Ben Grefsrud / msnbc.com
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/21/2007 4:19:16 PM ET 2007-11-21T21:19:16

Organized group travel has always been a popular way for people to see places and make new friends. Now, the latest trend among pet lovers is traveling with their dogs on “pack”-aged tours. Consequently, this innovative vacation style has spawned a new breed of pet-centric travel consultant — namely the canine companion concierge.

Since the Internet has largely taken over the travel business, many former travel agents are upgrading to fit into this new niche and concentrating on sniffing out pet-friendly places to go and things to do that owners can enjoy with their animals.

And there’s no shortage of pet-friendly accommodations, stores, outings and activities. It’s simply up to the canine concierge to leash it all together.

“It’s definitely big business,” said John Clifford president of International Travel Management, a San Diego-based travel consultant that focuses on luxury travel and exotic destinations for a clientele with a disposable income and a dog on a leash.

“In particular, this travel market is catering to baby boomers and empty nesters. Instead of going it alone, they are teaming up and traveling with friends or looking for organized group tours that plan itineraries catering specifically for their pets too.”

According to Donna Carsten of Bailey Knows Travel in Sherman Oaks, Calif., a travel company that specializes in tours for pets and their people, the biggest hurdle to marketing many interesting and fun destinations is getting the group there.

“Because airlines limited the number of pets allowed onboard each flight, it’s not possible to get 30 people and their pets to a destination as a group,” Carsten said. “So for now, all the tours we arrange are dependent on travelers making their own plans to get there and the group arrangements kick in when they are all at the destination.”

Carsten spoke with “several airlines about this problem” hoping they will reconsider their pet policies. ”This will hugely impact on the success of group travel to farther destinations both within the United States and to Europe.”

Airlines have declined to comment, which is likely an indication that the issue isn't on their “to-do” list.

California has plenty of pet-friendly destinations. By keeping it local, Carsten has planned several very successful group itineraries to places such as Cambria and Santa Barbara.

“Cambria is situated equally between Los Angeles and San Francisco and thus is accessible from both cities both by road and by air as the nearest airport is in San Luis Obispo,” she said. “Our itinerary to this quaint beachside artist colony includes wine tours to nearby Paso Robles and Hearst’s Castle. Although, the latter doesn’t allow pets, we offer a pet sitting service so that people can go off and tour knowing their fur kids are being entertained.”

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The tours include four-star accommodations, food and entrance fees. A three-day getaway runs about $500 per person, Carsten said.

“This type of tour can be arranged anywhere in the country. Right now we have tours to New York and Mexico in the works and are also considering Colorado because it offers activities such as hiking and rafting for pets. We are also planning skijoring tours to various East Coast destinations.”

For a group tour to be successful, participating pets have to be well-behaved around people and other pets. Only spayed and neutered pet tourists are accepted.

“As far as personal canine hygiene is concerned, people who travel with their pets keep them very well groomed so there’s never an issue regarding doggy smells or fleas,” Carsten said.

“Our Web site focuses on telling people about pet-friendly places and destinations so the next logical step would be to plan organized tours ourselves,” says Chris Kingsley of the popular pet Web site petswelcome.com. “We are talking to travel agents [about] planning simple getaways to places like Vermont in autumn and making it a walking tour that both people and their pets will enjoy.”

Another spin-off for canine concierges, Kingsley said, would be digging up good deals on tours for pet lovers — without their pets.

“Cruises where pet lovers get together, attend workshops and meet pet celebrities would work well even if pets have to stay home.”

Many pet-centric groups are already organizing tours of their own. Friends of Roman Cats, a welfare organization based in San Francisco that raises money to assist the welfare of Italy’s feral cat population, has already run three very popular Cats and Culture tours to Italy and has another planned for next year.

“Naturally our focus is on visiting famous feral colonies such as Torre Argentina in Rome, Venice's Lido Island and the Boboli Gardens in Florence.” One tour follows a woman who has been feeding cats for the past 19 years, “but we include popular cultural tourist sights on our itinerary too,” said Susan Wheeler, who coordinates the organization's travel arrangements.

“We can arrange anything,” Clifford confirmed. “People only have to ask. Pet-centric events such as the Crufts Dog Show in England and the Westminster Dog Show in New York always draw tourists and are prime events for pet-friendly packaged tours.”

In recent years, the pet travel industry has overcome huge stumbling blocks, such as allowing pets in airline cabins and ridding quarantine regulations to England and Europe. If they can  negotiate with airlines to allow more dogs onboard certain flights, with a couple of canine concierges going along for the ride, then the world will no longer just be the pet traveler’s oyster but a very juicy bone.

Sandy Robins is an award-winning pet lifestyle writer. She is the recent recipient of the Humane Society of the United States' Pets for Life Award. Her work appears in many national and international publications.

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