Hotels & hospitality

The future of the front desk

The concierge has a long and venerable history as the guest’s key point of contact in any smart hotel. But as guests become more self-sufficient and adventurous in their travel habits, what does that mean for the keepers of the keys? Michael de Cozar, head concierge of the Ritz, Sonia Papet, head concierge of Le Bristol, and Emmanuel Vrettos, president of Les Clefs d’Or, discuss how the profession has been affected.

It’s the truism that launched a thousand thinkpieces: we live in a digital age. Coffee shops offer free Wi-Fi, Smartphones are virtually ubiquitous, and many of us have seen our relationship with technology mutate beyond all recognition. Where once we would have asked strangers for directions, today we consult our GPS. Where we would have written cheques, today we transfer funds online, and the once-revered encyclopedia has been dealt a blow by Google.

For the typical traveller, this state of affairs is surely an asset. After all, when you’re stationed in an unfamiliar city, you don’t want to have to trawl the streets for hours before deciding where to eat. Just type your location into your iPhone and there you have it: access to all the restaurant reviews you could wish for on the basis of a few quick swipes.

It’s what you know

What this has meant for the hotel concierge is a different story. Historically viewed as a sort of tour guide-cum-PA – the person who would help guests make sense of their surroundings – the concierge is now finding their role open to question. As travellers become more self-sufficient, with the younger generation particularly inclined to arrange their own itinerary, is there still a place for a member of staff who is professionally in the know?

For many industry commentators, this is a valid worry. Certain hotels, determined to cut costs, have replaced concierges with touch-screen kiosks, and the likes of Marriott’s Renaissance hotels have swapped the concierge desk for a so-called ‘navigator’ concept. This has led to various op-eds questioning the need for the profession. ‘Are hotel concierges becoming obsolete?’ queried a 2012 CNN article, echoing an earlier piece by Daniel Edward Craig with an almost identical title.

Luckily, despite their alarmist overtones, both articles observe Betteridge’s law (if a headline starts with a question mark, the answer is always no). It seems evident that the concierge is more than a human Ask Jeeves; no matter how independent or tech-savvy, guests still value a personal touch. Even the Renaissance Navigator is arguably just a concierge with a zhuzhed-up job title.

Embracing technology

For concierges themselves, questions about obsolescence don’t bear asking. Michael de Cozar, head concierge at the Ritz in London, believes that while technology may be evolving fast, guests’ needs have remained consistent.

“We’re here for one purpose only: to look after our guests and provide first-class service at all times,” he says. “I don’t think that will change in the years to come.”

Having joined the Ritz as a page boy in 1973, de Cozar swiftly rose to become the youngest head concierge in its history. Then a precocious 24-year-old, he is now a veteran of the profession, and has watched its day-to-day demands shift substantially over the years. The main impact of technology, as he sees it, has not been to render his role redundant, but to simplify its nature.

“Things are a lot easier these days because communication has improved,” he points out. “We used to have a desk diary where we wrote information and a handover book for our colleagues, but now we have technology where everything’s inputted and we can attach itineraries worldwide for guests. We can also text guests to remind them their restaurant address. Obviously the technology’s as good as you make it, but now you can get information in seconds whereas before you’d have to make about 20 different calls.”

Doing the impossible

“This job won’t be disappearing,” agrees Sonia Papet, head concierge of Le Bristol in Paris. “Even if guests have the information on their phone, they don’t have the expertise. Sometimes it’s their first trip to Paris, so they need more information – you can find a restaurant on the internet, but you don’t really know what it’s about or if it’s going to be the one you like.”

Papet feels that with all the information at their disposal, guests actually need the concierge more than they did in the past. In times gone by, guests would have seen a few key attractions in a guidebook, but these days, they must sift through dozens of search results. The concierge can remedy this information overload, by pointing them in the direction of activities that truly match what they’re looking for and eliminating all the rest.

