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Elite Golden Keys Concierges Try To Stay Relevant Amid Growing Automation


In the movie "The Grand Budapest Hotel," the unique role of the concierge was front and center.


OWEN WILSON: (As M. Chuck) Good evening, Mr. Desgoffe und Taxis. I'm Monsieur Chuck. We've booked you and your sisters into the King Ferdinand Suite.

SIEGEL: They know it all. They can do it all with panache. But since that movie came out three years ago, the number of luxury hotels actually employing concierges has dropped by nearly 20 percent, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association. Here's Bobby Allyn of member station WHYY on the struggle to keep the profession alive.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Until now, I'd never spoken to a concierge. I'm a 29-year-old reporter. When I travel, it's usually on the cheap, and I go where the apps tell me to go. Jeannie Green is kind of like me. In the lobby of a Philadelphia hotel, she pulled out her phone and fired up the restaurant-booking app OpenTable.

JEANNIE GREEN: I select Dinner Tonight, and I kind of just, you know, scroll of what's available for the area and where I see four and a half stars (laughter).

ALLYN: Green did this while walking right past the hotel concierge station by the entrance. But some concierges don't want to let this happen. So they're coming out from behind the desk.

ROBERT MARKS: More and more people are so tired of looking down at their laptops and their iPads and iPhones that they actually are enjoying the human one-on-one interaction and the eye contact.

ALLYN: That's concierge Robert Marks. He says here, one of his colleagues might come up to you in the lobby with their own iPad in hand to show you what the service is all about.

MARKS: And actually having someone that takes a true, vested interest in their well-being and their needs.

ALLYN: He's not just any concierge. He's the U.S. president of Les Clefs d'Or, French for The Golden Keys, the international society of highly trained concierges. The idea of being taken care of is what The Golden Keys vowed to push at a recent national meeting. And it's exactly what Therese Leach wants when she travels for work.

THERESE LEACH: I want to be able to not have to worry about things. And I think that's what a concierge can help with, too - is arranging for tickets and reservations and, like, that kind of thing.

ALLYN: At Philadelphia's Sonesta Hotel, concierge Fran Nachman thinks a desire for the nostalgia could lure people in. She pulls out her Rolodex of connections. There's not even room to jam in another card. Then she takes out another thick binder. This is what she would reference if a guest asked for, say, a good steakhouse.

FRAN NACHMAN: I have my menu book. And I have a section that has steak. We've got Chops. We've got Davio's. We've got Fogo, Morton's, Prime Rib. Yep, lots of steakhouses.

ALLYN: Isn't Google a little easier than this? Nachman, who wears the signature golden keys of her profession on her lapel, insists that she's got something extra, the inside track and knowing the right people.

NACHMAN: Calling the restaurant manager and saying, can you squeeze somebody in? If you can't do it 7:30, can you do it at 8?

ALLYN: Another thing the concierge fraternity is doing to bring people in - pushing their success stories, like when a bride found that her dress was trapped at the dry cleaners the day of her wedding. She was frantic. She was staying in the San Diego hotel overseen by concierge Marks. He offered to take her shopping or to find her another dress.

MARKS: None of those were options she was willing to accept.

ALLYN: So he tracked down the number of the security company monitoring the dry cleaners, reached them and got the contact of the owner, who met him at the shop, unlocked it and handed Marks the dress.

MARKS: So crisis averted. Happy bride.

ALLYN: When it comes to making distraught brides happy, Marks says there isn't an app for that. For NPR News, I'm Bobby Allyn in Philadelphia.


Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.