With more than a million users and 100,000 listings, BringFido.com’s founder Melissa Halliburton has built a thriving business out of finding pet-friendly places
When Melissa Halliburton, then a recent MIT graduate, attended a wedding in 2005 and had difficulty finding pet-friendly accommodations nearby for herself and her ever-faithful traveling companion, Rocco, she knew she had stumbled onto her new business venture.
Today, Halliburton is president and founder of BringFido.com, a Greenville-based online dog-centric travel directory offering reviews, information and online reservations to more than 100,000 hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, vacation rentals, restaurants and attractions across the world.
UBJ recently sat down with Halliburton and her husband, Jason, who serves as COO, in the company’s headquarters on Commercial Drive in Greenville, where BringFido.com practices what it preaches with a bring-your-dog-to-work policy for its 35 employees, a dog run out back and special doors and security so pets don’t dart out the door when they shouldn’t. Halliburton talked about how the company got started, what’s happening now and plans for the future.
How did it all start?
A few years after I graduated with a business degree from MIT, I adopted a dog [Rocco] and was traveling back and forth from California to Boston and around New England. Every time, I would have to call each hotel to find out what their pet policy was. Even some of the bigger hotel sites might have a pet-friendly icon but no details on what that meant. And it wasn’t necessarily the most up-to-date information. There was no transparency to the hotel’s pet policy.
I was in a wedding in the Cape and the hotel where the wedding was held wasn’t pet-friendly, so I thought, “No big deal, I’ll just book another hotel nearby.” I ended up calling every hotel in the area and finally found one an hour away. I was so frustrated. I talked about my experience and my new business idea with several of my friends from MIT who encouraged me to pursue it.
For the next year, my friends and I called every hotel in the country to get their pet policies and build a database. My brother helped build the back-end booking engine. BringFido.com was the first site ever to do pet-friendly bookings exclusively.
We started getting reservations the first day, so I knew I was on to something. The site was totally different, of course, than it is today. We started with U.S. hotels only. After that, I started adding international hotels and then started adding attractions and restaurants because if you’re traveling with your dog, you don’t just want to leave them in the room the whole time, you want to take them to do stuff, too. So it really just grew from there. We added more and more content over the past 10 years. Now we have more than 100,000 places where you can bring your dog worldwide.
What brought you from Boston to Florida to Greenville?
I really started the company when I moved from Boston to Florida after graduating. I lived in Florida for a few years and met my husband there. When we got pregnant, we thought maybe Florida was OK for younger people and older people but maybe not so much for families. I had visited Greenville in the past and found it was charming. At the same time, I took an online quiz on where my ideal place to live would be and it told me I should live in Greenville. My husband is from Tennessee and Greenville is closer to his family, so it seemed like a perfect fit.
We also decided we wanted to bring our call center in-house and start hiring employees to staff it. We had previously used a Travelocity call center that was based in India but had customer complaints on their service. Greenville offered a low cost of living and great people, so we just decided to go for it and moved here without knowing anyone.
How often is the information on your site updated?
It’s updated daily and each hotel is called once a year. Hotels that are booked frequently are updated pretty much any time a booking is made. We have a team of K-9 concierges who will call the hotel and make sure you are assigned to a pet-friendly room when a reservation is made on our site. That’s important because there are a limited number at most hotels. Because our information is kept up to date, we offer a pet fee guarantee, so whatever amount is listed on the site is what you pay. If the hotel charges something different, we will reimburse our customer.
How do you keep vacation rental info current?
We have about 10,000 vacation rental properties now. We just partnered with Airbnb so we are currently loading all of those properties into our database. It’s still a manual process to contact each property and find out their exact pet policy. Vacation rentals are super popular with dog owners because you can get amenities such as a fenced yard that you can’t get in a hotel. I expect to see that area of the business continue to grow.
What about the industry? Do you see more hotels accepting pets?
It’s definitely increasing. There are a few hotel chains such as Aloft, La Quinta, Motel 6, Kimpton and Loews that are pet-friendly. Some chains leave the decision up to the individual hotel location.
When we first launched the site, there were about 10,000 hotels that allowed pets. Now, there are about 20,000, so it’s about doubled in the past 10 years.
Where does most of your revenue come from?
Our model is basically a travel agency model where we get a commission from the hotel when someone books a room. The customer pays the same rate as they would if they booked elsewhere. We do get some ad revenue but it’s not a huge part of our business. We also work with vacation rental companies and other partners such as pet-sitting businesses where we get a referral fee.
What’s the most unusual request you’ve ever had?
We had a woman who wanted her cat, not just her, to have a view of the Grand Canyon. We get some requests for exotic animals like owls and snakes. We just put a new property on the site near the strip in downtown Las Vegas that has facilities for horses, and we do accommodate all types of animals, even though our focus is 95 percent dogs. We also have customers who need assistance with moving, and we offer hurricane assistance [for pet-friendly hotels when evacuating] and have a relationship with the Red Cross for the U.S.
Talk a little about your book, “Ruff Guide to the United States.”
We self-published the book last year and sell mainly through Amazon and through shelters. About three weeks after I found out I had cancer, my dog Rocco died of cancer, so it was not a great year. As I was going through treatments, we adopted another dog, Ace, and realized that as our new company mascot, he hadn’t traveled anywhere yet. I wanted to share those experiences I had with Rocco, so we went on a road trip across the country. The book is a compilation of some of the best places we went as well as input from our customers. It’s a good bucket list for dogs.
Beyond the website, what else do you do?
We have the website, our mobile app, our call center, the book and pet amenity kits. The pet amenity kits include treats and other pet-friendly items that are distributed through hotels all over the country. We’ve also just partnered with the new Aloft Hotel here in Greenville and will be hosting a monthly Yappy Hour at the hotel beginning Sunday, Feb. 21.
Have you achieved what you set out to do?
I definitely think it’s easier to travel with a pet now, but there’s still more to do. Of the 100,000 places we have in our database, we could probably have a million. When we go on trips, we always find places that we haven’t discovered yet.
Is there anything you would do differently?
I don’t know that I would change much. I liked that I was the only employee for the first five or six years. We’ve never invested any money for marketing; the company’s grown organically. As a family company, we get to make all of the decisions – right or wrong.
What’s next for BringFido.com?
We’re doing a really big website redesign right now that will make it more mobile optimized. More than 60 percent of our traffic comes from mobile devices, so that’s really important. We’re rolling it out in phases – our back end will be up in January, but customers won’t see a change until spring. We are also working on a company loyalty program to encourage customers to use our website.
What are you most proud of?
We have over a million users on the site now and that was a big milestone, as was 100,000 places. People come up to me and tell me that they love BringFido.com so much and that it’s helped them travel with their pets. It makes a difference for people, and that’s what I set out to do.