What if you could combine your life passions into a single small business and make it successful?

The challenge may seem farfetched. But it proved to be Kim Salerno’s formula for success at Trips with Pets, a growing, Web-based company in South Portland.

Salerno, founder and president of Trips with Pets, just opened an office on Ocean Street in the city’s tiny downtown, after operating for four years in her home.

In July 2003, Salerno took the risk of a lifetime, when she quit a lucrative corporate marketing job in south Florida to launch an e-business that links travelers to pet-friendly lodging.

Salerno fused her love for animals and fascination with the Internet to create Trips with Pets (www.tripswithpets.com).

She also tapped an extensive professional background working in the vacation travel industry as an Internet marketer representing major airlines.

“I’ve always had the entrepreneurial bug,” said Salerno, 43. “I love the Internet, where your market is the entire world.”

Today, Trips with Pets boasts 150,000 unique site visitors per month, posting an average annual increase in site traffic of 47 percent.

Salerno even turned down interest to merge her startup with another Internet company. She says she is too committed to sell out.

Visitors to Trips with Pets seek pet-friendly accommodations by searching a database of more than 20,000 accommodations, from campgrounds to inns and hotels. Salerno’s site offers one of the more comprehensive Internet directories of lodging places in the U.S.

Users also read her pet travel tips and articles, and can buy a range of pet travel accessories, such as the “pup-head portable dog potty” for boats and RVs.

Site users on Trips with Pets tend to be highly educated, older women, a lucrative audience for advertisers, according to Quantcast, a research firm that tracks and measures Internet audiences.

“Sixty-nine percent of our site visitors are women, whose median age is 40 and median household income is $75,000,” Salerno said.

Advertisers on Trips with Pets are many of the pet-friendly hotels listed on her Web site.

In 2007, Salerno introduced a sister retail site – ChooChoo Beans (www.choochoobeans.com) – which exclusively sells dog beds, from fleece-covered pillows to faux suede beds.

After four years of steady growth, Salerno just moved operations from a basement office at her home on Meeting House Hill to South Portland’s downtown business district.

“The business is growing and I need the expanded space,” she said. “I had been outsourcing a lot of work that I now do in-house, and I’ve brought on an assistant. The timing couldn’t be better.”

Salerno said she knew that she wanted to be in the Knightville/Mill Creek area, because it is a short commute from her house and an ideal location to conduct meetings. South Portland is an easy drive from downtown Portland and from the airport.

Lone Wolf Productions, another downtown business, moved to the business district more than a decade ago for similar reasons. The filmmaking company originally located there as a startup with only a few employees.

Salerno said there are “not a lot of options for smaller office space for business people like myself in Mill Creek.” She finally found space, across from Spring Point Marina.

Ingalls Commercial Real Estate leased the space to Salerno. Owner Andrew Ingalls said small businesses with just one or two employees typically have a hard time finding space, no matter the location.

“Usually, a landlord doesn’t want to break up a 1,200 square foot building into three or four offices,” he said.

Ingalls real estate broker Joseph Porta filled the building at 27 Ocean St. with “micro-businesses,” including Trips with Pets and Dial Medical Direct, a health-care firm.

When Trips with Pets moved in, Salerno brought her two dogs with her: Barkley, an 8-year-old flat coated retriever, and Pepper, an 11-year-old Labrador retriever. “They are just part of the office,” she said. “They also are my inspiration.”

Pepper’s photo is featured on Trips with Pets in a section called “Ask the Travel Dog,” where Salerno answer questions from readers.

Salerno brings a personal touch to her Web site. She also has a photo of her mom hugging a dog, as well as a photo of herself.

But it was a keen business sense that drove Salerno to quit her job and pack her bags for Maine to pursue her dream business.

Salerno said she fell in love with the state, after she started dating a man who lives in Greater Portland.

When Salerno launched Trips with Pets, Internet commerce was just gaining momentum and the pet travel industry only starting to grow.

It was a challenge at the time for travelers to find pet-friendly accommodations beyond discount highway motels that allowed pets but did not pamper them. Salerno said she created the site to assist travelers and enable lodging places to directly market their “pet-friendly properties” to pet owners.

Trips with Pets has matured, along with the $40 billion pet industry.

Today, the nation’s finest hotels now let pets stay with guests – for an additional price.

Overall, the tourism industry has discovered that pet owners are more than willing to spend dollars on pet-friendly services, such as hotels and restaurants.

Trips with Pets was a pioneer in the industry. It recently underwent a major expansion to reflect changes in the pet travel industry.

The site added activities that pets and their people can do on vacation together, such as visit pet-friendly parks, outdoor restaurants and beaches.

“People aren’t just satisfied with finding a place to stay with their pet,” she said. “They want to know what they can do together for activities once they reach their destination.”

Salerno also provides handy lists of animal hospitals by city, a directory of hotel pet sitters and a state-by-state list of leash laws.

But she said the biggest trend in the pet travel industry is offering amenities to the most pampered pooches.

“Basically, anything that is available to people is being offered to pets,” she said, noting room service for pets as well as gourmet treats and massages.

The early success of Trips with Pets underscores the growth in the larger pet industry.

But it is commitment, more than anything else, that enables her business to flourish, Salerno said.

“It doesn’t matter whether you have an Internet business or any other business,” Salerno said. “You cannot be truly successful unless you love coming to work every day. You need to feel passionate about what you are doing.”

Kim Salerno’s dogs are part of the inspiration behind her business, tripswithpets.com, which helps travelers find services tourist locations offer to pet owners.

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