Take pets, for example. About 10 or 15 years ago, there was an unprecedented elevation of pets in American culture. Pets were becoming an even more important part of the American family and the mantra that "pets are people, too" seemed to capture the idea that there was now a new segment for us to market to.
It certainly didn't take long for hotels and travel-related businesses to embrace this burgeoning trend. A small-scale arms race fueled the "Pet Wars" as virtually every hotel chain took steps to declare itself pet-friendly, and the higher ends of the market saw hotels try to one-up each other by offering everything from lavish doggie dinners prepared in room to jewel-encrusted collars as part of a Valentine's Day pooch package.
Unfortunately, it seems that this rush to action may have convinced most travel brands that they have already responded to the pet thing and now have it covered. We've checked off that box and now it's time to address the next big thing (like single travelers, but we'll leave that for a future post).
The reality is that there are more pets in the United States today than there are people -- 377 million pets and about 290 million people. In fact, over 87 million U.S. households have pets and 39% of all U.S. homes have at least one dog. Talk about market penetration.
Pets are indeed fueling a societal phenomenon that continues to gain momentum. How else can you explain the fact that 55% of pet owners consider themselves a mom or a dad to their pets; that nearly one-third of pet owners talk to their pets through the phone or through the answering machine; or that 33% of married women believe that their pets are better listeners than are their husbands.
Most significantly, people are showing their affection for their pets through their wallets, with pet spending in 2009 growing 5.4% and reaching over $45 billion annually.
And, it's not as though the travel industry hasn't already reaped some benefit by paying attention to this market. Over 29 million Americans have travelled with their pets in the last three years and over 79% of pet owners who travel say that they stay at designated pet-friendly lodging each year, with 48% staying three or more times. Just as impressive is the fact that over two million pets fly annually (a staggering number given how uninviting the airlines can make the experience for animals.)
Amidst all these positives, however, are some numbers that suggest we just might be ignoring an opportunity for further growth from this expansive market. While 70% of Americans say they would prefer to travel with their pets, only about 18% actually do. That's a huge gap between preference and action and one that all of us in the travel industry should be working to close.
Rather than being content with our existing pet-focused efforts, our industry should be looking for ways to make travel an essential ingredient in the lives of a pet and their owner. Rather than just accepting and accommodating pets, we should be developing innovative ways to cater to them and their owners beyond dog treats and packages assembled for PR purposes rather than customer consumption.
More than just having people travel with their pet, there's an opportunity to create an experience where pet and owner are equal participants in a vacation escape that enhances and strengthens the relationship between owners and their pets.
We operate properties that are short drives from major urban markets that could be ideal (and welcome) retreats for people and their pets. And, we build stables and equestrian centers and other facilities at our resorts, so why not dog centers? There are no doubt lessons to be learned from PetAirways, which is flying pets-only in the main cabin, and places like Camp Dogwood outside Chicago where the experience is about education and promoting a total immersion between dogs and their owners.
There are no signs of the American love affair with their pets waning anytime soon, which means that the opportunity is sure to grow. With people again starting to travel, there's never been a greater need to differentiate your brand and appeal to a targeted audience.
Here's a chance to create something that appeals strongly to every member of the family.
Even if their name is Fido.