Are hotel concierges becoming obsolete?

Are hotel concierges becoming obsolete?

To some travelers, they're still an essential part of any hotel stay, but are these cheerful know-it-alls going the way of the fax machine and traveler's check?
hotel concierges -- main
Jason Zhan (pictured) of The Portman Ritz-Carlton Shanghai says that the hotel concierge has evolved from a source of general information to a travel consultant.

Two decades ago, English-speaking concierges like Jason Zhan (詹骅) were travelers’ saviors in China.

“Information about China was inaccessible at the time," says the 43-year-old Zhan from The Portman Ritz-Carlton Shanghai. 

"There was no Internet. Travelers did not know much about the country, so they came to the concierge desk to ask all sorts of questions."

“Considering how rarely I use the concierge service, I'd rather swap it for free Wi-Fi.”

-- Joanne Yao, writer and traveler from California

The Shanghai native remembers collecting magazine and newspaper clippings to compile A4-size, backpack-thick “annual information binders” -- his Wikipedia of the time.

Nowadays, as many as 135 million foreigners travel to China every year.

Most have stopped resorting to hotel concierges for the new hot bars in town. Instead, they turn to listing websites, guidebooks and travel apps.

Like hotel concierges around the world, Zhan is standing at a crossroad.

Will the hotel concierge follow in the footsteps of the traveler’s check, hotel reservation fax and Yellow Pages and become the next travel function to go obsolete?

hotel concierge -- inline 1More and more travelers resort to mobile devices as a pocket-size “concierge.”

Good concierge: A dying breed?

“Considering how rarely I use the concierge service, I'd rather swap it for free Wi-Fi,” says Joanne Yao, 26, who hails from San Jose, California.

The American-Chinese is representative of today’s travelers, who are used to turning to a keypad rather than the concierge desk for information.

“I don't often use concierges when I travel," says Yao.

"When I do, it's usually for a basic request, such as directions,” adds the freelance writer, who completed a half-year trip through Europe about six months ago.

Yao says although a dedicated concierge does boost her expectations of a hotel, and that there are many talented ones who go above and beyond to meet a guest's needs, but they are “a dying breed” -- it's getting harder and harder to find a capable concierge and the young successors seem to have lost the keys to the art of the position.

For some, a concierge can't beat a good travel app for leisure travel tips, but it comes in handy on short and stressful business trips.

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Hong Kong-born Jenny Lo, 33, regards many concierges' recommendation as cliché and touristy.

Instead, the general manager of a branding firm who travels once a month for business or relaxation, leans on travel apps, especially those from local magazines, as well as guidebooks.

But Lo does consult concierges during business trips, especially when determining location of meetings, “because I do not want to take any risk.”

hotel concierge -- inline 2Hotel consultant Daniel Edward Craig thinks technology has made concierges more important, not less.

Concierges are more important

Technology has shifted the way we get travel information.

According to recent surveys, some 44 percent of U.S. travelers will use mobile phones or smartphones as a travel resource in 2012, and nearly half of them feel “anxious” while traveling without their mobile computing device. 

Counter-intuitively, however, some industry insiders say the digital-travel era has put the bona fide concierge in a more important position, especially in luxury hotels.

“There are simply too many choices and too many opinions,” says Daniel Edward Craig, an independent hotel and travel industry consultant based in Vancouver. 

A former hotel general manager, Craig, 45, says that given the current state of information overload, concierges actually play a more substantial role in travelers’ planning.

He also points out that their services are a way for a hotel to distinguish itself in the competitive travel industry.

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“More than any employee, the concierge can turn a ho-hum stay into an unforgettable experience,” says Craig. “In the age of social media, that can have a direct impact on guest reviews and business.”

What have concierges got to say?

Hotel concierges themselves seem little bothered by technology-led travel trends.

As a veteran of the concierge industry with 28 years experience, Virginia Casale, 49, works at the Sofitel Montreal Golden Mile and is president of The Golden Keys International Association (aka UICH Les Clefs d'Or), a professional network of hotel concierges identified by a pin of two crossed gold keys.

More than any employee, the concierge can turn a ho-hum stay into an unforgettable experience.

-- Daniel Edward Craig, hotel and travel industry consultant 

Casale says travelers suffer from an information overdose, and that makes local concierges invaluable. They can advise visitors, for example, on whether or not a particular tourist attraction might be closed for renovation.

She notes that hotel concierge services are free.

According to Casale, a seasoned concierge with more than 20 years of experience earns an average US$19 per hour (not including tips) in popular U.S. tourist cities such as New York, and about £14 (US$22) per hour in European hubs such as London.

Parisian Lionel Lorans is confident that technology will not replace his position.

“Some hotels will try, but if they want to have the best clients -- the ones who pay the highest prices for a room -- a real concierge will always be needed,” says Lorans, 47, who works at Hotel Raphael in Paris.

As the president of Les Clefs d'Or France, Lorans considers capable staff and personal service key to the success of a luxury hotel -- more important than lavish facilities.

Helming Les Clefs d'Or’s China branch, Jason Zhan adds that concierges have an extensive network and, in some case, a cash allowance to assist guests.

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Zhan recalls once personally flying to Hong Kong and back in a day to buy a specific brand of cigars for a guest, and haggling with scalpers to buy two VIP seats for a sold-out Pavarotti concert in Beijing.

“As long as the concierge offers his service to you, he or she won't charge for traveling expenses,” says Zhan, noting that his allowance at The Portman Ritz-Carlton is up to US$2,000 per task.

hotel concierge -- inline 3Virginia Casale knows the golden keys to satisfied tourists.

A concierge revolution

An increasing number of hotel brands are refreshing the role of concierges to fit the needs of modern travelers. 

Marriott’s Renaissance hotels have replaced the concierge desk with a “navigator” concept that puts staff from a variety of departments in the position of dispensing guest recommendations based on personal experience.

Andaz, a five-year-old hotel brand that's part of Hyatt Hotels and Resorts, has ditched traditional divisions of work and created “Andaz host,” a combined role of doorman, concierge, bell-attendant and front desk agent.

“Our research showed us that customers want to break down barriers between the hotel and guests,” says Chicago-based Tristan Dowell, 38, director of brands for Park Hyatt and Andaz.

“So we wanted to challenge the traditional setup by creating a unique experience and a social, engaging atmosphere for our guests that still delivers on what they want and need,” adds Dowell.

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Modern concierges might appear in new and revolutionary forms, but a general consensus -- from travelers, hotel consultants and concierges -- is that technology can't replace the value of human interaction.

"Some hotels have replaced concierges with touch-screen kiosks. That might work at airports, but not in hotels," notes Craig.

“Hotel employees are still relatively pleasant to travelers -- we like dealing with them.”

Tracy You is a bilingual journalist based in Shanghai and has worked for several publications including as Editor for CNN Travel. She's a fan of history, British TV and Wii Guitar Hero.

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