Published on: HotelExecutive.com, April 2017
Whether it's booking travel online, buying a book or watching porn, for years, the role of technology has been to improve our access to information and our ability to act on that information. As a result, consumers have become increasingly independent and able to satisfy their needs through technology. In economics this is called disintermediation - the removal of intermediaries from a supply chain, or the "cutting out of the middlemen" in connection with a transaction or a series of transactions. We've seen Uber do it to the taxi companies, airlines to the travel agents and so on. In the hotel, that "middleman" has always been the concierge - the highly polished, extremely knowledgeable "Golden Keys," who could unlock the best restaurants in town for the guests who asked the nicest. The concierge was historically the guests' access point to all the information they were seeking on local services and products.
With the advent of the smartphone, however, the concierge role has come under threat. The proliferation of review sites, social media recommendations, and online booking platforms has given guests the ability to discover and take care of everyday requests themselves. Many people are calling this age the Concierge Economy (or Convenience Economy), one in which countless networks of digitally coordinated workers deliver products and services to people who are cash-rich but time-poor. As the Wall Street Journal wrote in 2015, "there is an Uber for everything now." When you combine these Uber-for-X offerings with the online booking platforms that can satisfy your restaurant (OpenTable) and theater (Ticketmaster) needs, you can justify the notion that a guest can effectively serve as their own concierges today.
Consumer technology is outpacing concierge technology, leaving many in our industry to undervalue the necessity of a highly trained concierge and many concierges frustrated at their inability to perform at the speed and personalization required to impress our clientele. - Noah Lemaich, Chief Concierge of Sixty Hotels
But reports of the demise of the concierge role have been greatly exaggerated, as you will see. Indeed, let us consider another reality. Nothing has changed. A guest has always been able to figure out what to do and research how to do it. I know it seems shocking to think of a world without my beloved Google Maps, but there was a time when I stopped by the concierge to ask for a map and directions every time I left the hotel -- at that time, doing so was simply the most convenient option. This reality is true of all these on-demand apps. Consumers are not choosing them because they are cheaper but because they are more convenient and in almost all cases, we are paying a premium for this convenience. An item in a vending machine is more expensive than the same one at a store because someone else has applied resources to make sure it's more conveniently located. In our industry, convenience premiums are placed on the items in the mini-bar, the amenities brought up to our rooms and the WiFi now on planes. The point is that consumers value time and effort and technology has not changed our values.
Technology has rarely changed what we do, just how we do it. A concierge has always been a luxury not a necessity, just as having a driver has been over renting your own car. The problem today is that technology thus far has affected everything around the concierge, but not yet the role itself. The concierge has become less convenient than the service apps I use because the service apps live on my phone and in most hotels, the concierge does not. So, in a world of mobile technology and information overload, we have to create a new model for concierge, one in which convenience is achieved through technology, and one in which guests are able to continue paying their convenience premiums but to the concierge instead of an outsourced service provider.
How Technology will Support the Concierge of the Future
The concierge of the future needs to be supported by technology made expressly to enhance the role and place him or her at the center of the guest experience. Perhaps a better name for this role is "Guest Experience Manager." This technology needs to augment and advance the concierge in his or her ability to: Project Manage, Communicate, Curate Information ad Personalize
1. Project Management
Concierges today need technology that lets them master their guests' itineraries and accommodate the planning that's needed often months in advance, as well as in the split seconds after a request is made.
A concierge is not just the person who secures the guest a romantic corner table on Valentine's Day. A concierge, rather, ensures everything before, during, and after that corner table is exactly as the guest wants it. There's much that goes into this. Just listen to Erik Rocca, Concierge at Thompson Nashville, and one of many ALICE Concierge users, describe what's necessary to coordinate a single evening for just one guest:
"Jack Barnes, Corner booth at Balthazar…… 7:47 PM, hates even numbers…Two Negroni's on the rocks waiting at the table….Must be seated in Antonio's section, the Head Waiter for over 20 years. Red Roses. Mr. Barnes has a special note for his wife to be delivered by the Maître D at 8:13 PM. Two tickets to the heavyweight fight at Madison Square Garden. Seats must be in Section 201 or in Mr. Monroe's Box Seats, but only if he offers, of course. Car waiting to take them back, 15 minutes before the fight ends to miss the traffic. Keys at the desk with today's papers for a night cap."
"Any concierge," says Erik, "can tell you that the job is not always easy, especially in a luxury market. Guests are demanding and particular, and they have every right to be. Being a great concierge and hotel is about delivering outstanding customer service within a non-stop twenty-four-hour cycle."
The concierge role is one that requires extremely accurate project management. Stitching together an evening, whether it is as grand as that of Mr Barnes or as simple as a trip to the movies, takes time and effort. Imagine a whole trip, and then multiply that by the number of guests at your hotel at any one time, plus those guests who plan their trip in advance in arrival. While guests may be increasingly booking their travel online, 77% of all in-stay tourist activities are actually still booked offline and in-destination, according to Robin Berrendorf, Co-Founder at MyEventBUTLER.
