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Black lab Catie Copley, canine ambassador at The Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel, takes a break after a walk, Saturday, July 1, 2006 in Boston. (LISA POOLE/AP)
Black lab Catie Copley, canine ambassador at The Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel, takes a break after a walk, Saturday, July 1, 2006 in Boston. (LISA POOLE/AP)

Tony Wilson

Businesses that fail to be pet friendly do so at their peril Add to ...

I might be the only regular flier in the country that doesn't have a beef with Air Canada.

On a recent trip from Vancouver to five different destinations and back last February with Air Canada and its partners, the service was fabulous. The online ticketing agent who helped with the reservations should be knighted for all the assistance she provided.

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But try as it might, Air Canada often seems to find itself in the middle of reputation management disasters that land on the front pages of newspapers with a big thud, a flat tire and lost bags. This month, the airline lost a dog.

An Italian Greyhound named Larry was being transported between California and Vancouver on Air Canada. Against the wishes of the dog’s owner, an airline employee let the dog out of its cage in San Francisco, presumably to let it stretch its legs before the flight. The dog escaped, and at the time of writing, it’s suspected the animal was hit by a car on the freeway near the airport. If this public relations disaster weren't horrible enough, a spokesperson for Air Canada who intended to send an e-mail about the lost dog to another employee, inadvertently sent it to a news outlet.

“I think I would just ignore, it is local news doing a story on a lost dog,” the e-mail read. “Their entire government is shut down and about to default and this is how the U.S. media spends its time.”

From a reputation management perspective, Air Canada did a fabulous job of shooting itself in both feet. Even though the e-mail wasn't meant for the news outlet, in addition to appearing inept for losing the dog in the first place, Air Canada seemed callous and uncaring about the loss of a dog whose safety it was responsible for, notwithstanding a subsequent apology.

The lesson here? When people or companies in charge of your public relations don’t care enough about protecting your corporate reputation and brand, you might want to think about retraining or even replacing them. If they can't distinguish between “reply” and “reply all” in an e-mail exchange, that’s an even bigger problem. Brand management is too important.

The bigger lesson is this: businesses that don't recognize the importance customers attach to their pets do so at their peril. Are fliers going to be more or less inclined to use Air Canada to ship their pets after this mishap? Might travellers pick alternative airlines for their own travel because Air Canada is perceived to be careless and heartless about pets?

The reverse is also true. Businesses that accommodate customers with pets can conceivably tap into a huge market of other like-minded pet owners.

All you have to do is visit Fairmont Hotels in Canada to notice that some of them have a “house dog” in the lobby. I’ve seen them at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver and at the Fairmont Tremblant. At Château Whistler, dogs are everywhere – and in Whistler in general – because they are staying with their owners who are there precisely because the hotel is pet friendly.

Richard Avis owns the Aussie Pet Mobile franchise in Canada – a mobile pet grooming service – and he collects statistics on pet ownership and the importance of having a “pet friendly” business attitude.

“It's astounding how big the pet business is to the Canadian economy,” he says. “Over $6.5-billion is spent every year on pets. Fifty-six per cent of Canadian households have at least one dog or cat. Most have cats only (23 per cent), or dogs only (20 per cent), while 13 per cent have both. And 59 per cent of Canadians say the bond they share with their pet is as strong or stronger than the bonds they share with their family and friends.”

Our collective love affair with our pets manifests itself in businesses that are specifically targeted to them: you can buy toys for your dogs, dog sweaters, boots for cold paws, life jackets, “gourmet” pet food, and other products meant to humanize them. Aussie Pet Mobile is part of that wave.

But what about non-pet businesses? “How many retail shops have you visited where the owner brings his or her dog to work?” Mr. Avis asks. “Just watch all the customers go pet the dog. Like-minded dog owners gravitate to businesses that are dog friendly.”

With the high cost of veterinary bills, the pet insurance market is getting bigger, and even the legal industry is adapting through an increasingly popular area called “animal law,” which deals with issues such as how your estate can provide for the welfare of your pets if you predecease them.

If your dog, your cat or even your parrot dies before you do, Eric Spitznagel has written in Bloomberg BusinessWeek about the growth of the pet funeral business in a piece aptly named There's Never Been a Better Time to Be a Dead Pet.

So whatever business you're in, give some thought to making it pet friendly, and encourage your customers to bring their pets into the shop as “members of their family.”

To show Air Canada is truly pet friendly, a week before the airline lost Larry the dog, WestJet lost two cats in Vancouver International Airport. One of the cats was lost for days, but it was recovered by one of Air Canada’s personnel.

Tony Wilson is a franchising, licensing and intellectual property lawyer at Boughton Law Corp. in Vancouver, he is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University (SFU), and he is the author of two books: Manage Your Online Reputation, and Buying a Franchise in Canada. His opinions do not reflect those of the Law Society of British Columbia, SFU or any other organization.

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