In the age of concierge apps, real-life concierges tout the 'human element'

Blurred, a man walks through a hotel lobby

The number of luxury hotels that employ concierges has dropped nearly 20 percent since 2014, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY )

In director Wes Anderson’s film “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” the ever-fussy, high-class hotel concierge Gustave H. takes viewers on a rollicking journey around the world. To real-life concierge Jack Nargil of the Mandarin Oriental in Washington, D.C., the film was important for rekindling interest in an old-timey profession that is increasingly under threat by automation and apps. Many millennial hotel guests, he says, still need reminders about what exactly a concierge does, and the film served as a romantic representation of what they can provide.

Getting the guest’s request just so is what drives concierges like Nargil. “Whether it’s a simple request from a person from Iowa, or from an Arab sheikh from the Middle East, everyone should be treated as a king or a queen,” says Nargil. “We are the human element in today’s challenging world of technology.”

But in the real world, a fanciful cinematic depiction is no match for the smartphone.

Since Anderson’s film was released, in 2014, the number of luxury hotels that employ concierges has dropped nearly 20 percent, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association. And with fewer and fewer concierges gracing hotel lobbies nationwide, industry experts say the public’s understanding of how they are compensated may also be diminishing.

In Philadelphia, concierge Fran Nachman of the Sonesta hotel says the word has been co-opted by so many companies and products that some are forgetting that its original meaning refers to a profession.

“Target has the beauty concierge. Ford has the Lincoln Concierge. Everyone is a concierge because of what the term means,” Nachman says. “They’ve taken that term of ‘this is ultimate service,’ and it’s a time in our industry when hotels are decreasing their employment of concierge.”

Some concierges are hourly and others are salaried employees. But Bjorn Hanson, a hospitality and tourism professor at New York University, says either way, their pay is usually in anticipation of tips. Hotel guests are accustomed to tipping hotel maids, bellhops or car shuttle drivers, but Hanson says, for some reason, tipping concierges feels less natural to many. Other travelers just don’t know it’s expected. And sometimes, Hanson says, “the traveler is using a concierge as another ‘channel,’ another source of information, rather than relying on the concierge as the sole source.”

For example, if you use an app to track down five good restaurants in the neighborhood and ask the concierge to winnow down the list, it might not seem like much work. But concierges say they spend their lives researching the local food scenes and establishing inroads around town that make their opinions especially informed. If a concierge lands you a spot in a sold-out show or finds a way to squeeze you into a restaurant that is fully booked, industry groups suggest giving between a tip between $5 and $15. But if the concierge’s task is simpler, like offering restaurant advice, tipping is optional. If advice is sought several times throughout a stay, however, then offering a tip is usually the right thing to do. “Tips and gratuities for concierge are always appreciated,” says Robert Marks, president of Les Clefs d’Or USA, or the society of golden keys, an elite fraternity of concierges. Recently, members met in Washington, D.C., to discuss ways of staying relevant in 2017. One thing they’re changing is, literally, their approach. “They used to be behind these imposing marble desks that look like altars and were very intimidating for some guests,” says Marks.

But now instead of your approaching them, they may approach you, perhaps holding an iPad, and not just rattle off results but also offer local wisdom — hopefully enough, in the concierge’s mind, to warrant a tip.

Do concierges get a commission by sending people to certain locations? Marks says his organization does not allow restaurants to give concierges cash in exchange for steering business their way. Other types of establishments can give concierges a commission, although Hanson says it is not the standard practice. However, Nargil says maintaining bonds with the right people, with the right power at the right time, is part of the job description.

“It’s personal relationships that make you look like the magicians that you actually are,” he says. Marks remembers a time he had to deploy some magical powers. A guest approached him frantically one day at the Omni San Diego Hotel. She was a bride who learned that her dress was trapped at the dry cleaners the day of her wedding.

Emotions were running high; everybody was scrambling trying to figure out what to do. Marks says he tried to stay calm. He offered to take her shopping, or to find her another dress. “None of those were options she was willing to accept,” he said. So, he found the number of the security company monitoring the store. He contacted them and got the contact of the dry cleaning store owner, who unlocked the shop, grabbed the dress and handed it to Marks. “Crisis averted, happy bride,” he says.

When it comes to making distraught brides happy, Marks says, there isn’t an app for that.

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