Over the past decade, it has become rather fashionable to forecast the impending obsolescence of the concierge. A quick Google search reveals numerous editorials mocking the function as an outmoded feature of yesteryear – think Ralph Fiennes’ Gustave H in the 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The fussing, the obsequiousness, the mollycoddling of one’s guests; it all seems like a bit of a throwback to a bygone era. Do today’s tuned-in, globetrotting independent travellers really need or want these services, regardless of how much they might be paying for their rooms? After all, who needs a concierge at the front desk when a smartphone is in one’s pocket? Surely we can all become experts in the best, hippest and newest that a city has to offer in just a couple of clicks?

A valid argument, perhaps, but one that is yet to be borne out. Phones may indeed be becoming smarter, but cannot presently match the professional know-how of the concierge. Guests might well take pride in being more independent, but they still value the personal touch.

Keep it legal

If anything, such changes in technology and connectivity have enabled the role of the hotel concierge to become more multifaceted. As Kenneth Abisror, the head concierge at Mandarin Oriental New York told the New York Times earlier this year, concierges are able to oblige with almost any request, “unless it’s unethical or illegal”.

This might be anything from booking theatre tickets to the even more bespoke, such as helping to make a doctor’s appointment or chartering a jet. Abisror’s description is one that resonates with Ana Brant, director for global guest experience and innovation at Dorchester Collection.

“The role of the concierge is no longer about just making a reservation – it is about getting the best table in the most popular restaurant on a Saturday night,” she says.

“One of our guests described the role of a concierge as a ‘key-holder to the city’. That is exactly what our guests expect – access to places, experiences and people that are not widely available.”

When guests set foot in a luxury property, they expect a personalised service across their entire stay.

As Brant puts it, the concierge effectively becomes “a sophisticated version of Siri or Alexa”. Within reason, no request is beyond response.

“In order to enable our concierges to be the best, we continuously evaluate and improve how they create experiences throughout all the touch-points of a guest's journey – from aspiration to post departure,” says Brant, who joined the Dorchester Collection in 2012.

“For instance, one of our guests recently posted on Instagram that they were going to a resort in France after their stay at our hotel in Rome.

"The concierge took the liberty to call that hotel, provide the concierge on the other end with guest preferences, ensuring the guests were well taken care of, and even secured an upgrade.”

For Amado Silveti, concierge manager of Burj Al Arab Jumeirah in Dubai, personalisation is one thing, but it has to be delivered at the kind of speed to which guests are now accustomed, thanks to smart technology.

“Guests expect guidance, speed and instant assistance with any request,” he says. “The concierge must have an indepth knowledge of the surroundings and happenings in order to help the guest swiftly. Keeping up with the trends – such as top events, restaurants and places to visit – is vital to provide the service guests expect.”

Concierges have not been phased out by digitalisation, as some predicted; rather, they have sought to incorporate new technology into the role as a new feather in their collective cap.

Recently, Four Seasons launched a chat service so as to enable guests to send and receive instant messages with property teams before, throughout and after their stay. Based on a multichannel system, guests can send their messages through the Four Seasons app, Facebook Messenger, WeChat or SMS in real time.

No bots

Tellingly, Christian Clerc, the group’s president of worldwide operations, used the announcement of the new service to reject the notion that chatbots might replace human staff any time soon. “Human connection may be the single most important element of the Four Seasons guest experience,” he said. “There are no chatbots here. We continue to evolve our service, offering to incorporate digital enhancements that are powered by people, and to facilitate and strengthen personal connections.”

A similar attitude prevails at Dorchester Collection. “We look at technology as an enabler and not an end goal,” explains Brant. “Just because something exists, it doesn’t mean it fits our brand – or that our organisation is capable of adopting it, or that our customer would value it.

“I see many demonstrations of cutting-edge technology aimed at enhancing the guest experience. Very few can serve all three of the above goals simultaneously.”

Instead of deploying technology for its own sake, the transition should be “seamless and effortless”, adds Brant.

“Otherwise, it is just an annoyance. If we can’t make it seamless and effortless, we will not introduce it, no matter how attractive it may be – because it will cause irritation and dissatisfaction to our customers and employees. So far, we have not found a solution that replaces the essence of this traditional craft – relationships, recognition and thoughtfulness.”

Jumeirah makes use of a live restaurant reservation app, Seven Rooms, which allows the concierge to make bookings and receive confirmation. A tailor-made and prompt service, the app is proving to be a success at Burj Al Arab Jumeirah.

According to Silveti, it has “had a positive effect on efficacy, and is a great tool for upselling and providing the highest quality service to guests”. Here again is an example of technology assisting the concierge, rather than hastening their obsolescence.

“Jumeirah makes sure its concierge team is up to the highest standard,” says Silveti. “Besides alternative tools, the essence of the concierge will always be using creativity and attention to detail to provide the most personalised service.”

Technology, says Silveti, a member of Les Clefs D’Or – the international network of concierges – has enabled his role to become more versatile and adaptable.

“Concierges need to keep learning and changing,” he says. “Jumeirah concierge staff have not been negatively affected. Instead, we have improved ourselves, coming up with new ideas and different ways we can approach the guests and enhance their experience.”

So, if anything, the rise of digitalisation has created a state of self-improvement among concierges?

“Having a clear vision, while using technology and new trends to our advantage, makes the concierge successful without the need to reduce staff – but rather investing in them,” says Silveti.

This year marked the tenth anniversary of the launch of the iPhone, which Apple commemorated in October by unveiling the iPhone X, billed as the most powerful smartphone ever.

If the concierge has managed to survive the technological onslaught of the last decade, how might the role now evolve? In Brant’s eyes, for all the bells and whistles, a luxury hotel experience is defined by one thing alone: status.

“The future of luxury experiences is not about expensive products or services," she says, "it is about status. That is much less about what we have, and much more about who we are,” she says. “The concierge of the future will have to fulfil the desires and needs of our guests who seek to express themselves in a more meaningful way.”

This, she says, may entail enabling guests to feel better by booking the best personal trainer in town; securing the services of a personal stylist, or helping guests finalise an important business deal by ensuring the best service at the breakfast restaurant.

“In other words, the future of concierge is about fulfilling a purpose not a function,” Silveti explains. “Technology has made guests become more independent due to the accessibility that technology has provided, but it has helped the concierge become more innovative through a more challenging period.

“Although I believe we will keep evolving, and keep up with technology to fulfil our guests’ demands and needs, it is also the time we remind ourselves of the essence of who we are and why we are still here. We are social advisers, business expediters and personal confidants.”

In the eyes of today’s luxury hoteliers, we’re still some way from developing an app that can provide all of that.