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The Virtual Hotel Concierge

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 tips, flight arrivals and departures and driving directions via these devices to guests at midtier hotels that do not provide traditional concierge services.

Service bell at hotel reception
Louis Fox | Digital Vision | Getty Images
Service bell at hotel reception

Even more upscale brands that employ human concierges are joining in, by offering location-specific information, 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, while older and 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.”

But hotel chains are moving ahead with the digital version nonetheless. For example, InterContinental Hotels in 2007 began creating 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 Web site and on YouTube and iTunes.

InterContinental is testing use by concierges of iPads with information for guests, as well as live chats between them through Skype or Apple’s FaceTime. It has also developed an iPad app with destination information for guests. And guests receive an e-mail from the chief concierge five days before arrival offering suggestions and maps.

Last year, Marriott International’s Renaissance hotels 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 Web page and on an iPhone app. The hotels also employ traditional concierges.

Hyatt’s high-tech concierge service, at all of its hotels, is Twitter-based. Introduced two years ago, it lets guests send requests to HyattConcierge. Customer service agents must respond to messages within 15 minutes. If requests require more than a 140-character response, the agent will e-mail or call. One recent message from a guest at the Andaz Wall Street 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 55-inch touch-screen device in the lobby, uses software, from Four Winds Interactive, to provide weather and news updates, and employee picks for restaurants and local attractions. Marriott will upgrade content on the devices this summer and offer them brandwide by 2013, said Janis Milham, vice president of Courtyard.

Intelity, a software company, is working with Wyndham’s Wingate hotels, Starwood’s Aloft hotels and others to provide airline information as well as customized dining, shopping and recreation tips through laptops, iPads, touch-screen devices, TVs and cellphones.

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 resourceful 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.

Mr. 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.

Mr. Matlin, a gold-level participant in Marriott’s loyalty program, said he had been disappointed by Courtyard’s and Renaissance’s high-tech concierges.

He said the GoBoard was most useful for news headlines and weather. But he found 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.”

And he said he was frustrated when he got driving directions for a friend from Navigator at a Renaissance hotel in Chicago but could not forward them.

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