Is the Role of Concierge Dead?

Is the concierge dead…and is the smartphone the killer?

A black and white photo of a concierge holding a tablet. The photo comes from a discussion of Amex versus Chase concierge services on thebalance.com
Is the Role of Concierge Dead? photo source: thebalance.com

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I was on a business trip again (yay!) and stayed at my favorite hotel in downtown San Francisco. It was mostly the same, but they no longer had a concierge working in the lobby. I know my way around SF so I didn’t need his/her help, but it made me wonder. Is the role of concierge dead? For me it’s a timely question since one of my kids goes to hotel school in New York state and is considering it as a profession. Lydia, NYC

Dear Lydia: I can’t give career guidance but I can help us examine together if the smartphone is the game changer and if the concierge is dead (not literally, of course).  I agree that there are fewer concierge services these days.  It’s not just at hotels. The airport information center and tourist visitor centers are also shut down. Is this because of Covid and staffing shortages, or a trend that’s here to stay?

Now, it’s true that a savvy visitor carrying a smartphone can explore without these helpful people. However, the concierge is a profession that has survived over 400 years of change.  The word “concierge” is said to derive from either ‘keeper of the keys’ or ‘keeper of the candles’ (perhaps both?) Initially, the concierge function served Royalty and attended to the needs of visiting nobles. They had access to parts of the castle that were normally out of bounds. Perhaps they could gift a special vintage from the wine cellar or a rare spice in the banquet hall! Of course, that’s a 21st century interpretation! 

The Secret Keys:

Seemingly, the concierge role has not changed that much. In big-city hotels, concierges are still renowned for holding secret keys- the ability to arrange good theater tickets, gain entrance to shows that are booked months in advance, and shine a light on special favors, big and small. Clearly some parts of the job have been made redundant. A visitor needing directions to the airport or an Uber vehicle can consult the kiosk in the lobby or an app on the phone. In upscale hotels there is a brand new need: expert concierge can advise guests where to get Covid tests for international travel and even arrange for “medical staff” that come directly to the room for these tests. 

But, back to the lobby. You won’t even find a local newspaper there these days! Many visitors now go directly to Google for information, since it provides maps and directions, as well as the listings for local businesses and attractions. People still don’t realize that Google sells the page ranks so the good stuff may be layered several pages deep. An informed concierge can save lots of  useless search time by cutting through the clutter and chaos of online tourist information. He/she can also provide personal tips when it comes to travel distances and traffic conditions.  The Google map, while providing turn-by-turn directions, will never be able to tell you which neighborhoods to avoid on foot or after dark. Still, phones are doing a lot of the heavy lifting of the concierge.

Human-to-Human:

So, the position will evolve.  When you stayed at your SF hotel, you may have noticed that the check-in process is downsizing and becoming more automated and app driven. You would think that the absence of human staff could create demand for more caring, personalized attention from the concierge. 

But, it’s not likely. The Hilton chain has partnered with IBM, there’s a Japanese company called Bespoke, and many other tech partnerships that steer guests towards chatbots. Guests who are accustomed to text and chat might never notice that they are getting less personalized service. But, a hotel chain can use this as an opportunity to cut back staffing and centralize their concierge functions. 

Data Aggregation:

A  concierge app has digital appeal because each guest is unique, yet has a great deal in common with other guests at that location. They are each visiting for a limited period of time, arriving with local queries and concerns.  The concierge in the lobby will answer the same question many times each day, but from different guests (e.g. what is the best Italian restaurant nearby, what time do I leave for the airport). There is software that automates this process and it’s aptly called a“data aggregator.” The aggregator clusters similar questions and answers, and then compiles them for chatbots and apps. Think of it as interactive FAQ. But that’s not all.  The hotel chain you are staying at is probably using machine learning to compile a personal data profile on you. This combo of data- aggregation and profiling – might produce your best, or worst stay ever!

Reflecting back and forward- we all have flashlights on our phones to light the way and codes that can take the place of physical keys. Yes, the role of concierge is in flux. Let’s hope that new functions emerge for this job, equally precious and coveted. Ideally, this will be the people’s concierge, not just a service for the better paying, high-end visitor. 

Phone at Dinner Table?

Is Phone Part of the Plating?

A cartoon of a table place setting in 1952 versus in 2022. A phone and a TV remote have been added in 2022 to the traditional setting of fork, plate, knife and spoon. Toon by Bob Englehart.
Phone at Dinner Table? Artist: Bob Englehart, 2022

Dear Ms Smartphone: The cartoon you had on Instagram this week got me thinking. It shows a  place setting from the 1950’s with a plate, a knife, and a fork.  Next to it is a contemporary  place setting with a plate, a knife,  a fork, also  a TV clicker and mobile phone.  Here’s my question: If you had to choose, would it be a phone at the dinner table or a TV remote? Lee, Silver Spring.

Dear Lee:  First, recognition to the syndicated artist.  His name is Bob Englehart and his online bio says that he was born in 1945 in Indiana. That tells us that he  is a Boomer and has personally experienced the progression of the place settings. *

As to whether I would choose the phone or the TV remote, my first response is neither, but there will be exceptions! Reacting to the cartoon on Instagram, one follower notes that he does food photography so no meal is left unphotographed!  Short of that, we devalue our food and the people who prepared it when we let electronics intercede. There’s considerable research that shows the quality of conversation between two people suffers when one of them puts a phone on the table, even if the phone is turned off. The presence of the phone takes people out of the immediate moment. 

