Technology and Profitability Trends for the Concierge

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By Elaine Oksner, Guest Service and Concierge Trainer, Hospitality Excellence, Inc.

I remember when my father would reminisce about his youth, beginning his stories with “Why, when I was a boy…” He would launch into how dramatically things had changed over the years, from the price of a loaf of bread (a nickel in his youth) to the accepted fashions of the day (a diatribe on torn jeans). Now I find myself looking back over the time I have spent in the hotel industry and all the changes that have occurred just on my twenty- plus years at the Concierge desk and I want to say, “Why, when I was a girl…”

In the early 1980’s, when I began my Concierge career, there were no computers at the desk. The newest gizmos, fax machines, were just coming on the scene, and they came with rolls of flimsy, curly paper that had to be hand cut to the size of each page as it was printed. The information highway was not on anyone’s map and no one had heard of global positioning systems or Bluetooth. Information at the Concierge desk was kept unwieldy log books and guest history was tracked on 3X5 file cards. Every communication with the
guest was done on note cards, painstakingly and time- consumingly written in our best hand. Outside communication was limited to using the telephone and telex, and overnight delivery services like FedEx and DHL were just getting started. Tracking down the odd item for guests meant searching through telephone books and calling contacts from the huge Rolodex and/or big black address books that were our closely guarded lifelines. Shelves were full of reference books and a great deal of space was taken up with printed materials. My, how times have changed. And every day, it seems, they change yet again.

Keeping up with technological advancements is a constant challenge to Concierges today. How to incorporate the latest innovations into our work without losing the human touch, which is our hallmark, is also a challenge. Innovation and education are the key elements in making technology work for us and making these new products profitable for the hotel or resort’s bottom line.

Today, of course, I doubt that there is a Concierge desk anywhere that isn’t connected by computer to the wonderful World Wide Web, allowing speedy research and prompt answers to guest requests. The computers are connected to printers that, more often than not, are tied into a software program that is able to take key elements of, for example, a restaurant reservation, and speedily pop out a perfect confirmation letter. And, if programmed properly, along with the well-worded confirmation will appear, as if by magic, a full color map and printed directions not only going to, but coming back from the restaurant. While this and other abilities of the computer software make the job easier, the Concierge must always stay on top of what information is going into the data base. For example, it is imperative that the information in the system is kept up to date so the map doesn’t guide the guest to take the bridge that is now closed and under construction for the next month, or refer to valet parking that is no longer available.

Concierge computer programs allow the Concierge to collect and analyze data. Your Concierge staff can, and should be encouraged to, keep management updated on what is taking the guests off property and spending money elsewhere. For example, what kind of restaurants are the guests are looking for? If the Concierge tracks reservations that lean heavily toward a certain kind of cuisine, perhaps that would influence what food choices the in-house outlets offer. And, of course keeping track of guest preferences and anticipating their wishes helps to foster repeat business. Guests love to know we take the time and effort to learn their preferences.

Along with the computers though, have come some extra tasks that weren’t part of the job even just a decade ago. For example, printing boarding passes, handling email requests and making dinner, spa and golf reservations through interconnections with other in-house department systems are all possible now and make a lot of sense and cents. How much easier it is for the Concierge staff to cross sell the other departments when they have first hand knowledge and training and the ability to book the reservations. When the golf course, salon, spa and dining rooms are closed, the concierge is still hard at work at the desk. Who better to assist the guests who want to make an appointment at their convenience? Of course it is imperative to make sure that training and product knowledge is comprehensive before turning the job over to the Concierge Staff. But they will absorb these additional tasks with their usual aplomb and make a positive impact on the bottom line.

In conjunction with the ubiquitous computers, there are so many other pieces of equipment and technologies that are important for the Concierge staff to learn about to serve the guests – cell phones, digital cameras, data ports, DVD players, iPods — the list goes on and on updates frequently. What technical knowledge does the staff need to know and how can they anticipate the guests’ questions and needs before they arise? Here is an example: Frequently guests forget to pack their chargers for their cell phone or other hand held devices. Is your concierge desk prepared with a full assortment of brands of chargers to assist the guests? Unfortunately there is no universal charger, so this is a constant challenge.

Another challenge is keeping the staff abreast of the technological changes in the guest rooms. Have you put in new flat-screen TV’s? Added DVD players and iPod ports? It’s important to make sure you give your concierge staff hands-on experience with these new products so they can answer the inevitable questions that will come with each innovation. You want your concierge staff to be more knowledgeable than the guests concerning the equipment you bring on property. When questions arise, it is usually the concierge who is asked.

In the same vein, are the Concierges regularly updated on the latest equipment in the Business Center? If they are the ones who access it for the guests before and after normal business hours, do they know how to assist the guests with the data ports, clean out a clogged printer or change the ink in the color copiers? Do they know where back up supplies are and are they readily available so they don’t have to keep the guest waiting?

Do you have a game room for your younger guests, from children to teens, which has the latest electronic systems? If you do, do the Concierges know how to use them? If they get a call with inquiries about the equipment, can they answer the questions? Often the library of games and DVDs are in the hands and under the control of the Concierge desk to keep track of the inventory. When the guests sign out the games and movies, the Concierge should be completely prepared to answer the technological questions that come up. They should also have a good system of tracking loaned items to reduce loss of inventory. Here’s another place where their computers come in handy.

In the past, new technologies offered some opportunities to add to the hotel’s bottom line. Renting out computers and cell phones to guests, for example, used to bring in added revenue. These days the vast majority of guests bring these items with them. Even the youngest among our guests have their own cell phones, game systems and hand-held DVD players and are amazingly technologically savvy. However there may still be some items that are worth having on hand and renting out. For example, most car rental companies offer built-in GPS in at least some of their vehicles. However, guests with their own cars or who did not rent a vehicle with this equipment might be happy to rent a portable system from the Concierge. In the same vein, Nintendo’s Wii technology is hugely popular right now. Is it something you can utilize in your rooms or rent from the concierge desk? Guests who are used to their Wii Fit routines at home may want to have the ability to continue them while traveling.

Perhaps, if you have a library, instead of loaning books, you can rent Kindles. They are the latest technology for readers; a slender hand-held device that can store lots of books and change the font size to adjust to the needs of the reader. Wouldn’t they “wow’” your guests? And have you heard about the newest little iPod, the Shuffle that is about the size of half a credit card and clips onto your waistband and weighs practically nothing? They would be great to rent out to joggers or to offer in your health club. Staying abreast of technological innovations and being open to the possibilities they offer for more efficient work, profit making and, more importantly, delighting your guests is, no doubt, part of management’s job in 21st century.

Looking ahead, the brave new world of the future includes brain-sensing technology, commonly called EEG (encephalography) moving out of the medical field and into the wider consumer market. According to Cox News Service reporter David Ho, several companies are investing in this brain wave technology. Not surprisingly, they are starting with video games. However, he says, “It’s a short move from gaming to things like virtual worlds and from there into the mainstream computing environment.” Emotiv Systems, the manufacturer of a $300 headset device “may have applications in interactive television, medicine, aerospace and security” says Ta Le, Emotiv’s President. In no time at all, I have no doubt, that there will be applications for the hotel industry, too. With a wink or a nod the concierge will be able to do functions that now require the use of a mouse and a keyboard. What will they think of next?