Hotels & hospitality

The service game

The traditional role of the concierge has changed, with guests at luxury properties expecting a more personally tailored service than ever before. Gerardo Gabat, chief concierge at Kempinski Mall of the Emirates, and Ela Lanzanas, concierge supervisor at the Fairmont Dubai, explain how they accommodate every morally, legally and humanly possible request.

For today’s leading luxury hotels, glitzy flourishes and supersized suites are only part of what makes them special. Any property worthy of five stars – or even the six or seven stars that some have been unofficially awarded – needs to offer an experience that guests could not find elsewhere. This makes service every bit as important as ostentation.

Take the Burj Al Arab in Dubai. Repeatedly voted the world’s most luxurious hotel, it looks the part, with copious use of gold leaf, floor-to-ceiling windows, and dancing fountains in the lobby. But with visitors paying thousands of dollars a night, opulence alone would not pass muster. The property is known for its attentiveness towards guests, offering them an optional chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, a staff to suite ratio of 8:1, and a host of personal butlers.

Similarly, the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi, which is furnished in gold and marble, is the second most expensive hotel ever built. Despite the private beach, the 1,002 Swarovski crystal chandeliers, the marina and the helipad, the staff’s main concern is delivering quality experiences.

As the hotel general manager Holger Schroth recently commented: “We could just have filled the place with gold, but we’d rather spend it on the retail end and the service end to really give visitors the experience of living in a palace.”

Priceless contribution

After all, lavish interiors are hardly unusual in the UAE, and in a climate of perpetual razzle-dazzle, service has become a differentiating factor. The region’s concierge teams are therefore intent on providing something extra.

“Personal service remains at the forefront of providing a luxury experience, as a guest to a luxury hotel tends to be more demanding and certain of what they want and expect,” says Gerardo Gabat, chief concierge at Kempinski Mall of the Emirates. “The concierge needs to give the luxury traveler that extraordinary experience with an element of surprise that goes above and beyond their expectations.”

Situated next to a grandiose shopping mall, as well as the UAE’s first indoor ski slope, Kempinski Mall of the Emirates has a wealth of activity choices on its doorstep. For Gabat and his team, it’s important to ensure that guests know their options, and that everything they choose proceeds without a hitch.

“I always remind my team that simple gestures go a long way,” he says. “It is important to always look for opportunities to go that extra mile with every guest request, even if it is as simple as handling special arrangements for a local excursion, or arranging an extra stop during a transfer of the guest to the airport to experience something outside of the norm.”

Gabat, who won Hotelier Middle East’s Concierge of the Year award in 2012, is a member of the UAE chapter of Les Clefs d’Or and has 20 years’ experience in guest relations. He has also worked closely with the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing to develop concierge training programmes across the emirate.

After all, while the concierge role is always exacting, guests in the UAE are likely to want service to match the stylings. This may entail anything from organising a camel ride through to purchasing a luxury handbag on their behalf. At particularly high-end hotels, the role is less ‘helpful face on the front desk’ and more personal lifestyle assistant.

Cultured response

Even at the less flamboyant properties, the region brings with it some particular challenges. The mix of guests is likely to be diverse, with a wide range of languages, backgrounds, and cultural requirements. As a concierge, you need to be the expert not just on local custom, but also on playing diplomat and catering to multinational sensitivities.

“Dubai has become a global village, with people from all over the world travelling around, so it’s very important that their travelling needs are personally tailored to make them feel at ease,” says Ela Lanzanas, concierge supervisor at the Fairmont Dubai. “The concierge has to be an excellent learner – to be able to read people and be curious about everything.”

Another issue here is the rapid pace of development. In the last 30 years, Dubai has grown beyond all recognition from desert land to world-class city, and while building work has slowed down, the city is stuck on fast-forward in many other respects. From the concierge’s perspective, that means taking pains to stay up to date.

“Everything is changing so fast, especially in Dubai where there’s something new every day,” says Lanzanas. “It’s very important to keep up with the knowledge about the city, the restaurants, the places to see and the ways to get there.”

Like Gabat, Lanzanas has won a number of concierge awards, as well as attaining what is perhaps the highest industry accolade – her ‘golden keys’ at Les Clefs D’Or. Founded in Paris in 1929, Les Clefs D’Or (otherwise known as UICH) is a global association of hotel concierges, promoting solidarity, information sharing and the highest standards of professionalism.

While the UAE branch was not founded until 2010, its guiding principles are rooted in tradition: ‘to accommodate every guest request so long as it is morally, legally, and humanly possible’.

These requests are sometimes highly extraordinary, and although discretion is at the heart of the profession, certain demands have become the stuff of urban legend. According to The National, staff at the Emirates Palace were once asked to stage a marriage ceremony for teddy bears. And you don’t have to look far to encounter stories about guests who wish to commission a statue, find identical replacements for their lost property, or purchase a whole herd of alpacas.

Man versus machine 

Whatever arises, the concierge needs to be unflappable, proactive, and a master in the art of creative thinking.

“At the Fairmont Dubai we turn moments into memories for our guests by evaluating their preferences as an individual,” says Lanzanas. “We want to be part of that special occasion that they’re celebrating – it could be a marriage proposal, a birthday celebration, an anniversary or a job promotion. We want to make special events in their life more meaningful, polite, fun and memorable.”

Bearing in mind the all-encompassing nature of the role – Les Clefs d’Or characterises its concierges as ‘social advisors, business expediters, and personal confidantes’ – it is evident that a concierge is more than a human guidebook. That said, as smartphones become ubiquitous and information more accessible, guests are perhaps less dependent they used to be on concierge tip-offs. Is local knowledge still power?

“In the future, hotels will invest in more technological advancements to stay ahead of the competition, and I acknowledge that this is inevitable,” says Gabat. “But then again, that human element is as also important as these technologies, and will never be replaced. I believe that people will always want a human opinion and human interaction when travelling and experiencing something outside of their comfort zones, rather than rely solely on a computer responding to their queries.”

After all, concierges don’t just have internet access – they also have a vast network of contacts who can keep them in the know. So while there’s no guarantee a website is up-to-date, a concierge can make the appropriate calls and inform a guest about changes to a restaurant’s dress code.

Lanzanas believes that technological connectedness, far from making the concierge redundant, may in fact bring more responsibilities. “In the future, the concierge will be linked 24 hours a day to the guest via an application, so even if you’re outside the hotel you’ll still be able to help them,” she says. “Very soon we will see the marriage of the concierge and the technology.”

What is more, today’s culture of instant gratification – with information at everybody’s fingertips – has raised the bar for service levels. She has noticed a growing trend towards spontaneity, with many guests expecting the concierge to fix the details of their stay there and then.

“Frequent travellers are becoming very common and they often arrive without any itinerary at all,” she says. “They’ll just come the desk and say I don’t have a plan, can you make me a table reservation? So that’s the trend right now in the profession, especially in Dubai.”

The concierge role, while steeped in tradition, is certainly not insulated from change. Along with the rest of the hospitality industry, it will need to adapt to the needs of a new breed of traveller, who are at once more self-sufficient and more ambitious in their expectations.

“Regardless of the purpose of their visit, luxury travellers want to save time and have an exceptional experience,” says Gabat. “As concierge, we need to stay ahead of the game, anticipate their needs, and find new ways to exceed expectations. The role of the concierge will become more complex as luxury travellers’ needs continue to evolve.”

This article features in the Spring 2015 edition of Hotel Management Middle East.

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