Andrew Tolve

Concierges on the cheap



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. The incentive is to drive the sales." She added, "From the guests’ perspective, they don’t know, nor do they care."

The Holiday Inn at Fisherman’s Wharf and the Radisson Wharf both currently lease their desks to Airport Express, the mom-and-pop shuttle company that competes with Lorrie’s Airport Service. Like Tower Tours, Airport Express has created a sister enterprise, Concierge of America, to handle that responsibility. Gil Sherabi, Concierge of America’s head concierge, told us his company allows its concierges to keep their tips and doesn’t mandate any sales quota. They do, however, exclusively book Airport Express tours; it wouldn’t make financial sense if they didn’t.

"We only care about serving the customers," Sherabi said. "We don’t have any quotas on anything. As long as the hotel is happy, we’re happy too."

The Hyatt Regency has handed over its concierge desk to Presentation Services, the company that manages the hotel’s event technologies, such as stage sets, projectors, and audio-video. Presentation Services runs the desk in exchange for the business the hotel provides it. The four-star Westin Market Street leased its concierge desk to Tour Links until last week. According to several inside sources, SuperShuttle, Lorrie’s, and Airport Express are in a bidding war to fill the vacancy.

And then there’s Shell Vacations, the nationwide time-share company that owns the Donatello Hotel, the Inn at the Opera, and the Suites at Fisherman’s Wharf. Concierges at each of these locations are required to cajole guests into taking time-share tours for Shell Vacations. Shell Vacations also runs the concierge desk at the Sheraton Wharf, where its concierges pull the same stunt.

"Our concierges do have quotas they have to meet," Yvonne Merzenich, the assistant general manager at the Donatello, said. The sales center "has negotiated packages with local restaurants, so that if guests want a nice meal, we’ll offer them $100 off that meal if they go to one of our time-share presentations."

Professional, in-house concierges are understandably concerned about the long-term viability of their jobs and the impact of outsourcing on their reputations. I met with one member of Les Clefs d’Or, the prestigious concierge association, who called this new wave of outsourced concierges "un-American and absurd." Another told us that hotel managers need to get their priorities straight.

"It’s a difficult situation because the concierges do not generate revenue," she said. (All the concierges quoted in this story requested to remain anonymous, as they’re prohibited from speaking to the media without the consent of their hotels.) "But the concierges provide the services that the guests come back for. You can’t put a dollar amount on all that we provide."

Whether guests feel that way is a different matter. I caught up with Sandra Curtis, a tourist from New Castle, Australia, who was staying at the Drake recently. When I told her that the concierge who had just helped arrange her bus tour worked for a bus tour company, Curtis was unfazed.

"The concierge was very helpful," Curtis said. "And that’s the way it’s happening now, isn’t it? We’re from Australia, and everything’s outsourced there too."

Susan McDonough, a fellow Drake guest from Cairo, Egypt, was less enthusiastic.

"I question [whether] if I ask the concierge anything else other than about bus tours, will she work just as hard?" McDonough said. "It’s a way for the hotel to cut corners. I don’t like it."

Last year the Wall Street Journal was the first mainstream media outlet to identify the outsourced concierge phenomenon. In a story headlined "The Concierge’s Secret Agenda," the Journal revealed that many of America’s top hotel chains are leasing their concierge desks to third-party employers. The chains include Hyatt, Marriott, Starwood, and Kimpton. Online travel giant had already acquired control of 38 concierge desks when the article hit the streets. Ticket vendor had obtained control of six desks, with plans to open up shop in several dozen more hotels in 2007. As many as 15 hotels in Manhattan had already caved in, and there were more in places like Chicago, Orlando, Las Vegas, and San Francisco.

Unmentioned in the Journal‘s exposé was just how unruly the outsourced concierge game is in San Francisco. The national trend in the hotel industry is toward large-scale outsourced concierge providers, companies like Travelocity,, and It’s the providers who are expanding their services and courting new hotels. But in San Francisco, midtier hotels are the ones driving the murky business. Many have leased their concierge desks multiple times, unsatisfied with the service they were receiving but unwilling to pay for better.

The Westin Market Street has switched four times, transitioning from in-house concierges to Gray Line Bus Tours, back to in-house, then to Tour Links. Last week the hotel fired Tour Links and is looking for another company to take its place. The Drake has switched outside providers four times as well. In just the past few years, it has fired Tour Links, hired Lorrie’s Airport Service, fired it, and rehired Tour Links.

