By Daniel Edward Craig
I can see dignified concierges everywhere clutching their golden keys and gasping in indignation at the title of this post. But hear me out.
Technology has placed a world of resources at the fingertips of travelers. Mobile applications allow us to walk out of our hotel, point our phone into the street, and find local restaurants and entertainment, peruse reviews, consult maps and make reservations. In a PhoCusWright survey last year, 67% of travelers reported having used a mobile device to find local services. Almost daily, hotels and travel companies are releasing mobile apps and mobile-compatible websites packed with information normally dispensed by the capable hotel concierge.
Where does that leave the concierge? Parking cars? Slinging drinks in the lounge?
Let’s hope not. As a traveler, I love having the services of a concierge. But I’ve noticed an alarming trend of late: the empty concierge desk. During the economic downturn, hotel managers were forced to find ways to cut costs, and many set their sights on the concierge. There he sat, primly at his desk, occupying prime lobby real estate and yet taking in no revenue. Compared to the back-breaking work of housekeeping and the frenetic work of the kitchen, the role of the concierge seemed a bit frivolous in such lean times. Out came the schedule, and concierge hours were slashed. In some hotels, a permanent “Off Duty” sign was placed on the desk.
Did service levels nosedive? Did guests post scathing reviews on TripAdvisor because they couldn’t get front row seats to Hairspray? Perhaps. But many travelers simply turned to our mobile phones. There we found a portable, pocket-sized concierge who never recommends restaurants we can’t afford or purses his lips when asked for directions to the nearest Taco Bell.
Can a service that is so often unavailable be considered essential? I find that the more urgently I need a concierge, the higher the likelihood her desk will be empty. Concierges operate under mysterious hours, seeming to open and close at random, like shops in Spain at siesta time. They’re always out running errands for needier guests; at the post office mailing a left-behind artificial limb; conducting cultural tours of Chinatown; shopping for that perfect ascot to match a guest’s leopard-skin jumpsuit. If she is at her desk, she’s busy reorganizing round-the-world itineraries for a guest with a heavy foreign accent and his entourage of eighteen.
This obliges us to go to the front desk for assistance. Here the simplest questions, such as “Where is the nearest drugstore?” and “What street are we on?” can be met with blank stares. That’s because hotels recruit front desk staff from distant suburbs and lock them up during breaks. Or so goes my theory. Have you ever asked an agent who looks like she’s spent all of her fourteen years in a convent about the local club scene? Or a bellman who looks like he moonlights at a biker bar where to go antiquing? It’s no wonder we turn to our phones.
In this era of death-match bargain-hunting, when travelers will book a hotel blind and forgo even the most basic of services if it means getting a deal, is a concierge with intimate knowledge of the finest restaurants in the city really that essential? Aren’t these travelers dining at Applebee’s? And yet some travelers are utterly dependent on the concierge; upon arriving at a hotel, they become incapable of performing even the simplest of tasks, like confirming a flight or placing a stamp on an envelope. These people aren’t likely to turn to their mobile phones for help.
Some hotels have replaced concierges with touch-screen kiosks. That might work at airports, but hotel employees are still relatively pleasant to travelers – we like dealing with them. At a time when online travel agencies and price wars have virtually commoditized hotels, concierge services are a way for a hotel to distinguish itself. More than any employee, the concierge can turn a ho-hum stay into an unforgettable experience. In the age of social media, that can have a direct impact on guest reviews and business.
Can a hotel that doesn’t offer concierge services call itself luxury – or even upscale? The Four Seasons’ Isadore Sharp describes the concierge as “a combination of personal secretary, aide-de-camp, tour guide, travel agent, social director, best friend and flat-out miracle worker.” No wonder concierges are never at their desk. They’re out building orphanages. As a front desk agent, I used to have to cover the concierge desk during breaks. My typical reaction to guest requests was, “You want me to do what?” I was always relieved when the concierge returned. “Of course, sir,” she would say, with astonishing composure, “I’d be delighted to organize your daughter’s wedding.”
Not everyone has a smart phone, nor is willing to use it. I love my iPhone, but the volume of information it dispenses can be overwhelming. Sometimes I simply want to be told where to go and pointed in that direction. And so far my iPhone hasn’t volunteered to call up the owner of a sold-out restaurant to secure a table, like my concierge in Barcelona did. As smart as our phones are, they simply can’t replace the personal contacts and insider knowledge of the seasoned concierge.
The concierge will stay modern and relevant by embracing newly available tools. Concierge software enables hotels to create mini-Yelp systems exclusively for clientele. Mobile apps and websites offer reviews and imagery to supplement the concierge’s advice. Some hotels, like Intercontinental, have begun to equip concierges with iPads to assist with directions, advice and reservations.
By harnessing modern technology to enhance personalized service, the concierge will continue to play an integral role in the upscale hotel experience. And that’s great news for travelers. Let’s hope we see them back at their desks soon – and not up in rooms making beds.
What do you think about the future of the hotel concierge? Post your comments here.
See also Are hotel concierges becoming obsolete? by Tracy You, CNNGo