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December 14, 2017

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Are hotel concierges endangered by apps? Don’t bet on it

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Christie Hemm Klok / The New York Times

Joanna Husk, a veteran concierge at the Grand Hyatt San Francisco, assists a guest at the front desk, Nov. 8, 2017. Husk does use software that helps hotel concierges manage their work, but it is a supplement to her job, not a replacement. “There is no app that can get to know you quite like the human app,” she said.

In an age when so many travel tasks can be done with an app, is the hotel concierge — that font of local wisdom with the connections to land a hot last-minute reservation — about to be superseded?

Not according to Joanna Husk, who has been a concierge at the Grand Hyatt San Francisco for almost 28 years and is a member of Les Clefs d’Or USA, the U.S. chapter of the global trade association for hotel concierges.

“There is no app that can get to know you quite like the human app,” she said.

Husk does use GoConcierge — software that helps hotel concierges manage their work, handling tasks such as sending confirmation letters and itineraries to guests, and maintaining a record of all activities they have booked for guests. But it is a supplement to her work, not a replacement.

She said, for instance, that she was recently asked by an East Coast executive to plan a day’s visit in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley for nine people from China who were setting up a business on the West Coast. She had to arrange a luncheon and tour of the wine country for them after a morning meeting. With her knowledge of the wine country and Bay Area traffic patterns, she suggested that the group visit a vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains instead. The vineyard was a 20-minute drive from Silicon Valley and close enough to San Francisco for everyone to return by 7 p.m., change and relax before dinner.

A Google search would not have been sufficient, she said. Nor can the internet always be a trustworthy source of information, because, as James Little, chef concierge of the Peninsula Beverly Hills, said, “it contains a lot of information that’s not verified and is from people who are not experts.”

The services offered by a hotel concierge may seem a luxury. But that’s the point. If they do their job well, concierges can help boost their hotels’ bottom line, since skilled ones can “often inspire the guest to come back to a hotel,” said Noah Lemaich, director of brand standards for Sixty Hotels and former head concierge for Thompson Hotels.

The question is whether web-based concierges offer the same advantages.

François Delahaye, general manager of the Paris hotel Plaza Athénée and chief operating officer of the Dorchester Collection of luxury hotels, sang the praises of human concierges in a recent interview. “If the concierge can get tables at Le Jules Verne, L’Ami Louis and other restaurants in Paris, it’s not because of the tools they use, but because of the amount of business they bring, having contacts for a long time with the restaurant’s headwaiter, maître d’ and manager.”

Even younger travelers, who are most likely to depend on the internet for answers, turn to hotel concierges. Lemaich said travelers in their 20s and 30s will often ask concierges for their expert opinions on matters they have researched on their own. Sarah Dandashy, head concierge of the London West Hollywood at Beverly Hills Hotel and a member of Les Clefs d’Or USA, said millennials, like their elders, ask for help getting into hot restaurants. She said they also seek assistance identifying off-the-beaten-path places where they can find uniquely local experiences — steering visitors to Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood for selfie-taking, for example.

Concierges get some help from various web tools. In addition to GoConcierge, which helps hotels identify and follow up on guests’ requests, there is Alice, an operations platform that helps hotel departments work together, manages concierges’ activities and customizes concierges’ communications with guests. Alice, which is majority owned by Expedia, bought GoConcierge in September. The two say they are now building a single platform incorporating the best features of both systems.

Stay Delightful offers what it calls a “messaging-based guest service solution” that allows hotel employees to communicate and collaborate across departments and interact with guests, via text.

The Ivy platform, from the travel technology company Go Moment, uses artificial intelligence to answer guests’ questions, also by text. Ivy, for example, can send guests a hotel’s Wi-Fi password, order drinks or towels to be sent to their room or help them check out electronically. It is used by hotels providing different levels of service, including those that do not have human concierges.

Stay Delightful and Ivy also can notify guests of their ability to check in early or check out late, which they may have to pay an additional fee for, thus generating revenue for their hotel.

In September, Cambria, an upscale Choice Hotels brand, began a pilot program at its two Chicago hotels that allows guests to contact local food and lifestyle bloggers via Twitter and Instagram for suggestions. Should the pilot go well, Choice will make the program available next year to guests at all Cambria hotels. Cambria hotels do not provide in-house concierge services.

And a small niche player, What Should We Do?, offers suggestions for a range of activities in New York City, on a website and app, and charges travelers fees for some of its services.

Hotel executives, concierges and executives of concierge tool companies all agreed the rise of texting and of social media and apps like Facebook, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and WeChat have greatly increased demands on concierges.

Rainy Chan, who until recently was the general manager of the Peninsula Hong Kong, said the workload of the seven concierges employed there has tripled in the past several years. “Although technology helps them find information a lot faster, it also changes the expectations of guests. They expect a faster response. And the concierges get very last-minute requests for recommendations.”

“Ten or 15 years ago, they only serviced guests in the hotel,” she said. “Now, because of technology, they get a lot of emails from people who are not staying, but who are coming soon and have questions about Hong Kong.”

Chan said the concierges at her hotel take turns focusing exclusively on replying to email messages. Delahaye said the Plaza Athénée’s 18-person concierge staff has a dedicated secretary to respond to guests’ messages and help plan their itineraries. Both hotels use GoConcierge.

Robert Marks is chef concierge at the Omni Hotel San Diego, which is connected to Petco Park, the Padres’ baseball stadium, and president of Les Clefs d’Or USA. Marks said he contacts certain guests, including members of Omni’s frequent stay program and individuals chosen at random, a week before their arrival to see if they have any special needs. He also lets them know about arts and sports events, in case they want tickets. He and his staff also call guests, like those celebrating a birthday or anniversary or frequent visitors, upon their arrival and every night of their stay. His hotel is also a GoConcierge customer.

Holly Stiel, a veteran San Francisco concierge who now teaches companies in and out of the travel field how to provide concierge services, said she believed that human concierges were here to stay. “As long as people place value and are willing to pay for personalization” and other attentions, there will be a demand, she said. Mediocrity, she added, “will certainly be replaced by technology, but the true concierge artist can never be.”