we get someone in here who says, 'Are you for real?'" says Ms. Perkins. "They want to know if we've dropped our brains."
Some local chambers of commerce in heavy tourist areas have gotten complaints that pets in hotels create smells, bark at night, and scare housekeepers. Restaurants which have begun accommodating those with pets also report complaints from patrons less than happy with a panting Doberman eyeing their shrimp scampi.
"There is another side to this which is that we will get the occasional guest who says he is unable to sleep because a dog has kept whining all night," says concierge Jill at the Casa De Luces hotel in Key West. New hotel policy requires pets to either be out on a walk or safely contained before rooms can be made over.
But the string of complaints doesn't bother Donna Carsten of Bailey Knows Travel, which is in its first year of business designing trips only for groups who want to travel with their pets.
"Hotels say they are pet friendly but that doesn't mean they are," says Ms. Carsten, who is planning dog-owner excursions in Sedona, Paris, and Cancún. "As [people] get older and children leave home, animals are really becoming the last place of unconditional love for them. They are looking for ways to integrate pets further into their lives and vacations."