Concierges on the cheap

SF hotels outsource tourist services to the tour bus companies, unbeknownst to their guests

The concierge desk in the lobby of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel was doing a brisk business on a recent Sunday afternoon. Located a few strides north of Union Square, the Drake is best known for its colorful doormen, who work the curb out front in cartoonishly red costumes. But on this day the doormen seemed to be just killing time, while the concierge, a tall blond named Jill Schultze, was dealing with the long line inside.

"How can I help you?" Schultze asked the elderly couple at the front of the queue. They told her they were interested in taking a bus sightseeing tour. She looked pleased, recommended a specific tour of the Napa wine country, then picked up her phone to make the reservation.

"That was easy," the wife said once the transaction was complete.

For the next half hour, Schultze — whom I watched from a nearby chair without her knowing that I was a journalist — set up one bus tour after the next. In fact, that's all she seemed to do — or, at least, all she did well. When a party asked for a recommendation for Indian food, she suggested the nearby Naan-N-Curry on Eddy Street, a restaurant that (apparently unknown to her) closed down last year.

One might expect better of a concierge at a place like the Drake, which boasts a AAA three-diamond rating. But the Drake is one of many hotels in San Francisco that have decided professional, in-house concierges are too expansive to bankroll. Instead, the hotels are starting to lease their concierge desks to outside companies, often charging $1,000 a month for a spot in their lobbies. The outside companies, most of which are established vendors in the tourism world, happily incur the cost — and the responsibility of the desk — in exchange for exclusive access to the hotels' clientele.

Tower Tours, the bus sightseeing company affiliated with the Drake, is the largest player in the growing outsourced concierge business. The company has created a sister enterprise called Tour Links, which runs the concierge desks at five San Francisco hotels: the Drake, the Argonaut, the Best Western Tuscan Inn, the Hyatt Fisherman's Wharf, and the Hotel Whitcomb. Tour Links concierges like Schultze can range from longtime professionals to summer interns. They're rotated from one hotel to the next, depending on how well a particular hotel likes them and where the holes in the Tour Links rotation might be. According to one former employee, Tour Links concierges are required to book Tower Tours bus sightseeing trips. The employee told the Guardian the concierges are required to book a minimum number of tours per month, although higher-ups within Tour Links deny there are quotas.

"Our tour desk do provide information about Tower Tours," Hagen Choi, the president of Tour Links and Tower Tours, conceded, speaking in choppy English. "But our concierge also provide high-level service. As long as guests get good service, it doesn't matter who operates the desk."

Laura Meith, the assistant general manager at the Tuscan Inn, had high praise for the service Tour Links provides. She said her concierges are well-informed, loyal, and outgoing. But Meith also admitted that she worked for Tower Tours as a concierge in 2004 (before the bus sightseeing company formalized Tour Links). She said she was thrown into the fray with little training — "I quickly discovered Zagat and Google and really just utilized those resources" — and said she was denied tips and commissions.

"Basically, concierges can make commissions on anything they sell," Meith said. "At an outsourced concierge desk, the concierges don't make the money, the company does.

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