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Need a concierge? There's an app for that

October 3, 2012 -- Updated 1043 GMT (1843 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Times have changed since the hotel concierge was the most trusted source of local knowledge
  • Today, the concept of the personal concierge extends to mobile phone apps and bespoke lifestyle services
  • Some hotels are adapting to new technology, other services distinguishing themselves against it

Editor's note: Business Traveller is a monthly show about making the most of doing business on the road.

(CNN) -- Before the dawn of the Internet, there were few more reliable sources of local information, insider tips and helpful contacts than the dependably well-groomed hotel concierge.

But with the proliferation of online travel forums, user-review sites and interactive maps, what fate has befallen these custodians of good taste?

From so-called "concierge apps" that let hotel guests order room service at the tap of a touch-screen, to highly personal, bespoke concierge services that take the original concept to extravagant new heights, today's traveler has a multitude of concierge-style services to choose from.

App life

Unsurprisingly, there are many in the hospitality sector keen to leverage their brand reputation, while broadening their customer reach, with tailor-made mobile apps.

James Jackson is the CEO of Red Square promotions. His company develops concierge apps for hotels and airlines that, he says, can help facilitate almost every service they offer without guests having to interact with a single member of staff.

"You could have an app that allows your customers to find the availability of a specific room, book it, book the flight, arrange a car to pick them up, automatically notify the driver when they have landed and then guide them to their room," he explains. "Once they're in the hotel, they can order room service -- all from their handset."

We approached 200 members of concierge staff and asked them to divulge their best local tips
Allison Sitch, Ritz-Carlton representative

Jackson says it's even possible to send guests their room key via his company's concierge platform, by generating a unique QR code that they can simply flash in front of a small scanner outside their door.

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Red Square design their apps to blend seamlessly with their client's existing branding, and Jackson says that, although he is obliged by non-disclosure agreements to keep their names private, his company has already developed such apps for a number of global hotel chains.

A middle way

Red Square is distinctive in so far as it designs apps that have the potential to replace the role of a human concierge almost entirely. However, some of the world's most prominent hotel chains -- such as the Ritz-Carlton and Inter-Continental -- have opted instead to create concierge apps driven by the expertise of their employees.

"We approached 200 members of concierge staff and asked them to divulge their best local tips," says Allison Sitch, vice-president of global public relations for U.S.-based luxury hotel Ritz-Carlton.

"Our people are a trusted resource --- whether it be travel info, dining tips, what wines to select and where -- our concierge staff are local connoisseurs ... and that's why we populated our app with their knowledge."

Sitch says that the Ritz-Carlton concierge app is updated weekly, and integrates with the company's profile on Foursquare -- a location based social networking site for mobile devices.

"Imagine you're standing outside the Brandenburg Gate. You simply 'check-in' to the Ritz-Carlton app, it detects your location and provides you with carefully chosen advice on what to do around it," explains Sitch.

Any online guide can select the top 10 restaurants in a given area, but we'll find the exact one or two to suit you
Emyr Thomas, Bon Vivant CEO

However, Sitch gladly concedes that the app cannot, and should not, replace the highly personal relationship that a good concierge develops with their guests.

"It [the app] is designed to reflect our trusted local insight ... but there's nothing like a concierge to be truly receptive to a guest's needs, to read in between the lines, to give that real human touch," says Sitch.

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The human touch

Ritz-Carlton and the similar Inter-Continental concierge apps are competing in a crowded-market. Last year, Google purchased the "Alfred" concierge app, which learns from each user's particular travel habits to generate tips that increasingly reflect their tastes and interests.

Such technology is sophisticated, useful but still fundamentally impersonal, says Emyr Thomas, CEO of Bon Vivant -- a luxury "lifestyle management" service, that provides each of its clients with their own personal and crucially, human, concierge.

"We cater for those that have neither the time nor the inclination to do all the research and admin that goes in to satisfying their travel and lifestyle needs," says Thomas.

Bon Vivant works on a membership basis, with clients paying a monthly fee. For this they are then allocated a dedicated concierge who will attend to every last detail of their leisure time.

"Everything is specific to them," says Thomas. "Once a concierge has been selected for a particular client, it is their job to understand his or her precise needs, the rhythm of their life; their taste."

For Thomas, online services will always struggle to compete at this level of specification: "Any online guide can select the top 10 restaurants in a given area, but we'll find the exact one or two to suit you."

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