Keeper of the golden keys: history of the concierge profession
The role of the concierge is older than the hotel itself. Mehmet Erdem, Associate Professor at the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, explains that the concierge originated centuries ago in Europe when noble families traveled from castle to castle.
Erdem says that the position was first concerned with security and evolved to include making personal travel arrangements. When nobles traveled, “they had their concierge people that initially provided safety,” Erdem says. “But also, because they were sort of like a bodyguard accompanying these families, they knew this person likes this; this person doesn't like this. They would sometimes travel ahead of time to make sure those arrangements were [made].”
“The traveling royal families or the merchants, their concierge would travel ahead of time and they'll arrange like a pig roast, or if the lord likes some grapes they'll make sure that it is arranged,” Erdem says.
Erdem notes that as lodging became a business, the concierge was reinvented as an employee who provides specialized services to guests. The word “concierge” can have two meanings in the hospitality industry. Used loosely, it can mean anyone who helps guests with personalized tasks like reservations and ticket purchases. In its more precise sense, it means a professional who has undergone official concierge training and is a member of Les Clefs d’Or, the organization also known as the Golden Keys. It’s more common for a luxury hotel to have a formal concierge.
“In the U.S. when you want to go ask something, let's say it's even at a mid-scale hotel, it's not that unusual to have right next to the bell-desk[…] a concierge person, but they're not necessarily officially a concierge because they don't have the proper training and affiliation with the Golden Keys,” Erdem explains.
Les Clefs d’Or has its roots in a meeting of three concierges in Paris in 1929, which inspired the creation of concierge societies in Europe. In 1952, concierges from seven countries came together for a congress and formed the international association. According to Fairmont San Francisco, the first formal concierge in the U.S. was Fairmont San Francisco’s chief concierge Tom Wolfe. Wolfe started working in the U.S. in 1973, and in 1978 the U.S. was accepted as the 19th member section of Les Clefs d’Or.
Erdem speculates that the formal concierge took longer to catch on in the U.S. than in Europe because the U.S. did not have a royal family with its attendant traditions. But as the U.S. became wealthier, the demand for luxury accommodations grew.
“As people's discretionary income increases, they get exposed to different services, and they expect a certain level of customized service,” Erdem says. When hotel operators decided to offer those services, they looked to hotels in Europe to see how the concierge role worked there and what kind of training was required, and they imported the formal concierge to the U.S.
Erdem predicts that concierge-type services will be offered by a greater share of hotels in the future. “With advances in technology, we are going to see services that we are going to label as 'concierge,'” he says. These services will not be the official concierge “but something similar, comparable, being offered across a wide spectrum of lodging properties.”
“We are seeing more and more hotels trying to offer concierge-type services through mobile apps,” he continues. For example, “having chatbots where you can call an operator but you're not actually talking to a person, it's an artificial intelligence you are talking to. So, I would expect in the near term we are going to see an expansion of concierge services.”
“I anticipate the concierge-like services being available not just at luxury and upscale properties but in lower segments as well, because it is all about convenience for the guest, and to keep an edge over the competition you have to be able to stand out,” Erdem says.
Although he predicts that hotels will use technology to perform concierge-like functions, Erdem says that luxury hotels will continue to employ concierges. High-paying guests want to interact with human employees rather than chatbots: “They want that individual attention.”