Pantelis Evangelou is a guest services manager at the London Marriott Park Lane, but to young guests, he may be better known as the hotel's teddy bear butler.
The hotel offers a teddy-bear themed concierge service to children that is included with suite bookings or available as an add-on for a fee of roughly $50. After a child chooses an option from the hotel's menu of 11 themed bears, Evangelou arrives at the door with a stuffed animal ready for adoption.
"It's up to me to make the introductions, which means that I need to know the names and stories behind each and every bear, as well as their unique characteristics," he said, noting that the available bears range from airline pilots to traditional London Beefeaters, the ceremonial guardians at the Tower of London.
The hotel concierge has traditionally been the all-knowing go-to for guests seeking insider knowledge of a city and access to coveted theater tickets or dinner reservations. But now, travelers get can tips and recommendations for restaurants and attractions in a new city from their smartphones.
So rather than ditch the concierge desk completely, "hotels are now training their concierges to offer novel, customized, high value and proprietary services to delight their guests and keep them coming back," said Chekitan Dev, a professor at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration.
The trend comes at a time when hotels are faced with growing competition from the home-sharing industry with the likes of Airbnb and Expedia Group's Vrbo. Offering niche services is a low-cost way to stand out to the customer and also drive additional revenue. The services can be free or cost guests up to a few hundred dollars.
Travelers booking hotel stays will now find concierge and butler services available for everything from caring for pets and choosing a cannabis experience to using the in-room fireplace.
As an example, Dev cites his stay at The Benjamin in New York City, where the sleep concierge helped him get a good night's sleep by providing special pillows to help with back pain, a humidifier to counter dry air and a white noise machine.
Many other hotels are offering curated services that are equally hyper-focused and offbeat. The surf concierge at the Westin Los Angeles Airport gives surfing lessons, while a crawfish concierge offers peeling assistance during events at the Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans.
In Canada, the skate concierge at the Westin Ottawa leads free guided scenic skate tours along sections of the Rideau Canal Skateway, while the Fairmont Vancouver Airport's fish valet makes sure prized catches are properly stored in a special on-site freezer during layovers.
"Specialty concierge services aren't new," says hotel industry analyst Bjorn Hanson, "But in the last three or four years the trend has been an increased number of categories, an increased number of hotels and resorts offering these services and an increased sophistication in how the services are delivered."
The trend is also for these services to be labeled as "concierge" even though they may not be delivered by a certified concierge.
"I have no idea what a cannabis concierge or a fish concierge might be doing because we don't see that in our organization, said Sara-ann Kasner, CEO and founder of the National Concierge Association, an industry trade group. "But I can tell you that using the title of concierge is a smart business move because people really do believe concierges have the inside scoop on everything."
Raffles Hotels & Resorts locations in Paris, Istanbul, Warsaw and Jakarta have art concierges on staff who conduct free tours of the hotels' museum-quality art collections.
And as the curator of curiosity at Gateway Canyons Resort & Spa in Colorado, Zebulon Miracle gives history and geology tours, including dinosaur track excursions, for $35 to $250 per person.
"There are so many great stories and fascinating science found in the canyon country," said Miracle. "If my team does their job right, guests will leave not only knowing more about the area but will also be inspired to become curious about their own homes."
In some cases, hotels are partnering with other businesses to offer personalized services. In Portland, Ore., the Provenance Hotels partners with a florist to curate a menu of in-room loaner plants at its Woodlark hotel. At its Dossier property, a partnership with a local retailer allows an adventure valet to outfit guests with free loaner backpacks containing trekking poles, headlamps, waterproof phone cases and other useful hiking items.
"Naturally, with all the new hotels out there, we want to offer something new to capture guests' attention," said Kate Buska, Provenance Hotels vice president of brand development and communications, "But we're not chasing the shock and awe of things like the 'walk of shame' kit in the honor bar. This is about service, experiences, and giving guests things they can actually use."
Whether they hire or partner with a specialty concierge, butler or on-site curator, "more hoteliers are finally understanding that they're able to create exceptional unique experiences tailored to their guests' specific interests," said Robert Cole of global travel research company Phocuswright. "And those experiences are what drive guest satisfaction, return stays, referrals to friends and long-term loyalty."
Sometimes, the payoff is more simple.
"One of my favorite memories is of a young guest that was so over the moon with her new princess bear that she ran back to give me a big hug before I left," said Evangelou, the teddy bear butler at the London Marriott. "We can only imagine what great adventures young guests will go on to experience together" with their bears.