“Everybody thinks they have all the information,” says Portland-based concierge Joseph Sundberg. “But learning it from a local — a guy who lives it and continues to live it — is a far better way.”
Michael Polovich is not one to skimp on research. An assistant attorney general for Tennessee, he applies the same level of meticulousness to leisurely excursions as he does to his casework. So when he and his girlfriend took a trip to Charleston, S.C., this past summer, he had assembled a robust dossier of intelligence on his destination.
But his concierge at the Courtyard by Marriott in the city’s historic district, Kevin McQuade, soon convinced him that he didn’t know squat.
“I had a lot of either/or questions I thought I’d run by him,” Polovich said. “As we started talking, it became apparent that he knew a lot more than what you could learn online. We spent the rest of the trip following his recommendations instead of the stuff we’d planned, and felt like the trip was better off for it.”
Polovich lives in Nashville and knows a hackneyed tour when he sees one. But McQuade connected him with a local professor who does walking tours on weekends. He turned out to be “the highlight of the trip,” Polovich recalled.
“Nothing about it felt kitschy and touristy,” he added. “This was a person who was deeply engrossed in the history of the town and a magnificent storyteller — strong narratives that brought Charleston to life and weren’t trite.”
For dinner, McQuade sent Polovich and his girlfriend a mile down the road to Chez Nous, a hole in the wall that has a different handwritten menu every day and doesn’t take reservations.
“It was such a small little secret inside a house that many locals didn’t even know about it,” Polovich said. “We had no trouble getting a table even on a Saturday night. It was one of the best five or 10 dining experiences of my life.”
“With Kevin, what really resonated with me was a passion for the city,” he added. “You can look at aggregate reviews online, and that’s all great, but when you find somebody who exudes passion about a place, it becomes a substitute for trustworthiness.”
McQuade is a member of Les Clefs d’Or, a society of concierges whose members must pass a series of rigorous tests to gain entry. But even he acknowledges that the availability of travel information online has called the very usefulness of his profession into question.
“When you have a problem like this, you can lay down and say smartphones are just taking over the world and give up, or you can step up your game,” he said.
McQuade said he thought too many of his colleagues were hung up on sending guests to venues they could walk to or were preordained as tourist-friendly. “You go to a concierge to find things you couldn’t find on your own,” he said. “If you’re in New York, you’re going to know about the Met and the Statue of Liberty. But if I tell them about a good jazz club or a Greenwich Village walking tour or a restaurant in Little Italy, that’s something they can only get from me.
“People want to find those secret places. You should look at their itinerary and tell them what they’re missing that gives them the essence of the town. The internet isn’t doing that — taking a look at the bigger picture — and neither are some concierges.”
If guests can find them, that is. According to the American Hotel and Lodging Association, the share of luxury hotels that employ concierges fell to 82 percent from nearly 100 percent between 2014 and 2016, with many concierges taking on duties that require them to abandon their once stationary posts. For instance, Joseph Sundberg of the Hotel Monaco in Portland, now holds the title of roving concierge, which finds him ferrying luggage, among other chores.
“My job is more like a porter captain,” he explained. “I’m more of a jester of the lobby.”
Sundberg, who has worked in Portland’s hotel industry for 31 years, is a microbrew connoisseur in a resolutely sudsy city, and is constantly visiting new haunts to assess their worthiness. It’s this physical connection to a place that he feels gives him an edge over what can be gleaned online.
“Everybody thinks they have all the information,” he said. “But learning it from a local — a guy who lives it and continues to live it — is a far better way. You can go into a great restaurant, but what about going into the bar at that restaurant and telling Matt that Joseph sent you? How much more personable is that?”
But for all the passion and validity of Sundberg’s spiel, the internet isn’t going away — which is fine by Robert Marks. The president of Les Clefs d’Or USA, Marks has been a concierge for 29 years — he currently works at the Omni Hotel in San Diego — and feels he has a crucial role to play in concert with iPhones and Samsungs.
“Technology has made it easier to research information and made it easier for a concierge to provide,” he said. “But for the guest, there’s so much information that it’s overwhelming. They’re inundated and can’t decide what’s accurate or relevant. I like to think of the internet as a funnel and the concierge as the filter. We purify all that information and sort out the most relevant information that you’re looking for. We give you the luxury of time, so that you don’t have to do the research. We do it for you. The one thing in life you truly can’t buy is time.”
Portland’s stately Benson Hotel has a Les Clefs d’Or member named Mike Rowland. He wasn’t working on the Friday in September when I stayed there, but a gentleman named Tom was. I had tickets to a concert with the Nickel Creek alumna Sara Watkins at the Aladdin Theater in Southeast Portland, which is in something of a restaurant desert. I asked Tom for a recommendation, and nothing came to mind, save for the adjacent bar and a 24-hour pancake house around the corner. But Tom stayed with me, quickly learning that I was willing to walk up to two miles after my meal.
After searching the web for a bit, he pointed me to Sunshine Tavern, a hip, child-friendly establishment with shuffleboard, vintage video games, chicken and waffles, $4 whisky shots and a bearded bartender in a flannel shirt. As I exited, a man in a top hat on a cartoonishly tall bike whizzed by, with nary a “Portlandia” camera rig in tow.