It would be easy to dismiss a concierge as a relic of another time. But concierges are the secret weapon of the educated traveler, and when the job is done well, it is vital.
Automation and advances in artificial intelligence will eliminate many jobs; those with recurring tasks that are characterized drudgery and predictability may be on the chopping block soon.
One might assume the hotel concierge would be on this list. If we look at the most simplistic asks of the studied staff at concierge desk, this could be true. We can use OpenTable or the local equivalent to find the tables around town. We can use discovery apps like Foursquare and Spot to discover interesting things to do. We can generally handle cars or logistics from the airport with options like Uber and Lyft.
So what, then, is left of the task at hand? What couldn’t be replaced with a brand-level messenger bot being ported across all properties? Turns out there is a lot. But to stay relevant, concierges have to keep updating and refining the task, all the while avoiding the temptations, easy kickbacks, and predictable recommendations that take the shine off their profession.
As this column has long argued, the old-school touches of hospitality are newly relevant. As hotels try to re-invent themselves, sometimes they veer too far in terms of taking away the human touch. When done well, a concierge actually represents the best of hospitality in terms of anticipation, patience, and grace. He or she is a diplomat for the hotel.
To stay hyper-relevant, a concierge must:
1. HAVE ACCESS THAT OTHERS DON’T HAVE
The private Vatican tour, or the coveted last-minute tickets to Hamilton. The seat at Jiro in Tokyo that is impossible to snag. This is the currency of the profession for concierges, and the ability to make magic happen is key. Jamaica’s Island Outpost concierges can arrange for an overnight on music legend Chris Blackwell’s private working farm.
The Mandarin Oriental in Geneva takes guests into private watchmaking ateliers to watch master artisans assemble complex timepieces. At the Metropole in Hanoi, a chef takes guests to the market to find ingredients and then teaches them how to cook iconic Vietnamese dishes.
2. HAVE CULTURAL DEPTH AND BREADTH
Though we might consult The New Yorker or the Times of London for what’s on in the city, a great concierge has seen the show and has an opinion on what’s good. And better yet, she or he can get you a great seat.
3. THINK QUICKLY, ON THE FLY
Problem solving is part of the job description. I left a Kindle on a flight into Tokyo a few years ago, and the Park Hyatt Tokyo returned it to me within the day. The ability to cut through bureaucracy to solve problems is a key attribute. There’s a great scene in “Inside Claridges,” a BBC documentary on the storied London hotel, where the staff has to arrange for delivery of ants and other odd ingredients from Copenhagen for the Noma pop-up, and do it with skill and aplomb.
4. BE DISCREET
This has long been a necessary characteristic of a concierge, but as top hotels have become a refuge from the never-ending assault of ravenous social media onlookers, the discretion of places like the Peninsula Beverly Hills is a vital attribute. Tasks remain private and steps are taken to extend this shield of discretion with entrances and exits, and proper planning.
5. BE REGIONAL DIPLOMATS AND SOCIAL ADVISERS
A concierge also has to be an on-the-ground diplomat, helping business travelers navigate social codes, nuance, and regional issues. If you’ve never done business in Abu Dhabi, it is helpful to have a local give you some color and context so you can be respectful in all circumstances. The Rosewood Abu Dhabi does this particularly well.
It should be said that one remarkably consistent organization in terms of ensuring the standard is the hotel concierges organization Les Clefs d’Or, known for the golden keys displayed on a uniform. It is the seal of approval for the profession and is worth looking out for in any hotel you’re staying at.
In a video about the profession, Tom Wolfe, head concierge at the Fairmont San Francisco, said that a great concierge has “the givingness of a nurse, dedication of a teacher, and the patience of a saint.”
And these elegant attributes, no matter how technologically sophisticated we get, will always be relevant when humans are interacting with humans.