Recently, a client of mine had his own client coming into town, and he requested help in placing this individual at a local hotel within Center City Philadelphia. So, I suggested a cutting-edge and contemporary property that’s known for its comfortable rooms and a great central location.
Later, when I asked how everything went with his client’s stay, the gentleman replied, “He said it was terrific, but there was no concierge to help with a last-minute reservation other than a front desk agent, who didn’t seem to know much about the local restaurant scene. The clerk ended up suggesting a mediocre chain operation, and - to add insult to injury - he made the booking through Open Table, right in front of the guest!”
Although this was disheartening intel, it came as no surprise. I’m used to hearing about hotel guests who become frustrated by the lack of skilled hospitality professionals working within their lodging environs.
More often than not, check-in/out is being done via a kiosk. And, when it comes to the concierge, well, let’s face it - the hotel concierge, by and large, is quickly going the way of the bellman; meaning, if you want it done - whether it’s transporting your luggage up to your room or scoring a two top at the hottest place in town - these days, you’re pretty much on your own.
There’s an app for all of that, I guess…
As I look back through my sixty-two years of being a concierge (or, maybe it’s been twenty-five - I keep losing count), I constantly see a progression of changes, some boding well for my profession and those within it, others heralding a seismic shift within the service industry’s front lines by seemingly showing me this position is becoming obsolete.
The concierge will never go away, mind you, but the profession has definitely become a muddled one for sure.
While so many of my hotel brethren find Open Table and Stub Hub-like electronic tools to be a quick and fortifying way to do daily business, I personally stay clear of them (do I really need points to supplement me with free meals?), I actually find those online servers to be helpful to me, indirectly, insofar as they’re only usable when the typical request is in order. Meaning: my client may first try his app to land a table, but - good luck securing one on a busy Saturday night at, say, The Love - a super popular Stephen Starr restaurant in Center City.
His clickable failure doesn’t ensure my own success, though there is something to be said for strong relationship-building and interpersonal communication via the telephone or in person. No app can replace the relationships I’ve made with my friends at The Love.
Sure, I’ve seen some years come and go, along with my share of colleagues who still perform similar tasks as I do. I cannot help but notice, though, there’s very little growth within my profession. When I incorporated the Philadelphia Concierge Association in early-1996, the organization had something like fifty-six members, with forty-five of them representing area hotels. Today, we have just twenty members, and only half of them work in Center City hotels. These numbers are telling, to say the least.
For those who still remain, though - we cling to this unique working lifestyle like a bumblebee to an azalea bush - knowing that as long as we’re doing our jobs while remaining savvy to the changing human and technological landscapes, we’ll remain ahead of the concierge curve.
What are some of the differentiations between now and the past? Here are some current observations from behind the concierge desk:
Change #1 - “You Are Not Your Khakis”
I’ll always remember the advent of the actual physical change to the workforce. It occurred in the early-2000s when “Casual Fridays” became the norm.
Reeling ahead, “Casual Everyday” later become the style du jour, and not just for the younger set. Now, I too find myself looking less buttoned-up, as well - not because I’m adapting to this sartorial change. Rather, it’s because some of my own clientele have told me how I’ll look more. approachable if I’m not noosed by a buttoned collar and a tie.
But the couture these days, for a large portion of my tenants, at least, can mean a Philadelphia Eagles jersey and Birkenstocks in winter, spaghetti straps and sandals come summertime. This isn’t an indictment. It’s just a fact.
Dressing nicely is becoming a fading art form. The majority of corporate folks just don’t care about impressing others with style.
Change #2 - The Landscape Grows and Grows and Grows and…
Philadelphia, like many large American cities, has gone Boom!
Whereas neighborhoods like Fishtown and Kensington - not so long ago, you didn’t venture too far into their once-seedy interiors - are now the hipster havens. The same goes for, say, the unseemly stretch of Market Street in front of the Pennsylvania Convention Center. It used to be a caustic corridor to traverse, in order to get to more enticing parts of the city. Now, that straight urban line is called the Fashion District. It’s a retailing wonderland!
Hey, it’s about time we have some city stylishness to crow about!
