Travel

Need a book, a crib, or running pal on vacation? There’s a concierge for that

Casea Collins of Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club in Waikiki personalizes experiences.
Laurent Cilluffo
Casea Collins of Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club in Waikiki personalizes experiences.

MINNEAPOLIS — Christopher Preston may not be the only employee in the Commons Hotel who wears a bow tie. But his may be the best suited to his job.

Preston is the hotel’s book butler. He wheels a cart of books to guests who indicate a preference for a genre, or who have requested a specific title in advance.

Around the fireplace in a lobby paneled with wood from midwestern barns in an industrial schoolhouse design appropriate to its location on the University of Minnesota campus, the Commons has shelves and shelves of books. These aren’t the fake decorative bindings you see in some other hotels, but actual hardcovers, from Desmond Morris to Danielle Steele, “The Ascent of Man” to “A Wedding in December.” If a visitor wants something more obscure, Preston will check it out for them from the university library.

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It’s an especially popular service during the cold Twin Cities winters, he said — so popular that, when the hotel ran a Valentine’s Day promotion that included copies of “Fifty Shades of Gray,” he had to buy out the entire inventory of a nearby bookstore.

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Preston is part of a new wave of specialists who are transforming the whole idea of what it means to stay in a hotel, by helping serve the complex demands of discriminating visitors — and, in the process, standing out in a crowded market.

In neighboring Edina, the Westin has running concierges who lead early morning runs three days a week. And over coffee across town, “baby concierge” Yvonne Christiansen describes how she furnishes traveling parents with cribs, strollers, car seats, high chairs, and toys, because, “You don’t want to lug a Pack ’n Play on the plane.”

This is not a trend unique to Minneapolis.

Hotels worldwide have added employees like these, from bachelorette concierges to personal shoppers. One that borders San Juan’s shopping district has a retail therapist, for instance. There’s a graffiti concierge at a hotel in New York’s newly trendy Lower East Side, a coffee curator at a resort on a Costa Rica coffee plantation, a “director of aloha” at a Hawaiian hotel, “vibe managers” to tailor music to visitors’ personal tastes at the Hard Rock chain, even a “bird whisperer” at a resort in Aruba.

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For guests today, said Kelly Commerford, director of sales and marketing at the Commons, “a hotel is more than just a bed and a shower. They want to know what else they’re going to get out of the experience.”

They’re also overwhelmed with choices. While apps and websites make it easier to find not only places to stay, but things to do, they have an ironic downside: offering so many options that it’s paralyzingly hard to know which ones to pick without advice.

“So people think, ‘An expert can help me get through the clutter,’ ” said Victoria Richman, chief operating officer at the consulting firm HVS Hotel Management. “‘What do I do when I get to Puerto Rico? Of course I’m going to go shopping, and this person can help me find the best places to do that.’ ”

There are other forces at work, too. One is that it’s easier to travel light through airport security, meaning without carrying along such things as books or playpens, and instead relying on someone at the other end of the trip to provide them. And the huge growth in the accommodations industry has hotels jostling for competitive advantage.

“It’s just exploded, with so many new brands and so many hotels and boutique hotels that it’s really hard to distinguish yourself,” Richman said. “You’re trying to give people a special stay so they’ll remember it and tell their friends and write a positive review. It’s all about the experience now.”

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That’s Tatiana Chabert’s job. She’s the retail therapist at the Sheraton Puerto Rico, straddled by Old San Juan and massive modern shopping centers.

“We want to make sure our visitors take advantage of their time with as little effort as possible,” Chabert said. “It makes their stay a little more personalized. And that’s what travelers are looking for.”

Casea Collins is responsible for doing the same thing as director of aloha at the new Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club in Honolulu’s Waikiki section, which opened in March with a 1960s-era retro design and a focus on art and design. A former gallery owner, Collins directs visitors to places where the locals go, takes them to farms on Oahu’s west side, and hosts fashion shows and lei and chocolate-making sessions featuring Hawaiian Kona chocolate.

“What so many of us are looking for these days is something more intimate and personal,” she said. She said her position resulted from both traveler demand for something unique and the need to distinguish the hotel in some way from the many others crowding Waikiki.

That’s very different from the traditional idea of a concierge, said Christian Ribeiro, manager of the concierge desk at the new Hotel Indigo Lower East Side, which helps its visitors find and appreciate the local street art.

“The concierge now is not the concierge of the past, who gave packages to the guests and recommendations to restaurants,” Ribeiro said. “To be a great concierge now, you need to be in the know about what’s going on in your city, in your neighborhood.”

Brenda Obando’s role is more specific. She’s the coffee curator at the Costa Rica Marriott, which is on a 38-acre coffee plantation. Obando runs coffee tastings and shows guests at the hotel how to prepare a latte like a barista. “We believe that coming to our property is beautiful experience, and we want you to remember this trip as unique,” she said.

Traveling today “is not so much about the room. It’s about what’s outside the room,” said Jaap van Dam, director of operations of the Hilton Aruba Caribbean Resort & Casino, which has a “bird whisperer” caring for its 11 exotic birds — especially popular with kids.

“The Caribbean is tropical in people’s minds, and we’re close to Venezuela and the forest. Guests feel these birds are very much a part of that,” van Dam said.

More practical considerations drive what Yvonne Christiansen does, in and beyond hotels, in her role as Minneapolis/St. Paul “baby concierge” for a new company called Babierge, with other locations in cities including San Francisco, Santa Fe, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Antonio, and Memphis. A cofounder of Match.com is the company’s newly appointed CEO; its brochure features a photo of a toddler in a suitcase.

“Parents want to create that sense of home away from home,” said the personable Christiansen, herself a mother of two, a decorative flower in her red-dyed hair (“I am going to let my personal brand show through; it’s sunny and happy,” she said). “But they don’t want to lug that stuff with them.”

Some of these new specialties are less than full-time jobs, provided by employees with other responsibilities. “It’s not somebody sitting there all day pillow-butlering. And it’s not something you go to school for,” said Richman.

The running concierges at the Westin Edina Galleria, for example, double as the hotel’s convention services manager and audio-video director. Like many other Westins, including the one in Boston, the Edina location also loans its guests New Balance running gear and distributes running maps.

But sharing expertise “is obviously more engaging for them as staff, because they get to interact with people. It makes their jobs more interesting,” she said.

Richman has no doubt hotels are likely to continue adding specialties like these.

“They keep having to offer more and more, to keep people coming,” she said. “If they don’t, they’re going to go backward. Because everybody else is doing it.”

Jon Marcus can be reached at jmarcus@netzero.net.