A hotel concierge, via apps, twitter and more

Some hotels have begun to expand the definition of concierge to mean more than just a knowledgeable employee. It now can also mean smart digital devices. Software companies are creating programs that offer information like restaurant recommendations, flight arrivals and departures and driving directions via smartphones, touch-screen devices, iPads and other electronics to guests at midtier hotels that do not provide traditional concierge services.

Even more upscale brands that employ human concierges are joining in. They are offering location-specific information, developed by each hotel’s staff, accessible via the Internet, iPhone apps and even live chats. And all Hyatt hotels let guests send requests, via Twitter, to customer service agents who are on call 24 hours a day.

When it comes to concierge services, “we as an industry cannot operate in an analog way in a digital world,” said John Wallis, global head of marketing and brand strategy for Hyatt Hotels.

With the proliferation of midprice and limited-service brands, high-tech concierge services represent an effort by hotel companies “to differentiate themselves, to add a service that usually ranks among the highest for guest satisfaction and to achieve higher rates,” said Bjorn Hanson, divisional dean of the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University.

He said these services could be more attractive to younger guests, “Gen Xers and Millennials, the target segment for many of these brands, who typically require or even prefer less personal interaction, and desire quick answers, any time, day or night.” Older, more international guests, he said, “tend to prefer personal service.” Still, the question remains whether digital concierges can ever equal their human counterparts. Henry Harteveldt, travel analyst for Forrester Research, said he did not think they would. “Nothing will ever replace a face-to-face concierge,” he said. “A guest visiting a city for the first time will have a lot of questions and will need to have interaction with a concierge that technology won’t replace.”

But hotel chains are moving ahead with the digital version nonetheless. InterContinental Hotels has been among the most aggressive developers of high-tech concierge services, starting in 2007 with videos starring individual hotel concierges offering destination-specific advice. Today, 150 of the brand’s 171 hotels have created the videos, which are available on each hotel’s website and on YouTube and iTunes.

InterContinental has given, on a trial basis, iPads to concierges at 10 hotels to offer guests advice. It has also developed an iPad app with the same information for use by guests. In addition, the company is now testing live chats between guests and concierges through Skype and FaceTime, by Apple. Hotel employees meet weekly to update destination information. And guests receive an email from the chief concierge five days before arrival offering suggestions and maps.

Last year, Marriott International’s Renaissance hotels – there are more than 150 in 34 countries – introduced a program called Navigator that offers suggestions for dining, drinks, shopping and sightseeing. This information, generated by Wcities, an online destination content provider, and by hotel employees, can be found on each hotel’s webpage and on an iPhone app. Guests can also ask Renaissance’s human concierges for help.

Hyatt’s high-tech concierge service, offered to guests at all of its hotels, luxury or midtier, is Twitter-based Introduced two years ago, it lets guests send requests to HyattConcierge. Customer service agents in Omaha; Mainz, Germany; and Melbourne, Australia, must respond to messages in 15 minutes or less. If requests require more than a 140-character response, the agent will email or call the guest. One recent message came from a guest at the Andaz Wall Street, who, rather than calling hotel workers directly, requested a hangover remedy that included two extra-strength Advil and wheat toast with butter.

Marriott International’s Courtyard, a midtier brand, has gone in a different digital direction. Its GoBoard, a 140-centimetre touch-screen device in the hotel lobby uses software, from Four Winds Interactive, to provide weather information, news headlines and employee recommendations for restaurants and other local attractions. Marriott plans to upgrade the information provided through the devices this summer, and will offer them brandwide by 2013, said Janis Milham, vice president of Courtyard.

Intelity, another software provider, is working with Wyndham’s Wingate hotels, Starwood’s Aloft hotels and others to give guests airline information as well as customized dining, shopping and recreation recommendations through laptops, iPads, touch-screen devices, televisions and mobile phones.

Wyndham Worldwide will give owners of hotels in its 15 brands the option of offering the Intelity service to guests, said Paul Davis, senior vice president for strategic sourcing. He said some of the recommendations of service providers are paid listings by the providers.

Aloft is testing Intelity’s program on iPads in hotel lobbies. Brian McGuinness, Aloft’s global brand leader, said much information offered to guests was generated by hotel employees and none is the result of advertising.

One hotel brand that continues to emphasize its human concierge services is Starwood’s Luxury Collection, which is training concierges at its 77 hotels to be more diligent when helping guests. The chief concierge of the SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills, Calif., discovered, for example, when he called a guest coming from the Cayman Islands that the guest had just dropped his iPhone in the ocean. The concierge bought a new iPhone, activated and programmed it, and presented it to the guest upon arrival.

“We don’t want to build more technology. We want someone to be the face of the brand, to be the human element in an increasingly digital world,” said Paul James, global brand leader for Luxury Collection.

Harteveldt, of Forrester Research, warned that one downside of high-tech services could be their execution, “if they are not updated, authentic or appropriate for the brand or guest.”

That was indeed the experience of Igor Matlin, a sales engineer in Chicago for Coverity, a software developer.

Matlin, a gold-level participant in Marriott’s loyalty program and frequent guest at Renaissance and Courtyard hotels, said he had been disappointed by both brands’ high-tech concierge services.

He said the Courtyard GoBoard was most useful for news headlines and weather. But he said he found local restaurant information lacking on the GoBoard at the Courtyard San Diego Sorrento Mesa/La Jolla, because “it didn’t give any better results than a Google search on my phone.” He added, “It’s not as useful as a website – it gives you a list, but you can’t filter it.”

And he said he was frustrated when he got driving directions for a friend from Navigator at the at the Renaissance Chicago O’Hare Suites Hotel but could not forward them.