Electronic media, whether TV or phone, moves our awareness away from the meal being served, i.e., the present moment. Alternatively, you could use mealtime as a go-to exercise in mindfulness. And, the best thing is that you get to  practice it three times a day. To begin, you acknowledge and give thanks for the water and soil and sun, the farmers, the harvest, and the workers in the supply chain that help bring this food to your plate. 

When we eat in front of the TV or distract ourselves with our phone we are less mindful- we may forget to pay attention to the flavor of the food, how much has been eaten, and occasionally, whether we are satiated. There is a strong correlation (not causality) between spending more time on TV and obesity. For teens, more hours on video games and electronic media is associated with obesity. Most likely, there is a trigger-cue-behavior of engaging with media, distraction, and snacking. If we start doing this at the dinner table, does that habit follow us to the family room and other spaces where we use electronic devices?

But, back to the question you raised. I would choose the TV over the phone at the dinner table. TV is less of a one-to-one medium than the smartphone.  I personally have the day’s newspapers spread out at breakfast and lunch. Sometimes the TV show or newspapers will draw out a conversation, and create a more shared experience.   Mealtime should be an opportunity for families to reconnect, even if their conversation focusses on the cartoon! The presence of a phone implicitly says that a family member prioritizes something outside the room over the people who are present.

It’s been a while since I watched much over-the-air TV, but prime-time used to be filled with ads for snacks, sugar filled drinks, and higher fat foods. Today, these have been supplanted by ads for prescription drugs and pills. Is one healthier than the other? It might be a good idea if you do watch family TV together to draw attention to the content of these ads and talk through what screen-time is telling us about ourselves. If you follow the ads on your smartphone, they will be more personalized based on what you scroll for and spend time looking at. What content are they pushing? That might be a great discussion to have over the dinner table!

* Englehart’s  toon ran on the editorial pages of the Bay Area Newspaper Group  (Marin Independent) on 3/8/22). 

Top Stories- Smartphones in 2021

A year of illumination and heat for the smartphone…

A picture of a phone, and the text on the phone says "2021 in review". This is a year-end wrapup for an advice column.

There are lots of lights during the holidays and an extra dose of illumination, i.e.  awareness, for smartphone users in 2021. Some of the darkest corners of the Internet and technology were exposed. We review some of Dear Smartphone’s top stories for smartphones in 2021.

The public became more aware of privacy issues in April, 2021 because of  a move by Apple. Technically, their no-tracking option was already in place, but iPhones 6S users and newer were advised to download iOS 14.0 as the default settings disabled IDFA tracking.  The IDFA, an Identifier for Advertisers, lifted the curtain and elevated awareness of how the Internet and email are paid for. Perhaps 2022 will bring a clamor for subscription email and more for-fee services. There is no free lunch on the Internet.

2021 also brought light and heat to concerns about teens, mental health, and their time spent on social media. This Fall,  the Wall St. Journal (WSJ) ran multi-part stories on the insidious nature of Facebook and Instagram algorithms. When you dig into the numbers, there’s more headline than data. Still, it’s promising that through  the efforts of the WSJ and the whistleblower, Frances Haugen, these issues have surfaced. As the year closes out, this light and heat spreads from Facebook to Tik-Tok and other social media platforms. 

RecorDS and StockS:

Not all 2021 illuminations were about social media. This year ushered in new expectations for the role of smartphones.  Storing vaccination records on the phone came to be seen as a social good by some, but for others, an overstepping of privacy and trust. Covid records stored to a smartphone might be as straightforward as a jpg image  or as enmeshed as a real-time data  link to public health and medical records. Meanwhile, there was a proliferation of new  pseudo-medical  apps to support fitness and well-being. 

A different mode of  health-Financial Health- was also in the spotlight this past year. Smartphones advanced prowess over Wall St. traditions for promoting markets. The power of the crowd, in this case, the ability to social network on the smartphone, ricochetted meme stocks like Reddit and GameStock from meteoric highs to valley floors.  Meanwhile, payments on Google Pay and Apple Wallet filled up, and will continue to buy, if not eat, the lunch of  paper money for everyday transactions. 

Eating it Up:

And on the subject of food, 2021 was the year that  phones and food went for the take-out. Previously, people used their phones, more often laptops, to order groceries.  But, with the continuation  of COVID and uncertainty towards restaurant dining, smartphone users turned to their phones to feast. So, an outcome has  been the rise of ghost kitchens (aka dark kitchens) where food is prepped for delivery without a  restaurant storefront. It’s hard to predict from a 2021 vantage what this impact will bring for local communities and local traffic.

Despite all these novelties taking place in 2021,  DearSmartphone would like to remind readers, especially those with young children, to continue to rely on traditional media and print journalism as their main window for news of the outside world.  Digital reading and news should not replace print because content on phones, shades of the IDFA, exists as a personalized filter bubble. Moreover, when families get most of their information on tablets or phones children are literally left behind. Parents forfeit the opportunity to help children filter the news and make sense of it. In these scary times, that need never been more important.

De-viced:

And finally, on a note of humility, DearSmartphone acknowledges she had a’ bad hair-bad tech day’ in December. While playing with new Siri and accessibility features on I0S 15.0, she inadvertently locked herself out of the device. It took a handful of technicians at the Apple store and a half hour of their collective time to unlock her phone. The experience was humbling- you can’t solve all your technology problems yourself.

Finally, DearSmartphone is happy to report that she begins the New Year with a larger family of devices. First, there is the ever happy, every smiling  bluetooth enabled Chatter Phone  and also,  a  great Android phone- with the sad  robotic  name,  ‘ REVVL V’.  Whatever it is called, this device is economical,  simple to use, has a long lasting battery,  and provides further connection to the needs of readers.

See you In January.