Ed Gunderson, the Drake’s general manager, said his hotel outsources its desk because concierges are "pretty cost prohibitive" and "if you can find a really good [outside] company and can keep some autonomy over the concierges they bring in, it’s the best of both worlds." When asked if fluctuating from one provider to another is really the best of both worlds, especially for the guests, he replied, "Tour Links is providing a service we’re very happy with."

Adding to the turmoil is Choi. Most professional concierges we spoke to don’t like Choi. "He’s terrible and very litigious" was how one Les Clefs d’Or concierge described the Tour Links and Tower Tours president. "He’s scared the shit out of me." Many concierges associate the outsourcing phenomenon that’s costing them their jobs with Choi and Tour Links more so than with the hotels.

The Northern California Concierge Association has urged its members to strike back by enacting an embargo on Tower Tours bus trips. (There are three primary bus tour providers in San Francisco — Tower Tours, Gray Line, and Super Sightseeing — and each offers comparable sightseeing tours around the city, to the Napa wine country, and to Muir Woods.) The NCCA also won’t let Tour Links concierges join its ranks. "He can drink my blood, and I can drink his," one NCCA member said of Choi. "I think that’s a mutual feeling there."

Earlier this summer, I headed to Tour Links headquarters for a chat with the controversial Choi. I wanted to gain some general insights into the outsourced concierge phenomenon and some deeper ones into the operations of the city’s largest provider. No surprise: Tour Links and Tower Tours share the same headquarters, an impressive office on Beach Street with an unobstructed view of the Hyde Street Pier. I found Choi holed up inside, in a small, cluttered workplace. His desk was strewn with papers, and his walls were festooned with pictures of his daughter (a former Tour Links concierge) and a framed copy of the Wall Street Journal "The Concierge’s Secret Agenda" report. Choi had even highlighted his company’s name in the article.

To my surprise, I liked Choi immediately. He was funny and personable, and he spoke about his company with disarming candor. He told me that in 2003, came to town and started cutting deals with hotels behind the scenes. Once contracts had been finalized, he said, it approached tourism vendors looking for hands to run its newly acquired desks. With more than 20 years of hotel experience — among other things, he used to sell used furniture from hotels undergoing renovation — Choi recognized concierge outsourcing as the newest trend and jumped on the bandwagon.

"The industry is evolving all the time," he told us. "We have to go along with it."

Choi said is still the puppet master at most of the hotels where Tour Links operates. ( officials didn’t return numerous calls requesting an interview.) Choi also confided that it’s financially tough to get by in the outsourced concierge business, what with having to pay a hotel for a service it should be paying the lessee to provide. He added that most outside concierge services in the city don’t have the financial resources to expand and that he didn’t know if Tour Links would still be around in a few years.

"We’ll see," he said, his eyes twinkling and blinking in rapid succession. "But if not me, it’ll be somebody else."<\!s>*

Mining metadata


The Board of Supervisors’ Rules Committee unanimously recommended Nov. 30 that all parts of a city document should remain in the public domain, including the document’s electronic fabric, or metadata.
If approved by the full board, which seems likely, the decision will signal a victory for a small but vocal group of activists who view metadata as an important front in the battle for public access to government documents.
Metadata is defined as data about data — information that can reveal nuances of a document, such as where it was created, how it was modified, and when it was transmitted. If you know how to use the Track Changes function in Microsoft Word, for instance, you can glean how a document’s numbers were calculated or how its text evolved.
Local activists Allen Grossman and Kimo Crossman argue that such access to city documents is one of our privileges as citizens: we pay for city government to represent us with our tax dollars and therefore have the right to track almost everything it does — down to the faintest of electronic fingerprints on an Excel spreadsheet. Grossman and Crossman got involved with the fight for metadata when board clerk Gloria Young denied their request for a copy of the Sunshine Ordinance in its original Microsoft Word format.
“Are we gadflies, whatever that means?” Grossman asked the Guardian the day before the Rules Committee made its recommendation. “I don’t think so. I think we have an interest in making sure that everyone else knows what’s going on.”
Some city officials say that granting boundless access to documents and their metadata is risky. Deputy city attorney Paul Zarefsky wrote a five-page memo expounding the dangers: it could let hackers into the computer system; it could leave city documents open to manipulation; it could burden city officials with more data awaiting redaction.
He and Young proposed that all city documents should be presented to the general public as PDFs, or portable document formats, which would exclude any metadata from the original document.
The Rules Committee’s recommendation unanimously rejected that proposal. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi argued that while requests for metadata might be a nuisance to city officials, the city is still responsible for providing “all native data” to the general public that is consistent with the Sunshine Ordinance. When Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Sean Elsbernd agreed, room 263 at City Hall erupted with applause.
“The fact is that we’re entitled to see all public information that is not exempt,” Grossman told us. “To the extent that public information is buried in the other data, the metadata, we’re still entitled to see it.”

