By Pat Sherman
For today’s tech-savvy traveler, a wealth of information about his or her travel destination is just an iPhone app or web search away.
Yet, concierge desks at La Jolla hotels aren’t exactly collecting dust, with many guest-planning professionals busier than ever.
“People still rely on concierges a lot,” said Ben Redfield, a front desk supervisor at the Empress Hotel, who’s tasked with everything from helping guests make dinner reservations to planning whale watching excursions.
“Even though the Internet has Travelocity and Yelp, guests still want (recommendations) right from the horse’s mouth,” Redfield said. “They will go online and get the information, but they’ll ask for your opinion anyway.”
Gaby Delgado, a concierge at Estancia La Jolla Hotel and Spa, who also serves as president of the San Diego Concierge Association, said technology compliments today’s concierge services.
“I feel that it’s an enhancement of what we do, versus a hindrance or replacing us in any way,” said Delgado, who is also a member of the elite Les Clefs d'Or USA professional concierge association.
Most guests still prefer a “human touch” in their decision-making, versus blindly relying on the Internet, she said.
“People still ask for the names of restaurants, but then they’ll go back to their room and survey (the choices) on their iPad to see what the world is saying,” Delgado said.
Lynelle Mar, a front office supervisor at the Grande Colonial Hotel, said it helps when guests have researched the area and their options before coming to her for assistance — especially if they can’t get a reservation at the restaurant they desired.
“We’re able to take what they wanted and make some suggestions they didn’t even think of when they were reading the reviews,” she said.
With so much information at guests’ fingertips, concierges must be on top of their game, having a vast knowledge of the hospitality options in their vicinity. Concierges say guests are asking for information about an increasingly wide array of areas and attractions, which helps them sharpen research skills and increase their knowledge.
“It’s kind of given us more of a challenge, but it’s a fun challenge,” Mar said. “You learn a lot in this job.”
Concierges fill guests’ itineraries with everything from an afternoon kayaking the La Jolla Caves to Segway tours, golf and hang gliding at the Torrey Pines glider port.
Kali McDonald, a concierge at La Valencia Hotel, arranged for a recent guest to go skydiving.
“He went three days in a row he loved it so much,” McDonald said.
One of McDonald’s more challenging assignments was to assist a family from Saudi Arabia who were bent on going apple picking, though the fruit wasn’t in season.
“One of their friends had told them they had gone to an orchard and it was so much fun,” McDonald said. “They wanted to go so bad. … I ended up printing out (information about) all the orchards in California, highlighting the ones in Julian.”
“I didn’t hear whether they made it there,” she said. “They definitely tried.”
When it comes to creating lasting memories, online assistance only goes so far.
Delgado helped a man recreate a scene from a photograph of his wedding taken 32 years ago, to surprise his wife as they renewed their vows. Delgado was able to find professionals to match the color scheme, flowers, cake and other aesthetic elements of the photo on the La Estancia grounds. She also arranged for a pastor to officiate.
Another guest came to Delgado distraught on the morning of her daughter’s wedding. “She called it a ‘family tragedy,’ ” Delgado said. “I thought something really intense had happened, like a death in the family.”
It turned out the woman had chipped a tooth and was convinced she was going to ruin her daughter’s wedding pictures.
“I was able to find an emergency dentist to put a cap on her tooth and (she made it) back in time for pictures,” said Delgado, who worked her way through college as a concierge. “You really don’t know what the day will hold.”
Lisa Marie Wyman has been a concierge for 25 years, the last eight spent working at The Lodge at Torrey Pines, which employs three full-time and two part-time concierges.
Wyman recalled helping avert a similar guest tragedy at another property. A representative for a line of shoes was showing his product to a buyer from Nordstrom and his model canceled at the last minute — at an hour when the modeling agencies were all closed.
“I had to go and find someone who looked nice who wore a size 6,” she said. “Never mind that they canceled the meeting.”
More recently, Wyman helped a guest honor his wife on Mother’s Day, filling their room with 10 dozen roses, six mixed floral arrangements, 200 latex balloons, 10 Mylar balloons, and several orchids.
“He wanted to give her an award, so I had a glass trophy made and engraved with a special message,” she said.
Wyman said she feels “blessed” to have found her career niche.
“I love showing off the city of San Diego that I grew up in and love,” she said. “I love the relationships I develop between my guests and seeing the smiles on their faces.”
Hotel Parisi guest services attendant Carole Somers, who acts as a concierge for the boutique hotel, has done everything from arranging in-room spa services and helicopter tours to car rentals and late-night bagel delivery service for a high-profile rock musician.
“Whatever they ask I usually can research and find a resource, so there’s never been a situation where I couldn’t fill a request,” said Somers, a former United Airlines flight attendant.
GPS devices notwithstanding, some guests just want a friendly face to give them directions — be it to Mt. Soledad or the Children’s Pool.
“I get a kick out of telling them what the controversy is with the seals,” said Nick Yeager, part bell captain, part concierge at the Empress Hotel. “Sometimes they don’t understand it at all. Sometimes they’ll pick a side.”