Concierges Say Smartphones Can't Compete
Alison Bowen | Chicago Tribune | April 20, 2017 3:10pm
April 19--The time a Saudi Arabian guest wanted a 1995 dark blue Chevy and got it shipped home. The time a guest wanted to drop from a helicopter onto the LondonHouse's roof to propose. The time Cleveland symphony members needed to find their way through protest-clogged streets before performing at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
All were situations handled by concierges in Chicago. All showed the value of a human touch.
Despite an era of user-review apps like Yelp and knowledge navigators such as Siri and Google Maps, the concierge industry is more important than ever.
"You can log into OpenTable and make a reservation," said Shannon Boland, a concierge at LondonHouse. But, she says, "We can call the owners, and there's a glass of bubbly waiting for you at your table. Your table's by the window."
Here in Chicago, concierges make almost 5 million referrals -- that's 1.3 million dining recommendations, 1.1 million shopping suggestions and 1.2 tips on cultural attractions -- according to Concierge Preferred, a marketing group that promotes the value concierges bring to properties and people.
The National Concierge Association, with chapters in places like Arizona, Minnesota and Nevada, helps keep concierges on top of new trends and connections with presentations on etiquette or, during last year's conference, "Tapping Into Your Inner Magic."
NCA founder Sara-ann Kasner said 500 members are employed in hotels, academics, entertainment, residential buildings and hospitals.
"Being in touch with a concierge is your passage to everything," she said.
Chicago is uniquely suited to need concierges, concierges here say. Think the Pedway and its maze that confuses even locals. The riverfront is full of stairs and stops. And don't even get them started on Upper and Lower Wacker drives.
"If I could never speak the words 'Lower Wacker' again, my life would be so much easier," said Boland, who sometimes goes to the lower level herself, hops in the back seat and directs frustrated guests. "Talk about the human factor. I literally get in the car. You can't do that on an iPhone, that's for sure."
In January, Mayor Rahm Emanuel declared Jan. 26 as Concierge Day in Chicago to honor their contributions. Along with an NCA chapter, the city also hosts the Chicago Hotel Concierge Association.
Amber Holst, vice president of Concierge Preferred, estimates the city has 350 hotel concierges. Chicago is an ecosystem with different layers of hotels -- big, small, trendy, traditional.
Concierge Preferred keeps a spotlight on the industry's importance in Chicago and keeps track of who works where. Holst knows, for example, how many concierges a new hotel employs.
Understanding Chicago, concierges say, requires more than Siri. Guests hoping to jog on the Riverwalk get confused when it ends. Business travelers arrive expecting to take the L to meetings in the suburbs.
Logan Lawson-Parks, a concierge at the Hyatt Regency, enjoys fulfilling visions for guests and challenges herself to get to know Chicago better. "I go and I get lost in the Pedway," she said, just so she can find a new way out.
Even if their hotels compete, the city's concierges do not.
"We're all in it together," Boland said.
A clear camaraderie exists. At a recent event perusing French posters at the Driehaus Museum, concierges mingled amid macarons and salmon-topped hors d'oeuvres, complimenting outfits and marveling at the building's marble.
Boland snapped pictures of posters to share on Twitter, where she has more than 9,000 followers. "My guests would like this," she said.
Phones are friend and foe to the modern concierge. Guests might skip their desk, instead asking Google or Yelp.
"I think it's our job to adapt," Boland said. She tweets from dinner or events, mentioning, for example, an oyster-shucking class at GT Fish & Oyster that could be a suggestion for corporate bonding.
A focus on phones also cloaks their many responsibilities, they stress. A concierge's job is much more than restaurant recommendations.
Concierges find out and remember whether guests like rock concerts or red wine, and they point them in the right direction. A concierge may suggest, "This '70s band is playing in three weeks. Should we get you tickets?" or, "You liked Swift & Sons last time. Would you like to try Maple & Ash?"
"There's no regular day," said Alexandra Hunter, a concierge at Starwood Hotels' Aloft. That day, she had coordinated a guest's surprise for his wife, tailoring some restaurant options -- Le Colonial, Nico Osteria, Pump Room -- and suggesting ice skating in Millennium Park.
And sometimes their job seems like performing miracles. Guests request "Hamilton" tickets or a seat at Wrigley Field. And, yes, there are last-minute requests for a table at Alinea.
"Some of us can, and some of us can't," said concierge Alfredo Caliva.
Celebrities and VIPs are a key component. Concierges fill their special requests, whether it's for a lemon or a teakettle, or sending an employee on an emergency errand to Bed Bath & Beyond for a specific fan. They also are expert at suggesting and quickly coordinating special experiences, such as a Blackhawks game with a Zamboni ride.
They sometimes field seedy requests. If someone requests a prostitute, they can't help -- it's an illegal activity in Illinois.
Though concierges insist their role is vital, hotels don't always see them as a priority.
Caliva was a concierge for nearly three decades before, he said, the Hilton DoubleTree downtown dissolved its concierge department in December.
He recounts decades of highlights -- finding rare wines and particular paintings and watching guests' families grow year after year.
On a recent afternoon at the Chicago Athletic Association, the second-floor lobby buzzed with guests. At the desk, chef concierge Joyce Fong gave an architect from France some Frank Lloyd Wright suggestions and advice on his idea to see SC Johnson headquarters, a Wright-designed building in Wisconsin. As often happens, what seems close on a map can be too complicated for a short trip.
"So I said, "You have to come back to Chicago,'" Fong said.