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The Concierge Conundrum

Will artificial intelligence and virtual reality spell the end of the hotel concierge?

January 30, 2020

Not so long ago, when you checked into a hotel, you could ask to see the concierge to help with plans like theatre tickets, to find out the hottest new restaurant in town and to get directions to the local museums and sites of interest. This individual – who, at the better establishments, often sported a golden lapel pin with two crossed keys – would take out a sheaf of maps and make notes for you. On your return from the theatre, you’d see the same friendly face and they would ask you how you liked the show.

Today, particularly in smaller hotels, that friendly helper is more likely to pop up on your phone as he/she does at The Arrive Hotel in Memphis. “Hi ya’ll,” says the text message (laying on the Southern charm thick). “Please text us if you need directions or anything else. We’ll be glad to help.”

The Arrive Hotel is not the only property using virtual technology to substitute or to supplement the full-time job of “concierge.”

Courtyard by Marriott, for instance, uses an interactive GoBoard, an in-lobby LCD touchscreen where guests can search news, weather, restaurants, flights and other details. Marriott’s Renaissance brand uses its proprietary Navigator technology to help guests find their way around town or do a deep dive experiential journey, with a database culled from the opinions of local experts. If guests want a one-on-one experience a human “navigator” can help, too.

Let’s Chat

Burgeoning chatbot technology that lets artificial intelligence talk back and interact with customers has led to the creation of a new concierge program called Bebot, a chatbot that acts as a hotel concierge. Its inventors, Bespoke Inc., say that the program “is designed to empower guests through instant, real-time assistance such as exclusive recommendations for both popular and little-known sites in the area, answering questions only hotel staff would know about, or even making restaurant bookings.” Bebop is in use in several hotels in Japan but is making its way to the US soon.

In 2016, Hilton partnered with IBM to create Connie, the resident robot at its McLean, VA, property. Connie (named after Hilton’s founder, Conrad) talks to guests about nearby attractions, places to eat, and offers other ideas on guest experiences.

Concierge apps designed for direct-to-consumer use are also using bot technology and other technological advances. Bellhop is one; this New York-based concierge app offers tours, activities, deliveries and connections with Uber and Resy.

Aces is HotelTonight’s consumer chat concierge service, available to guests who pay over $200 for a hotel stay on their booking platform at any of their properties in over 30 cities. It is staffed by real humans who do what concierges have always done. HotelTonight plans to roll out the Aces service to all of its locations across the world and says that the program is already a draw in attracting new booking guests. According to the company, guests who use the Aces program are 34 percent more likely to book again in 90 days.

The rise of personal technology and apps like Aces is a challenge for both hotel chains and independent properties that rely on the personal touch to differentiate themselves. As a consequence, these hotels are upping their game in what is offered through good old fashioned human skills and connectivity in order to compete, and distinguish their services from those offered by apps and bots.

Hotel Indigo, for instance, on the Lower East Side in New York City has a graffiti concierge. Christian Riberio, a graffiti artist, will answer questions about local graffiti and help guests create a customized map to help them explore local street art done by both native and international artists.

Le Richemond in Geneva (the city of high end watch-making) has a watch concierge service where guests create a watch wish list and the concierge then connects them to exclusive visits with makers like Vacheron Constantin, Roger Dubuis and Franck Muller.

Beyond the Ordinary

But the demand for something special in concierge services is not limited to hotel-generated services or app creators and booking platforms. Along with the rise of bots, do-it-yourself apps and one-off concierge services, outside luxury concierge services is a growing sector. These specialists are set up to do what a hotel does, only better – and very, very exclusively.

Pure Entertainment Group, based in Montreal, focuses on bespoke travel packages, bucket-list experiences and personal concierge services. Membership costs from $12,000 to $35,000 a year.  Billionaire Concierge is an ultra-luxury concierge service that is invitation-only. Members can access rare watch and jewelry buys, private reservations for exclusive venues and personal dinners with celebrity chefs. Quintessentially, one of the world’s best known high end concierge programs, has over 60 offices around the world and over 1,500 concierge specialists. Its average client net worth is over $36 million.

Insignia, a company founded in the late 1990s, is also an invitation-only service for high net worth individuals (HNWIs) which not only offers special services in hotels, restaurants and experiences but also has private jet services, helicopters to the airport (where your private jet is waiting, of course) and connections to entertainment venues that only the one percent get to experience. This is hand-holding with kid gloves.

Is the old-fashioned, key-emblazoned jack-of-all-trades hotel-lobby-dwelling concierge a thing of the past?

Close to 10 years ago newer hotel brands like the Andaz moved these old school players to the far corners of the field, rendering them no longer as visible as they used to be. They were still there but customers were encouraged to use available technology to source their needs first.

These days, in much the same way as airlines are now depending on customers bringing their own phones and pads for entertainment, guests come to hotels bringing their own technology. Increasingly the concierge seems to be even more an endangered species in terms of seeing a full-time, full-service human being in every lobby.

But at the same time, the commonplaceness of having apps and bots at our fingertips makes the friendly service of a human concierge seem even more like a high-end luxury. And because of the extra service having a ‘real’ concierge implies, it’s unlikely that five-star hotels like The Four Seasons, Fairmont, Park Hyatt and others will be saying farewell anytime soon to their much-loved bastions in the art of taking care of guests’ every need.