The app world has done a great job at facilitating the "right now" requests, but a concierge needs to accurately manage requests for activities and items far out in the future as well as those that require immediate attention. Much of the software being used by concierges today (or lack of software) creates a barrier to the concierge performing this orchestration flawlessly. Most concierges are using either spreadsheets or very simple task management tools. To be more convenient and helpful to guests than the apps on their phones, concierges need technology attuned to the project management needs of the role.
Concierges today need technology that makes it easier for guests to communicate with them than it is to communicate with their apps.
How we communicate with one another has changed significantly over the past ten years. Phone calls are on the wane, and messaging (be it through SMS, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger) is becoming increasingly prevalent - both between friends and between consumers and businesses. Guests staying at your hotel will expect to communicate with your staff in the method of their choosing, in the way that's most convenient to them.
Hotels can't afford to ignore their guests' communication channel preferences. Take the example of Netflix vs Blockbuster. Both companies provide(d) the same exact service - letting you watch a movie at home. At its peak in 2004, Blockbuster had 60,000 employees, 9,000 stores and a market cap of $5bn. Today, Netflix has a market cap of $59.38bn, which is exactly $59.38bn more than that of Blockbuster, which filed for bankruptcy in 2010.
When it comes to technology, we must continuously hew towards convenience. If the concierge isn't able to join the guest on their preferred communication channel, then the guest must walk up to the desk or call him or her, which takes effort and diminishes convenience. As long as this technology gap remains, guests will continue to outsource their service needs to a provider who is at their fingertips (and I will continue to use my Google Maps).
Since placing SMS capabilities into ALICE we have already seen a sharp rise in the willingness of guests to ask for service as it becomes frictionless to do so. As the concierge role becomes more of a guest experience hub, it's imperative their communication abilities keep pace with that of their guests.
3. Information Curation
Concierges today need technology that helps them help guests cut through the information overload that exists today.
When the travel industry first introduced online booking platforms, travel agents all over the world went out of business. What need was there for a physical agent, if guests could book themselves online and hotels could access their guests directly? Over the last few years, however, we are starting to see this trend reverse, and witness a resurgence of the travel advisor (the new travel agent). This is because with so much content being produced, we now live in a world of information overload. Travellers crave adventure and new experiences. They also want experiences that are local and authentic. With so much information and "advice" out there it's hard to see the forest through the trees, no matter how many algorithms we create to achieve this. Again, its time vs money and while we can curate our own trips, people value the opinions and reassurances of other humans. When it comes to the hotel experience, the concierge is there to help (much like the resurging travel agent). Even Airbnb has their hosts now communicating through messaging technology with guests around their trips to help facilitate and suggest local experiences that will make the trip memorable. Just as the number of travel advisors is set to grow 10% through 2020, there remains a big opportunity for the content curating concierge.
Concierges need technology that helps them make guests feel special and valued.
Just as we want to experience the world as a local, we also want to be treated as one. The future of guest experience is a highly personalized one. It is one where the hotel recognizes you not just for your booking loyalty, but for who you are as an individual and how you like to enjoy your travel. One of the key reasons we choose hotels in general over Airbnb is for their service. One of the key reasons we will go back to the exact same hotel is because we are remembered. Leading Hotels of the World found their members who felt recognized by the hotel had a 3x higher guest satisfaction score.
This is where technology will have its biggest impact. As hotels adopt platform and messaging technology, every single action and communication from a guest will have some form of digital trace. Staff are getting rid of radios and moving to digital too, and even the complaints and requests made by guests are becoming digitized. Thus, as the entire hotel technology ecosystem becomes integrated, the amount of data we have on our guests is growing exponentially. Everything from a complaint to an allergy will become usable data.
While we recognize that much of this data is not useful and that there is a data overload, artificial intelligence is progressing to a point where we are not far off from being able to surface the right guest to hotel staff at the right time. The concierge of the future will be able to use this data to create a truly personalized experience. Moreover, concierges who are trained in the art of hospitality will be advantaged to deliver this personalization in a way that feels authentic, which is something technology itself cannot do. As Skift wrote in their mega trends for 2017, hospitality needs to bring back its humanity. But this does not mean no technology, rather it means using technology to support hotel staff to deliver the experience of hospitality
Guests have not changed what they are doing, just how they are doing it. Hotels will continue to need their concierges, because guests will continue to want convenient, human driven hospitality experiences. However, the concierge will only survive and thrive if given the right technology - the right technology to become a holistic guest experience manager, as the changing role requires. Guests will need to communicate with their concierge as seamlessly as they do with their apps. Concierges will also need tools for curation and personalization, in order to safeguard the industry's ability to deliver unique and memorable travel experiences.