For most people, there simply are not enough hours in the day to do everything that needs to be done. We rush to pick the kids up from school, make it to that impromptu work meeting that just got called or even find the time to grab some take-out dinner before we climb into bed and do it all again the next day.
Thankfully, a growing number of Chicagoland co-op and condo residents are finding a helping hand as more and more of the city’s residential buildings and communities are offering concierge services. “Everybody on the planet is trying to squeeze 36 hours into 24-hour days,” says Katharine C. Giovanni, CCS, founder and president of Triangle Concierge, Inc., and founder and chairman of the board of the International Concierge and Lifestyle Management Association. “The concierge is saying, ‘let me do the things that need to be done so we can give you the time you need to live.’ ”
In Chicago, this kind of service is becoming more of an expectation than a luxury as more buildings than ever before are offering it. “Chicago has a competitive condo market and to be considered a luxury building you need to have a concierge available for residents,” says Phil Skowan, a broker with @properties in Chicago. “A lot of people in the condo market are empty nesters selling their suburban home and moving into the city. And for a lot of people it’s their second home and they like the hassle-free living that comes along with living in a condo. You don’t have to mow your lawn or you can have someone else make your dinner reservations for you. It’s extremely convenient.”
To address the rising demand for concierge services, more and more condos—particularly larger ones, such as Park Tower, Trump Tower and Eugenie Terrace on the Park—are including them in their amenities’ offerings.
“People tend to enjoy our concierge service providers, they get a lot of traffic,” says Vanessa Casciano, community relations director for Magellan Development Group whose Chicago properties include condos in Aqua at Lakeshore East and townhomes at Benton Place Parkhomes. “At these buildings, we offer a complimentary rewards program so they can take advantage of discounts in area restaurants and other local businesses. We look at the program as an extra amenity.”
How It All Began
In the past, personal service and attention meant turning to the doorman or superintendent for help with unit repairs or some other mechanical issue. Now, residents are able to look for assistance with a far broader range of needs. “Ever since there were full-time doormen, they kind of doubled as concierges. They helped as much as they could with their limited training and limited knowledge of providing services,” says Skowan. “But now with a concierge they will get flowers for you, locate a dog walker, make dinner reservations, find a nanny, you name it. A doorman may not be equipped to do those things.”
Concierge service first made its mark in the hotel industry. Out-of-town guests seek insider knowledge on where to eat, what show to see, or who could help with a dry cleaning emergency. Soon, those services began spreading to other industries. “Now you’re seeing concierges specializing in everything from hospitals to helping divorced men to helping patients of plastic surgery,” says Giovanni. The thought, she says, was that “if it works in the hotel industry, I bet I can bring it to the greater public.’” And so far it has worked, especially in the real estate market.
“Like everyone else, the concierge industry has taken a hit with the economy,” says Giovanni. “However, the bad economy has helped certain parts of our industry.” And over the last five years, the residential market has become one of those areas. “Real estate management companies are looking for ways to draw people to their properties. We’re seeing a rise in concierge services in the lobbies of high-rise, five-star properties. You can’t call yourself a five-star property these days unless you have the concierge service.”
Even buildings without the tony addresses are finding ways to bring more concierge-like services to their residents. “A lot of buildings are also cross-training their security staff with concierge skills,” says Giovanni. If a night guard or doorman is already on duty, it makes sense for many buildings to invest in specialized training to enable those staff members to do more for residents. It also provides more professional variety and opportunity for those employees, she says.
In other instances, buildings may provide residents with remote concierge services versus having a staff person on-site. They may provide a phone number for residents or have a menu of options listed in the lobby. If a building wants to achieve and maintain a five-star image though, “they’ll always have someone stationed in the lobby.”
Eugenie Terrace On The Park is a 44-story, 575-unit luxury tower located across the street from Lincoln Park that offers a wide array of amenities, including a 24-hour doorman, on-site drycleaners, valet parking with auto detailing, an on-site Zip car location, planned social activities and concierge services like restaurant and ticket reservations, mail pickup, trip planning and even wedding planning for their residents.
