Navigating the laws and expectations of guests who travel with animals can be tricky for hoteliers, but the first step to success is training staff.
On a recent (way-too-early) morning flight, I cursed myself as I struggled in my skinny suit before finally taking off my jacket and almost getting comfortable. Just as my blood pressure started to come down, the flight attendant chirped, “Don’t jinx things or you’ll end up next to someone with an emotional support miniature pony—or a goose that doesn’t stop honking the entire flight. True stories!”
As a passenger, I shuddered at the thought. As a hospitality professional, it reminded me that when it comes to animals and our industry, setting guidelines—or even understanding the law—is beyond tricky. Airlines transport more than 2 million pets and other live animals every year in the U.S.
By law, airlines are required to accommodate both service animals and emotional support animals (birds, pigs and monkeys included). But the Department of Transportation recently proposed new rules that would prevent all animals except specially trained service dogs from traveling in the cabin for free—a move intended to prevent passengers from falsely claiming their pets are service animals and cut down on travel chaos.
Things get even murkier for the hotel industry, where laws regarding animals remain open to interpretation. As hotel professionals, we’re left to wrestle with this question: When and where should we allow animals on our properties in a way that keeps hotels accessible while remaining respectful of all guests?
This is a tough—and, frankly, insomnia-inducing—question for several reasons:
- We fear the reviews. There, I said it! We care about our reputations and don’t want to be blasted online, get trashed in surveys or have our social media pages blow up for being the hotel that accidentally discriminated against a client’s service animal.
- We’ve heard the horror stories. One example: “The night auditor gave the guest with a service animal the ‘pet room’ and added a $50 charge.” Cue the registered mail your GM receives a week later.
- We dread the training. We probably haven’t properly trained our front-line staff to deal with these tricky issues—and it’s tough to know where to start.
To help understand what we’re dealing with exactly, let’s first look at the letter of the law. According to Title II and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, service animals (such as guide dogs) are allowed in hotels and protected under the law—if they are required as a result of a disability and are needed and trained to perform a specific task or tasks. The ADA strictly prohibits hotels from limiting accommodations for those travelling with service animals to “pet-friendly” rooms—meaning your team would potentially be illegally discriminating if they did so. Additionally, service animals are allowed to go anywhere guests can because they serve a specific purpose in aiding an individual. This includes all public places, including restaurants and bars. (One notable exception is the pool, where service animals are allowed on the deck area but not in the water.)
Unfortunately, the law doesn’t require service animals to have standardized training or wear any kind of identification, to avoid discriminatory and potentially hazardous situations. The ADA also only allows your hotel team members to ask two very specific questions: (1) “Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?” and (2) “What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?”
Applying the law for service animals can be confusing, and it puts the burden on hotel owner-operators and our staff.
On emotional support animals, the law gets even trickier. These animals, which the ADA defines as “emotional support, therapy, comfort or companion animals,” do not qualify as service animals and are therefore not protected by law. Still, some fine-print exceptions exist, such as rule that considers animals that calm their owners during panic attacks as “psychiatric service animals.” Also, we should keep in mind that even well-meaning dog owners could easily be confused about all the rules and regulations, thanks to plenty of misleading information about ways to credential your pet as an “official” (if not necessarily legal) emotional support animal.
Frustrated yet? It’s no wonder that as an industry, we dread dealing with animals on our properties. But there are ways we can do better—and the first step is training, however daunting it might seem. If we as an industry put together programming on the topic, as we have with human trafficking, we’ll have a fighting chance to better educate our front-line team members. Sensitivity training would also help by making these situations generally less tense, likely resulting in better outcomes.
So, let’s train our teams to ask the right (legally appropriate) questions and better understand the broader issue. After all, we’re in the hospitality business and are here to serve all guests, four-legged ones included.
Shreyas “JR” Patel is the Founder, President, and Chief Operating Officer of Helix Hospitality, a multi-faceted, Chicago-based hospitality company with services including hotel investment, ownership, management and construction/renovation. Patel’s innovative leadership swiftly expanded the company portfolio to include 11 properties and 300 employees in under 10 years, and directly influenced the investment portfolio growth from under $1M to over $100M. His success earned him a spot in Crain’s 2019 Chicago Notable Entrepreneurs list, which profiles entrepreneurs who have influenced and made significant impact within the Chicago business community.
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