May I Help You? The Modern Concierge At Your Service

May I Help You?

 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.  

 A Must-Have

 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.  

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