“It’s very convenient for most people to have a concierge,” says Skowan,” And it’s not too expensive. Think about it—you are talking about buildings with hundreds of units collectively pitching in for one person to be their concierge—it’s not a lot of money.”
And, Giovanni adds, “There is an advantage for buildings offering concierge services. It gives them an edge on the competition. For a lot of people, they think to themselves, ‘I would rather rent or buy here in a building that offers these services versus the place next door that doesn’t.’ ”
And despite the added cost—most buildings pay a retainer to the concierge service and include it in their roster of services for residents—the investment ultimately will help the bottom line, says Giovanni. “For real estate managers who offer these services, it will make the buildings more attractive and in turn, generate more revenue.”
Experts believe that in the past, the difference for a resident may have been whether or not a building had a doorman. Without a doorman, for example, you could not mail-order a box of light bulbs because there would have been no one there during the day to sign for them. Nowadays, with the concierge service, not only is there someone there to sign for the light bulbs, now there is also someone there to install them and have the lights on when you get home.
That Little Extra
That extra level of service is the hallmark of a great concierge service, says Giovanni. “It’s customer service above and beyond everybody else.” Instead of being thanked and saying “you’re welcome,” for example, a concierge may say “it’s my pleasure” to underscore his or her desire to provide the best care possible for their client. “The last thing you want to see in the lobby is someone with their feet up on the desk, saying, ‘what do you want?’ to a client,” says Giovanni.
For a lot of residents, the service and care provided by concierge becomes a necessity and not just a luxury. “Concierge service in residential buildings is something that people have become accustomed to,” says Skowan. “We really started to see the boom in concierge services and buildings marketing them in buildings like the Park Hyatt, Trump Tower. These buildings had residences on top and hotels on the bottom and the concierge was already there. So it made sense to add it to your list of amenities.”
And it can become their go-to solution when a problem—any kind of problem—arises. Giovanni cites an instance that occurred a few years ago when a client was out of town on business and became trapped in a hotel elevator. Instead of phoning 9-1-1 or the hotel’s front desk, the man’s first instinct was to call his concierge. The concierge promptly answered the phone, called the man’s hotel and soon had him free from the broken down elevator.
People who excel in the concierge business are natural-born problem solvers, says Giovanni. “A good concierge doesn’t give up,” she says. “They create magic out of a hat. Some of it is training. Or they are just one of those people who can find anything, anywhere, anytime. They have great contacts and they are willing to go to the 20th page of the Google search, not just give up after the second. It’s a way of life, not a job. It’s who you are, not what you do.”
A good concierge must be willing to do just about anything—within reason and the law—for their client. There is no doubt that if they are in the business long enough, they will get some fairly unusual requests. Giovanni knew of one concierge on the west coast who was asked to find a reindeer, put it in a pen and care for it for the entire 12 days of Christmas. Another time, a panicked pet owner called his concierge and asked how to deflate an agitated and highly expanded blowfish. The answer? Put on rubber gloves because its spikes are poisonous and then scratch its belly. A third, very hearty and brave concierge took the call of a woman grieving over the death of her cat. The woman asked her concierge to go to Sears, buy a cooler, transport the deceased pet to the taxidermist, have it stuffed and then return it to the owner. “I don’t know why all my stories involve animals,” Giovanni says with a laugh.
Whatever the need and whatever the occasion, for thousands of residents throughout Chicagoland it is a relief to know that someone is there to help. Whether it’s dog walking, getting great theater seats for a mother-in-law, or just being the friendly face that greets residents in the lobby every day, a talented and dedicated concierge makes life better and easier. For people struggling to find enough hours in the day to live, work and play, few services are more important than that.
Liz Lent is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator. Staff Writer Christy Smith-Sloman contributed to this article.