There is the added upside here of genuine local knowledge. If an attraction is closed, the concierge can warn the guests in advance, and if a show appears fully booked online, they know which strings to pull. After all, their service has never been merely advisory. There has always been a component of achieving the impossible, going beyond the usual expectations to cater to guests’ every request.

In this respect, the role hasn’t changed much since the 1600s, when the comte des cierges (‘keeper of the candles’) was employed by royalty to attend to visiting nobles. As the person in charge of the keys, the comte des cierges could access parts of the castle that were normally out of bounds. Whether the guest wanted a special vintage from the wine cellar, or a particular rare spice in his banquet, the candle keeper was the one who could make it happen.

That extra mile

Today the concierge is just as vital. At luxury hotels such as the Ritz and Le Bristol, he or she is as much a fixer as a guidebook, using all their contacts to create a glitch-free experience. This is far more than guests can achieve singlehandedly. An iPhone won’t ensure that you are escorted to a special museum entrance, and an Apple Watch won’t seat you at a restaurant that is fully booked for the next six months.

While discretion is at the heart of the profession, it is evident that clients’ more leftfield requests require an incredible amount of logistical nous. De Cozar, for instance, once fetched fresh seawater from Brighton for a guest’s evening bath. Another time, he helped a different guest buy a battleship as a ‘souvenir of distinction from the United Kingdom’. Evidently, the job is rather more involved than pointing them in the direction of the Science Museum.

This involvement does not stop when the guest checks out. “I just had one of our regular clients who wanted a room in New York, and he was getting nowhere with the hotel,” recounts de Cozar. “So I then intervened and called the concierge, booked the room for him that he wanted that he couldn’t get. I got a nice letter from the guest.”

Miracle workers

It seems that the basic parameters of the role haven’t shifted much, at least not in hotels as traditional as the Ritz and Le Bristol. Even though the tools of the trade have changed, the goal remains the same – to work minor miracles on the guest’s behalf, while remaining unflappable and unfazed.

Emmanuel Vrettos, head concierge at Hostel Mistral in Piraeus, Greece, was appointed president of Les Clefs d’Or (The Golden Keys) in 2013. One of the most storied organisations in hospitality, this industry body represents the global concierge community and comes with a simple mission statement: ‘to accommodate every guest request so long as it is morally, legally, and humanly possible’.

“The essential attitude of the concierge is the general desire to serve,” says Vrettos, who has been at the helm of his concierge desk since 1989. “It’s part of the profession and it’s also a way of life. You need to be trustworthy, you need to be self-confident; you need to be tenacious, persistent, adaptive and flexible. As long as you have these qualities then you will succeed in providing the best service. No matter whether you’re in a luxury hotel or a cabin in the Fiji Islands, we give our soul and our spirit to the guests.”

“If you don’t like this job, you won’t be a good concierge,” concurs Papet. “It needs to be natural, coming from your heart. You have to make sure that you want to please your guest.”

Class act 

Demonstrably, today’s five star concierges don’t spend much time tapping their feet. While hotels lower down the price spectrum may be dispensing with their services, the likes of the Ritz and Le Bristol are extremely unlikely to follow suit.

In fact, in years to come the concierge service may become even more important. Of course, there’s still a place for stylish décor, fine dining and the other trappings of prestige. But as hotels and guests alike gravitate towards a more experiential definition of luxury, a concierge who fulfills your wildest whims may prove the decisive factor.

“You have to treat everybody that comes through the doors of the hotels just the same,” says de Cozar. “That’s what I call a true concierge: completing every single request and keeping all guests happy. I’ve been here 41 years, but you never stop learning about new ways to ensure the guest gets the best possible service.”

Whether guests are old-fashioned or independent, fastidious or free-spirited, the basic tenets of hospitality remain intact. With the concierge role so dependent on human connection, neither technological advances nor self-reliant attitudes are likely to pose a serious threat.

This is the cover story of the Autumn 2014 edition of Hotel Management International

 

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