Conventional wisdom is that the pandemic saw an explosion of dog ownership in the UK and 2023 research from UK Pet Foods shows that 31% of households now own a dog – that’s 13 million pooches in total.  So why is that relevant for visitor attractions?

Having run dozens of focus groups in the past few months looking at hooks and barriers to visiting attractions, one of the themes that continually ‘pupped’ up among audiences was the limitations that dog ownership placed on attraction visiting.  In particular, the relative practicalities of visiting outdoor and indoor spaces.  Indeed, whilst it was universally recognised that fear of catching Covid was the main contributory factor towards the sluggish return to indoor attractions in 2020 and 2021, we began to wonder whether the boom in dog ownership also had a significant impact.

Using our bi-annual public sentiment survey commissioned by The Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA), we added a couple of questions to examine the impact that owning a dog has on attitudes towards visiting attractions.

Among the dog owning public, 58% felt that having a dog had an impact upon their attraction visiting behaviour in some way.  Most importantly of all, they needed to feel that the attraction actively welcomed, what is for many, a key member of their family – over a third feeling that an attraction had to be overtly dog friendly or at least communicate that they allow dogs in order to provide that reassurance around visiting.

We need to remember that responsible dog owners are very aware of their impact on those around them, so almost need to be invited to use the spaces that attractions provide.  Wakehurst, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew’s garden in West Sussex, provides a great example of how to welcome dogs (and their owners) without alienating other visitors.

Wakehurst provides a specially curated dog walking route map and begins its dedicated dog walking web page with the words “We are excited to welcome your four-legged friends for walks across our 500-acre wild botanic garden at Wakehurst” – that critical active encouragement to visit, not simply permission.  They communicate their designated off-lead area, not only a positive for dog owners but a subtle reassurance message for other visitors that leads are required across the majority of the site.  In case of any doubt, they are also explicit about the dog friendly nature of both the café and shop.

Importantly, Wakehurst also sets out their ‘Canine Code’, recognising the wide range of motivations that visiting audiences – both dog owners and others – arrive with.  This includes specific ‘dog-free’ areas.

Further information on Wakehurst’s dog friendly approach can be found here:  https://www.kew.org/wakehurst/whats-on/dog-walking-at-wakehurst

Wakehurst is perhaps that archetypal illustration of the type of attraction that we all recognise as benefitting from the increase in dog ownership during the pandemic – an outdoor, sprawling site.  But what about indoor attractions with limited space?  How might they tackle the issue?

Whilst example are limited, one indoor attraction that has identified dog owners as an opportunity is Tower Bridge, which bills itself as ‘London’s only major dog friendly attraction’.  Once again, the designated webpage overtly states that dogs are welcome and that they understand that they are part of the family.  They even provide a couple of quotes from happy dog owners who have visited.  Alongside, for the reassurance of other visitors, are the ‘few simple rules’ that need to be abided by.  Details of Tower Bridge’s approach can be found here https://www.towerbridge.org.uk/plan-your-visit/dog-friendly

Perhaps most encouragingly, the survey for ALVA demonstrated that very few dog owners ruled out visiting attractions altogether, although some said that they were limited in terms of the distance that they were prepared to travel on a day trip.  So whilst attractions perhaps need to tread carefully (a reminder of the need for poo bins there!), there appears to be increasing evidence that, with some carefully crafted rules, active encouragement of dog owners may just open up an opportunity among this enormous audience.

For more blogs on travel, leisure and insights issues, visit www.decisionhouse.co.uk/our-opinion

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