Power Players

Concierges drive millions of dollars into Hawaii's economy.

June, 2001

The Latin root of concierge, conservus, means “fellow slave.” No longer. Today, good hotel concierges are considered critical to the success of a high-end property and scores of businesses in the area. In fact, concierges are quite possibly the most powerful, influential people in Hawaii tourism.

Visitors inject an average of $11 billion into the Islands annually, according to the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. With hundreds of restaurants, activities and golf courses vying for their attention, up-market tourists depend on concierges to steer them in the right direction. And in an industry where so many companies are fighting for a piece of the same pie, the recommendations from a concierge can make or break a business. Indeed, many restaurants and activities depend on concierges for their livelihood.

The Activity Owners Association of Hawaii estimates that concierge desks generate about 25 percent of the $1.1 billion spent on tourism-related activities here each year. “They are an irreplaceable asset to the activity industry; they’re like an outside sales force for the vendors,” says Toni Davis, the association’s executive. “People do more than they ever planned on doing as a result of the concierge taking care of not only their activities, but their restaurants and a lot of other things.” Davis estimates that on Maui, where on-the-street activity vendors are a dime a dozen, concierges contribute a slightly higher 35 to 40 percent to the island’s activity revenues of $1.75 million.

According to Rebecca Schillaci, general manager of the 13-year-old Haliimaile General Store, the restaurant averages 130 dinners per night (with tickets averaging $38 per person). Schillaci estimates 25 percent of Haliimaile’s business stems from concierge recommendations. Yet while Haliimaile, along with a few select others, may have already established reputations for themselves, lesser-known restaurants are left to battle it out for the concierges’ coveted recommendations.Pikake Kamahele, chef concierge at the white-glove Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea, says her staff of 28 concierges generate between $90,000 to $170,000 per month in activity revenues. In addition, they book 150 to 300 reservations per month at select restaurants around the island.

Pii Aiwohi, lobby concierge supervisor at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua, says she and her staff book an average of 20 to 30 reservations per day. Of course, top picks start with the in-house restaurants (not a tough choice, considering the Ritz’s A Nui Nui Room is the top restaurant on Maui, according to Zagat’s 2000 Survey). Roy’s, A Pacific Café, The Plantation House, and Nick’s Fishmarket follow those picks closely.

At the Halekulani on Oahu, concierges book an average of 25 restaurant reservations a day. According to Nelson Arlos, guest information and services manager for Halekulani, Alan Wong’s, Chef Mavro, Padovanni’s and Hoku’s at the competing Kahala Mandarin Oriental are often recommended to their high-end clientele. Recommendations are primarily based on food quality, service and consistency. “These companies realize that concierges are in a position where they can send a lot of visitors to their businesses if they can impress the concierge and educate them on what they have to offer,” Arlos says.“It’s extremely hot on the island because there are so many new restaurants that people are really kind of begging for you to send people over,” says Kamahele, who often refers to Four Seasons’ “preferred restaurant listing” when booking reservations. “You never realize exactly how much that equates into dollars until you hear the voice of that restaurant on the other line saying, ‘Is there anything wrong? People aren’t coming, what’s up?’”

Yet with so many people clamoring for their attention — between guests, restaurants and vendor requests — it is a wonder concierges aren’t jaded by it all. A concierge not only books restaurant and activity reservations, arranges tee times and shuttles, makes recommendations and basically accommodates every guest request, they must be sure each request is fulfilled to the guest’s satisfaction. And the average guest at a high-end resort can be picky indeed.

Laurie Keyhani, director of guest activities and former concierge supervisor for the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua, says while it is common for concierges to be invited on sample activities or to enjoy a complimentary meal, accepting additional incentives is not tolerated.In return, concierges can enjoy substantial rewards, both by activity and restaurant owners, and hotel guests. So much so, in fact, concierges are often advised by their supervisors to decline reciprocal gifts offered by activity vendors, as they are considered forms of bribery. Under-the-table monetary gifts, or “spiff” as activity vendors call it, are considered an unacceptable practice at most high-end hotels.

“The power of the concierge is actually something we have to be careful not to abuse really,” she says. “Our concierges are definitely not allowed to go into any business and throw their weight around. You don’t put any kind of demand on the community because you work at the hotel, because it can be a very powerful thing.”

Concierges can accept tips. According to Kamahele, tips at the Four Seasons run the gamut. “There are guests that’ll give you a dollar, there are guests that’ll give you $1,000,” she says. Gratuities supplement a concierge’s base pay, which usually includes a commission structure for activities sold.

At the Four Seasons Resort Maui, where concierges work 50-hour weeks and salaries range from $15.37 per hour to $16.50 per hour, commissions average $400 to $700 per month. That’s nearly $50,000 per year, not including tips. Yet it’s hard to put a price on the wealth of knowledge and contacts that concierges develop.

“When I go somewhere and I don’t know what to do, where do I go? I go to the concierge desk to tell me what’s happening and how to get there. They’re the people that know their areas,” says Terryl Vencl, executive director of the Maui Hotel Association.

In the rarified world of high-end concierges, those at the top belong to the Les Clefs d’Or (pronounced “lay clay door”). It literally means “keys of gold” in French, and is a worldwide concierge organization dedicated to quality service. Les Clefs d’Or USA represents more than 100,000 hotel rooms nightly at more than 200 four- and five-star properties, with a membership of 400 in over 30 states. Only a handful of people in Hawaii have actually received a “key,” which is considered a prestigious honor. Currently, there are three Clefs d’Or members on Oahu, four on the Big Island, and one each on Maui and Kauai. The process to receive a key is lengthy and requires a minimum of five years in the hotel industry (at least three of which were spent at the concierge desk), two sponsor letters from outstanding Clefs d’Or members, and letters from both the general manager and the human resources department. And that’s just the beginning of the process to qualify. Once prerequisites are met, an eight-month testing period begins.

“It’s extremely prestigious,” says Kamahele, who, along with two other Four Seasons’ concierges, is midway through the testing phase for Clefs d’Or admission. “It’s definitely expected of us, no question. And what it really means today is a great way to network worldwide.”

Often it is the concierge’s collective connections that make him or her so powerful. It is not uncommon for concierges to be able to pull some strings and get a preferred guest into an over-booked restaurant on a Saturday night simply because they have a relationship with the host. And it definitely helps to have a variety of contacts for those unusual circumstances.

“I once had a request for three (Ford sports utility vehicle) Expeditions, all the same color with cloth interior and no CD players, and another Expedition that was white with leather interior and a CD player — with three hours to put it together,” says the Ritz’ Keyhani. “Luckily, I was able to work it out with a (car rental) vendor that I normally send a lot of business to. But if you don’t have a good relationship with that person, it gets very difficult.”

The good concierge, of course, works hard to develop and maintain strong relationships. It pays off, for their properties and for themselves. Says Pii Aiwohi of the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua: “If you’re constantly in contact with everybody … vendors, restaurants, whoever … if you make yourself known, they’ll just roll out the red carpet for you whenever you come in.”


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