Campus crush


It’s easy to forget about the Villas Parkmerced.
Nestled in the foggiest, most sedate corner of San Francisco, the 62-year-old planned community feels like a slice of suburbia for seniors and families.
“There’s grass. There’s trees. There’s traffic circles where the cars can’t speed too damn much and knock off the pedestrians,” says 82-year-old Robert Pender, a tenant since 1967. “It’s forgettable suburbia in urban San Francisco.”
But the peace has been shattered recently by word that San Francisco State University is laying plans to transform its campus into a smaller version of UC Berkeley — with little apparent concern for its neighbors just across the street.
The SFSU administration has been busy at work for the past year on a new campus master plan. University officials say the body of college-bound students in California is steadily increasing and a campus overhaul is needed to accommodate that growth by 2020.
The proposed expansion calls for a conversion of many of the two-story buildings on campus to four- or five-story structures, as well as the construction of new buildings for academic, housing, and cultural purposes. A new 250-room hotel at 19th Avenue and Buckingham, a new creative arts facility, and a new gym are also on the table.
The project’s chief architect, James Stickley, told the Guardian that the master plan is about making SFSU “efficient as an urban campus” and transforming its character from a commuter campus to a destination community. In 15 years, he said, university officials expect to have 25,000 full-time students at the university (an increase of 5,000 students), many of them living on campus and taking advantage of new amenities and commercial ventures within university borders.
It’s an ambitious vision that aims to attract more students and accomplished professors to the SFSU campus. Which is great news for just about everyone — except the tenants of the 3,400-unit Villas Parkmerced, who allege not only that they were forgotten during the university planning process but also that their neighborhood is now coming under attack.
“I would love to see SFSU come out as a premier university and to have a really strong image,” said Adriana Torres, a current Parkmerced tenant and former SFSU student. She was speaking at a meeting held Oct. 24 to assess the environmental impacts of the university’s proposed master plan. “But you are not taking into consideration us, the people who live next to the students,” Torres continued. “I think what this plan is doing is, in building your image, it’s eroding ours.”
The meeting was hosted by campus planner Richard Macias and was attended by more than 70 disgruntled Parkmerced residents.
One major area of contention is the university’s proposal for Holloway Avenue, which separates much of the Parkmerced community from SFSU. The university intends to transform Holloway into what Stickley called “a campus street,” with around-the-clock commercial stores at street level and student housing above, something akin to Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue. The university already owns much of the residential property on the south side of Holloway.
But Parkmerced tenants still occupy about 70 percent of that housing, and in their minds, plans for the gradual conversion of that property “for University uses as current occupants vacate their units,” as a university notice put it, sounds a lot like a friendly eviction letter.
“I have lived in Parkmerced all my life,” Healeani Ting said at the Oct. 24 meeting. “My grandmother died here. My mother died here. I intend to die here. Would you have me living in a relocation camp for the homeless in Fresno?”
Parkmerced tenants also assert that SFSU has drastically underestimated the impact of 5,000 additional students on the neighborhood.
Parking — no surprise — is the biggest issue. The university notes in a preliminary environmental review document that “the bulk of the University’s parking needs is met through the multistory parking garage east of Maloney Field” and therefore it won’t be adding any additional parking spots to accommodate 5,000 more students. Parkmerced tenants maintain their parking situation is already a nightmare, thanks to students snatching up spots in their community.
“If you think that you’re going to confine the garbage, the noise, the disruption to all the residents by keeping everyone along Holloway, you’re wrong,” Michelle Miller, a resident of Parkmerced and the head of a local organization called Neighborhood Watch, said at the Oct. 24 meeting. “They filter out. They all want cars. If you keep your parking flat, that’s not going to work.”
University spokesperson Ellen Griffin told the Guardian that SFSU is interested in fostering a “collegial relationship” with Parkmerced tenants and the university will be taking their complaints seriously. University officials met with Parkmerced tenants Nov. 9 to discuss some of their objections. According to Parkmerced Residents’ Organization board member Arne Larson, the university said it would consider moving graduate students and professors to Holloway instead of pursuing the campus street idea.
Of course, SFSU doesn’t have to do any of that. As a state entity, the university has the authority to create and adopt its own plans without involving the San Francisco Planning Department.
The university is preparing an environmental impact report — but no matter what the document says, the project can move forward without city review or approval.
Sarah Dennis, a senior planner with the Planning Department, told us her agency is concerned with the project on two counts: first, the campus street proposal threatens to drain 945 units from the city’s already vulnerable rental housing stock; and second, the overarching plan endangers the basic historic and cultural resources of the city. The Villas Parkmerced is one of only four urban master plan communities in the country.
“We’re hoping that they’ll follow the good-neighbor policy and that we’ll have the opportunity to get involved,” Dennis said. “But again, that’s all up to them.”
District 7 supervisor Sean Elsbernd said that he too is concerned with the SFSU master plan.
“At this point [the university is] at least recognizing this is going to have a massive impact,” Elsbernd told the Guardian, referring to the SFSU environmental impact report that is under way. “But we can guess what’s going to be in that EIR when it’s finally published: ‘Oh look, they say there won’t be much of an impact.’ That’s when the real fight happens.” SFBG

