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Analysis: The personal touch

Madeline Calon, head concierge at St James's Hotel and Club

With self check-in on the rise and even robots now greeting guests, are we witnessing the end of the hotel concierge?

When Madeleine Calon recently flew to the South Korean capital Seoul to attend the international congress of Les Clefs d’Or, the global association of hotel concierges, she was breaking new ground. Not just as the head concierge of the upmarket 60-bedroom St James’s Hotel and Club in London’s Mayfair, but as the first female president of the Society of Golden Keys – the UK and Commonwealth organisation for hotel concierges affiliated to Les Clefs d’Or.

Calon (pictured), whose career in the hospitality world has spanned three decades after a brief spell in theatre management, was the first British woman to join the society in the mid-1990s and has worked at concierge level at some of London’s top hotels including the Waldorf, Cavendish and Berkeley. She is one of only 15 women to become a member of the 386-strong UK organisation, although three female concierges are reportedly set to join her.

She believes that some women may in the past have been deterred from seeking a concierge role because of an erroneous belief that it is primarily about looking after guests’ luggage. Moreover, she points out: “The concierge is one of the few roles within the hotel where, irrespective of how senior you are, you still get great guest contact, which is why most people go into hotels.”

Yet, just as Calon reaches what perhaps is the pinnacle of her career, she faces a more existential question: will the hotel concierge function continue as we know it? 

To millennial business travellers, the perceived formality of traditional hotel concierges seems something of an anachronism in a world in which individuals on the move can use the “wisdom of crowds” via smartphone or tablet to find the best places to stay, eat and see. Who needs the views of a single concierge when there are thousands of like-minded consumers and travellers offering the best advice via social media?

Already there are signs that the traditional role of the concierge is under threat, especially in the US. A report from the American Hotel & Lodging Association last year found that, since 2014, the number of concierges in luxury US hotels had fallen by one-fifth. The report also disclosed that the proportion of concierges in the entire US hospitality market was down from 27 per cent in 2010 to 20 per cent last year.

Those that are left are predominantly in the upper echelons of the market: eight out of ten luxury hotels in the US still employ concierges.

But away from the luxury sector, those hotels in the middle of the market are losing interest in dedicated concierges: just 16 per cent for high-end hotels and a mere 3 per cent for midscale properties. Budget hotels, unsurprisingly, are not in the game at all.

What happens in the US hotels market is usually replicated in the UK and elsewhere. While there is no official UK data for all hotels with concierges, the trend is said by hotel insiders to be similar to the American experience. But adding to the pressure, however, is the ongoing need for hoteliers – especially at the top end – to keep costs under control.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that front-of-house services – including the traditional lobby check-in and concierge desks – are coming under scrutiny. The emergence of self check-in, online check-in and the use of smartphones as room keys is growing apace, adding to the pressure.

But, in some ways, the image of the top hotel concierge fulfilling difficult tasks for a relative handful of guests, with either their own or their company’s money to spend freely, is a rather fanciful notion. Many concierges, in fact, have much broader responsibilities and are, in effect, often undertaking front-of-house duties as well as their concierge role. 

Some upmarket hotels, moreover, have eschewed traditional concierges altogether: the Andaz hotel at London’s Liverpool Street, a Hyatt luxury brand, was among the first to empower its public-facing employees to handle (via tablets) all guest queries, including recommending and booking restaurants, shows and other facilities.

Yet it is new technology that remains the key threat for the traditional concierge. Expedia Group, which has already played a key disruptor role in the travel world, not surprisingly already offers a digital concierge, Expedia Local Expert, although it is only available to those who book a hotel through Expedia’s websites.

Then there are concierge-style start-ups, such as Roam (wheninroam.com). When in Roam launched last year in 22 US cities with backing from US private equity firms. Its founder, Krista Krauss Miller, denies the online business is aimed at hotels but rather is focused on the Airbnb or family and friends markets. “We’re trying to reach users who don’t have access to a physical concierge,” she says. When in Roam is unlike most other online concierge sites in having a genuine hotel concierge in each city, albeit they’re acting on a freelance basis.