Ditto, my own stomping grounds of King of Prussia, the booming megapolis on the western side beyond the city. KOP used to be known for its big mall and the historic national park (Valley Forge). Today, that big mall is, well, just about the biggest in the country. And the corporate market here, as well as its residential one, has gone absolutely ka-blooey.
But the real change is in our restaurant scene. KOP always had lots of them. Yet, today - at this very moment - I can look out my office window and count 2, 4, 8 - something like 12 different chain operations, and that’s just within one square mile!
With population growth, so too does the landscape.
Change #3 - It’s Not a Tour, It’s an ‘Experiential’
Yup, we’ve progressed to the point beyond paying for or booking a simple trip, one where you secure a room, maybe a meal, and then you take in a few sights by way of the Big Bus.
Now, we crave experientials - bespoke tours that cater to our own personal likes and preferences. Honestly, I think this variable of the travel industry is one of its most exciting aspects to the present and its future. So much so that I plan to follow the trend by creating and nurturing my own sets of concierge-curated tours.
The region is ripe for exploring. Why shouldn’t I be one of the catalysts to get you there?
Change #4 - “Oh, Those Millennials!”
I know a lot about Millennials, just as I’m fairly familiar with their wired-in younger counterparts, the Gen-Zers. Why? Because I’ve been raising one of each of them for years.
They’re really no different from any other generation, when you think about it. We all claimed independence from our parents when we could; we had our own modes of communication, and we rebelled as often as possible (I still have the tattoo to prove it).
One aspect that has changed, though - at least it seemed this way to me only recently - is in the eating habits of the younger set.
Here’s how I found this out firsthand…
This past summer, as a unique initiative at one of my buildings, I installed a Community Garden - an on-site mini-Eden where employees could go to get a bit of fresh air while lightly working to maintain a bounty of herbs and veggies. My garden is situated in a pastoral little plot, right between the access road and the retaining wall next to a busy highway.
If you wanted to be a Community Gardener with me, the mandate was: If you help to grow it, then you’ll get first dibs at the harvest you’re working to yield. The funny thing was, though - out of ten or so key gardeners, all of whom were an average age of twenty-four or so - not one of them cared in the least about taking free bushels of tomatoes, basil, oregano, five different types of peppers, green beans, or - well, anything at all!
When I finally asked one of my green thumb helpers why she didn’t want any of her bounty, the answer was succinct: “We just don’t cook. We’re Millennials. We order out instead.”
Yet, the more I think about it, the more I realize it was pretty much the same back in my own younger days. Free bushels of tomatoes were what my grandmother used to make spaghetti sauce with, but it wasn’t what I necessarily needed in my own culinary world.
So, for every finger pointed at “Those Millennials,” the truth is - we were all Millennials at one time or another (they just called us something different at the time.)
Change #5 - Built Like an Amazon
There’s a running gag between me and the security officer who staffs the building where I work most days. We’ll see the never-ending flow of Amazon drivers who pour into and out of the front door and joke how one day, soon, we’ll be sharing the elevator with delivery drones.
It’s really not such a far-fetched theory. It’s become an Amazon world, for better or worse.
Don’t’ believe me? Just ask Jeff Bezos.
Change #6 - There’s an App for That, and Me.
When email made its introduction in my section of the workforce sometime in 1998, it seemed like the perfect way toward communication when the phone or a face-to-face wasn’t an option.
Twenty-one years later, it is still my best tool for connecting with my corporate clientele and coworkers alike.
But change is in the air, or rather, it’s going to be on my phone - a little symbol that I’ll need to click on, to communicate with my tenants, and vice-versa.
Actually, I’m behind that curve by several years, as quite a few of my contemporaries are already linked to their guests via an app.
When the technology finally happens, I know that I’ll easily adapt to it.
But the irony doesn’t get past me, nonetheless - the concierge was begun almost a century ago, as a compassionate and personalized way to assist others. I hope that I don’t devolve into a device that’s perceived to be about as warm and fuzzy as the Siri on my iPhone!
My aim is to remain revolutionary - and employed!
Ken Alan is a corporate concierge for CBRE. He is the restaurant features editor for Main Line Today, and the founding member of the Philadelphia Area Concierge Association. Ken.Alan@cbre.com