|By Kyle Stock, The Post and Courier,
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
May 21, 2006 - U.S. residents will spend $38.4 billion on their pets this year, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.
That's about how much major pharmaceutical companies will pay for research in 2006. It's equal to the debt of the United Kingdom. It's roughly the gross domestic product of Kenya, Cuba or Costa Rica.
In other words, we really love, and lavish, our animals.
The hotel industry is beginning to realize as much. Lodgings are increasingly putting out the welcome mat and water dishes for the 63 percent of American households with pets, jockeying to gain a competitive edge and generate new revenue through four-legged fees and services.
"They realize it's a very lucrative market," said Chris Kingsley, co-founder of New York-based Petswelcome.com. "Europe tends to be more dog-friendly, but I think now the United States is coming around. If people want to do it, businesses are going to comply."
Stephanie Smith, a 29-year-old Johns Island resident, became a first-time dog owner three years ago when she adopted Gus, a border collie mix. Weighing in at 65 pounds, it's clear that the "mix" in Gus is from an animal much bigger than a border collie.
"I'm from the South, where dogs stay outside and go hunting, but he's my baby," Smith said.
After she brought Gus home, Smith's father and brother both got dogs. As they planned for a cousin's wedding next week in Atlanta, Smith and her family made sure they found a pet-friendly hotel. It will be Gus' first overnight road trip.
"I'm sure he'll be fine," Smith said. "But if another dog has (wet) on the carpet, you can bet mine is going to mark the spot, too."
Some 14 percent of all U.S. adults have taken a trip exceeding 50 miles with a pet in the past three years, according to the Travel Industry Association of America. Almost 80 percent of those folks were traveling with dogs, while 15 percent brought cats. And industry groups estimate close to half of U.S. hotels are now pet-friendly, including about 30 in the Charleston area.
Most of those lodgings are small inns, bed-and-breakfast establishments or chains aimed at budget travelers. But high-end properties such as the Wentworth Mansion also are letting pets scamper across their posh floors. Charleston Place cashes in on animals by collecting a one-time $75 "cleaning fee." It also offers dog beds, pet sitters and snacks.
"If you look in the Mobil four- and five-star book, you see that many, many, many, very ... nice hotels accept pets," said Paul Stracey, general manager of the 440-room Charleston Place. "It seems to be a trend."
Pets have not caused any "dramatic" problems at the downtown luxury hotel although guests are asked not to leave pets alone in their rooms, he said.
Partly because of hotel fees, pet-related spending has almost doubled in the past decade as more companies claw for a piece of the expanding market. For instance, PetSmart Inc., the Arizona-based retailer, has opened 55 "petshotels" nationwide, touting an upscale boarding service with lobbies, televisions and lambskin blankets. Premier Belts LLC sells a $250 dog collar made from the skin of alligators and young Italian cows. A "dog cap" from Gucci retails for $75. And Lowcountry residents pay $500 to bury a beloved animal at Pet Rest Cemetery & Cremation in Goose Creek.
Leah England, publisher of Lowcountry Dog Magazine, said owners are viewing their pets as more than just domestic companions. Hotels, she noted, now offer toys and day care to pet owners, much as they do to traveling families.
"They really are being treated like children." England said. "People are going to spend the same amount of money on their pets as themselves because they're seeing their pets as extensions of themselves. ... It's who we are."
England lives in Florida now, but when she makes the seven-hour drive to Charleston for work, her 130-pound Great Dane, Poet, comes along with her even though she still has a hard time finding a hotel that will accept a dog that large.
"And it's not like I can sneak her in," England said.
Petswelcome.com is one of a few online sites that offers details on pet-friendly hotels. It lists various fees and restrictions. Launched in 1997, the site attracts between 80,000 and 130,000 individual users every month, according to co-founder Kingsley.
"We just started it just as an informational site, but it's really turned into a business," Kingsley said.
Still, the majority of lodgings pooh-pooh pets.
Noise, particularly barking, can be a problem, and many hotels don't want to gamble with the revenue from animal-averse guests. Kiawah Island Golf Resort does not allow pets in its swanky new Sanctuary hotel, but animals can stay at some of the rental villas. The Wild Dunes Community Association precludes pets in rental property in the Isle of Palms resort. Charleston hotelier Hank Holliday said he recently banned animals at his three downtown properties: the Doubletree Inn & Suites, Hayne Street Inn and Planters Inn.
"Despite all the best intentions and the most sincere pet owner representations and assurances, it seems that most pets tend to leave a little gift or two behind for the hotel staff to deal with," Holliday said.
Charleston resident Ralph Blakely used to bring his German Shepherd and, later, a massive Great Dane as he traveled the country tuning and servicing church organs. Despite the size of his animals, Blakeley said, they never wreaked havoc in a hotel, and he never had a problem finding pet-friendly properties.
"Most hospitality places would rather have a dog than a child," he said.
"And keep in mind that (hotels) have to take people they don't want, too. Compared to some, a well-behaved dog does seem like a pretty calm experience."
BY THE NUMBERS:
29.1 million -- Number of U.S. residents who have taken a trip with their pet in the last three years.
63 -- percent of U.S. households with at least one pet.
$38.4 billion -- annual U.S. pet industry revenue.
$45 -- amount the average dog owner spends on toys every year.
$75 -- fee Charleston Place guests pay to bring along an animal.
Sources: American Pet Products Manufactures Association, Charleston Place, Travel Industry Association of America.
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