Thursday 8 December 2016

Pet-friendly holidays? Nine out of 10 dogs check WoofAdvisor

Gerry Molloy set up WoofAdvisor - the 'canine equivalent' of TripAdvisor - because he believed more people would take their dogs on holiday if it were easier to do so. Is he right? Or is he barking up the wrong tree, asks Louise McBride

Published 22/11/2015 | 02:30

'This is my third career and it's a big departure for me. I have to get it right,' says Gerry Molloy of WoofAdvisor.com. Photo: Gerry Mooney
'This is my third career and it's a big departure for me. I have to get it right,' says Gerry Molloy of WoofAdvisor.com. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Like many of the best ideas, it came about largely by accident. In fact, his sister's experience of being given a hotel room with no windows - simply because she took her Springer Spaniel on holidays with her - is what inspired Mayo man, Gerry Molloy to set up WoofAdvisor.com.

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"I came up with the idea for the business in a very Irish way - that is, over a pint," says Gerry Molloy. "I was catching up with my siblings and two of them had been away for a few days just before we met.

"They had both been to a hotel in the West of Ireland and both had brought their own dogs. They both got bum rooms even though they had booked well in advance. My sister ended up with a Springer Spaniel in a room with no windows."

He believes the reason his siblings got such bad rooms was because they had brought their dogs with them. In fact, Ireland is "pretty pet unfriendly" when it comes to hotels and other holiday accommodation, he said.

"Ireland doesn't have a good reputation here and it's probably deserved," says Gerry. "England varies. There are parts of Cumbria and Wales that are extraordinarily pet friendly - but there are other parts of England which aren't pet friendly at all. France is out and out the most pet friendly place - you can bring your dog almost anywhere in France."

Gerry's siblings explained to him that they had no way of independently knowing how pet-friendly a hotel was before booking it - as there was no resource providing such information.

"There are so many pet lovers and so many people travelling with pets now that I thought this was extraordinary," says Gerry. "More people would travel with their dogs if it were simpler to do so."

It was this experience of his siblings - as well as the knowledge that many people are unhappy leaving their pets behind when travelling - which prompted him to set up WoofAdvisor.com in late 2013. He formally launched the business - and its website - in September 2015.

He describes WoofAdvisor as the "canine equivalent" of TripAdvisor. Pet owners can check the website to find out exactly how pet-friendly or unfriendly a hotel or holiday destination is before they book it.

"Four out of 10 hotels don't take pets, even though they describe themselves as 'pet-friendly' on their websites," says the entrepreneur. "Even if a hotel does allow pets, it won't always tell you on the website - and only a tiny amount of them will give you a pet policy.

"The pet policy is important - because even if a hotel says it is pet-friendly, the pet may not be allowed in the hotel room. It may be kept in a kennel on the grounds instead. This can be very distressing for the pet."

Your access to parts of the hotel grounds can also be restricted if you have your pet with you.

"A hotel might say you have a garden room so you expect access to the garden as a result," he says. "However, when you get there, you could find that the dog may not be allowed in the public areas of the hotel, including the garden. So the dog could be locked up in the room for the duration of your stay."

WoofAdvisor also gives information on dog-friendly beaches, walks and parks as well as details of vets, pet-sitters, and pet boarding and daycare in various holiday destinations - so that pet owners can better plan their trip.

"When you're travelling with a dog, especially on long journeys, you often need to take breaks along the way," he points out. "Finding the right exit for dog friendly parks, beaches and so on is not always easy - especially when travelling by motorway, so our website has a trip planner which lets you find dog-friendly amenities and pet services en route.

"Also, even if you go to a pet-friendly hotel, during the course of your holiday you may be going for a round of golf or some other activity where you can't being the dog along. So you need to know if there is any 'doggie daycare' nearby - and the website provides information on daycare."

Pet owners often pay a premium for their holidays - whether they bring their pet with them or not.

"Leave your dog or cat with a petsitter when you go away and you could pay between €25 and €30 a night for the care," warns Gerry. "Take your pet with you and some hotels don't charge anything extra - but some charge an extra €10 a night. Some hotels in Britain would charge you an extra €50 a night.

"The reason for the extra charge is that hotels often say that a room needs to be deep cleaned after a pet has been in it - particularly for guests who may be prone to allergies and so on."

Pet owners however, are willing to pay a premium to bring their pets with them on holidays, he explains.

"Kennels are going out of fashion," he says. "A lot of people who have used kennels in the past won't use them anymore. Not everyone has had a good experience with kennels."

WoofAdvisor largely focuses on travel advice for those with dogs - because cats don't travel well.

"About 85pc of people who travel with pets travel with dogs," he explains. "The website primarily caters for those travelling by car - the number of dogs flying in a plane would be tiny. Very few airlines allow you to take pets in the cabin."

WoofAdvisor will initially target the British and Irish markets - but Gerry Molloy hopes to take on France and North America after that.

"Ireland isn't a big market in terms of pet travel. In Britain, there are over nine million households with dogs - that's about a quarter of British households. A majority of those households are now travelling with their dogs - often on multiple trips annually.

"In the United States, some 36.5pc of households have dogs - and again, a clear majority of owners are travelling with their dogs. Dog ownership levels are huge in France. So I think there's a huge market for this."

It is free for hotels to list on WoofAdvisor. The company expects to largely make its money from referral links - where it will be paid a flat rate each time a visitor to WoofAdvisor clicks a link on that site to visit the website of a hotel or other accommodation provider.

"We'll definitely be talking to sponsors too," he says. "Less than a fifth of pets in Britain are insured - yet pets are living longer and costing a lot more money. So I think insurers would be interested in sponsoring the website."

Gerry Molloy, who is 61-years-old, is originally from Ballina in Co Mayo. He now lives in Glenageary, Co Dublin, with his wife. He initially started his career in contract flooring and after that he worked with a security company.

Age discrimination in the workplace is one of the reasons Mr Molloy decided to set up his own business at this stage in his life. He believes that anyone in their mid-40s or older will struggle to find an employer eager to take them on.

"I'm of a certain age so I knew that if I was going to do something, I would have to do it myself," he said. "I've done a few courses in recent years. There was a good age spread on these courses. People aged 45 and upwards who were on these courses often said they were too old to be employed - and so they were going to have to set themselves up as self-employed."

Gerry Molloy plans to spend the next few months building up WoofAdvisor and talking to potential investors.

"This is my third career and it's a big departure for me," he says. "The business is a huge investment for me, because I don't have a huge amount of resources behind me. So I have to get it right."

What may strike you as odd is that Gerry isn't a pet owner himself. However he cherishes his fond memories of his childhood pet Brandy - an Alsatian Cross.

"Brandy let us wrap him up in a blanket and carry him around like a hunting trophy, or blow dry his hair, all the time chewing contentedly on a beef bone," recalls Gerry.

"On my wife's side, their much loved Labradors were raised on fillet steak, with a drop of brandy and hot water bottles to deal with the arthritis that Labradors are prone to.

"I have an abiding memory of my wife's family setting off for a trip in the family Morris Minor - the mother driving, the Labrador in the passenger seat, and the seven children in the back. Priorities!"

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