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.
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.
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.