Instant messaging
The luxury hotels group Four Seasons also believes in keeping in touch with its guests at all times. “New technology helps us to be able to stay in contact with our guests even when they are outside the hotel,” says Cordelia Griggs, the Four Season Park Lane concierge manager, citing the “Four Seasons Chat instant messaging service that allows guests to contact us with any of their needs”.

Griggs believes that the core of the hotel’s concierge operation still revolves around restaurants, theatres and cars. “We have noticed a change in London with the volume of new restaurants opening, which makes having the contacts even more important,” she says. “This increases the importance of the concierge as the amount of information can sometimes be overwhelming.”

Yet the key attribute of a hotel concierge at the top end of the market, believe many in the hospitality world, remains their contacts. “If a concierge can get tables at Paris’s top restaurants, such as Le Jules Verne or L’Ami Louis, it’s not because of the tools they use but because of the business they bring, having contacts with a restaurant’s head waiter, maitre d’ and manager,” says Francois Delahaye, chief operating officer of the Dorchester Collection. 

But technology is not all bad news for traditional concierges. New systems are being developed to help concierges manage their operations more effectively. Expedia, for example, enables concierges to manage guest activities and communications through its majority stake in Alice, an operations platform for hotels. Late last year, Alice also acquired a similar business called GoConcierge and is developing a single platform offering the best of both systems.

Converse with Connie
There remains an unspoken concern among some travellers (and travel departments) about the lack of transparency between concierges and restaurants, and other hospitality vendors. What is the concierge getting out of the deal?  While some travel buyers see the benefits of concierges helping employees get the best out of their stay, most have been more sceptical – especially given the information and contacts available online.

Now there is Connie (pictured below) – a two-foot tall robot developed a couple of years ago at Hilton’s innovation incubator in McLean, North Virginia, as a guest concierge. Connie may have seemed something of a gimmick, but Hilton says the robot has helped reduce waiting times and “surprised and delighted” guests.

In March, IBM announced its new Watson Assistant AI software, with a particular focus on the hospitality industry. Connie is Watson-enabled and the new software would, among another benefits, help it converse with guests in their own language. Food for thought for holders of the Golden Keys.

Tipping point
Should you tip the concierge?
Of all the vexed questions and issues that the whole business of paying gratuities to people in the hospitality industry invariably raises, giving a gratuity to a concierge is probably the most difficult to resolve.

Tipping the doorman, bellboy, maid or the person who delivers room service (even though a gratuity has usually already been added to your bill) is fairly straightforward for most business travellers. But the decision on whether the concierge gets some cash is fraught with potential pitfalls. How much should you tip? When should you offer it? What if it is refused (although that, according to insiders, is unlikely).

The simple answer, of course, is that yes, you should give a gratuity to a concierge if they deliver service above and beyond what is expected (although that in itself raises certain issues). If they really can get you that sought-after table in the most sold-out restaurant in the city you find yourself in at short notice, then that is definitely worth some monetary recognition.

But if it is just making a routine reservation, then probably not (although you could build up brownie points towards snagging future hard-to-get reservations).

Yet there are further complications about the way concierges are paid: some are remunerated by the hour – usually the more junior members – while others are salaried. Either way, however, it seems to be anticipated that tips are part of concierges’ overall remuneration.

Bjorn Hanson, a hospitality professor at New York University’s Tisch Centre, acknowledges that “tipping concierges feels less natural to many” while other hotel guests simply do not know what is expected. Partly this may be due to some guests using concierges as another source of information, confirming their own view, rather than whether the concierge has come up with a hidden gem.

There seems to be a rule of thumb that if, for example, the advice is simply about the best restaurants in town, then no tip is required. But if it is for a hard-to-get reservation, then some acknowledgement is required. In US cities this gratuity should be US$5-$15, some observers suggest, although in the UK £10-£20 might be more appropriate. But there are also some concerns that the concierge may be getting commission from the restaurant or box office, although this practice is uniformly denied by concierges.

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