Shades of green


An assembly of the nation’s premier green architects, engineers, academics, and policy makers was gathered Sept. 28 in the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, patiently awaiting a keynote address from Mayor Gavin Newsom. The speech was supposed to inaugurate this year’s West Coast Green, the largest residential green building conference in the country.
But the anticipation of the crowd quickly turned to ill humor when it was announced that the mayor had decided to attend another event instead — the grand opening of the biggest Bloomingdale’s west of the Continental Divide.
“I knew it!” one woman at West Coast Green lamented. “I knew he wouldn’t come.”
“He’s at Bloomingdale’s,” another chided.
Newsom spokesperson Peter Ragone said the mayor believed he was scheduled to speak at the conference Sept. 30, and he did. But that was a day for the general public to come and learn about the frontiers of green building. By then, many of the disgruntled architects and planners had already left.
“I have to say that we are all full of contradictions, and we would not be here today unless we were,” said Jim Chace, the director of Pacific Gas and Electric’s Pacific Energy Center, who spoke in the mayor’s slot Sept. 28.
“I promised I wouldn’t take any shots [at Newsom], but this should not be so easy,” Chace continued cheerily. “The fact is that there’s a contradiction here, and contradictions are just a sign in our lives that it is time to look at change.”
Newsom has regularly touted San Francisco as a leader in the emerging field of green building. But the conference and the mayor’s speech snafu raise the question of where the city really stands when it comes to building — not just talking about — green structures.
Green architecture starts with common sense. It’s about properly orienting buildings to the sun and the wind, making sure that insulation actually insulates, and using recycled material instead of finite or environmentally harmful ones.
But in the eyes of industry and government professionals, a building isn’t officially considered green until it passes a national rating system known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED. Buildings that earn enough credits get one of four LEED ratings: certified, silver, gold, or best of all, putf8um.
When it comes to LEED certified buildings, San Francisco can claim just seven, three of which belong to green architecture firms. That puts the city in fifth place, behind Pittsburgh, Pa. (8); Atlanta (10); Portland, Ore. (11); and Seattle (14).
“There really isn’t much,” Fred Stitt, founder and director of the San Francisco Institute of Architecture, told the Guardian. “About three years ago, I wanted to organize a tour of green buildings in San Francisco, and I couldn’t find any.”
That was before the work had begun on the LEED gold Federal Building and the LEED putf8um Academy of Sciences, which Stitt called “a masterpiece.” Nonetheless, he said San Francisco’s reputation as a driver of the green building movement was undeserved.
“Everyone thinks that Berkeley is a liberal bastion,” Stitt said. “But if you live here, it’s just a Midwestern town with a bunch of homeless people…. San Francisco’s reputation is manufactured the same way.”
Certainly some other cities are doing as much, if not more than San Francisco. This city’s most important green building ordinance requires all new municipal buildings larger than 5,000 square feet to meet LEED silver standards. Yet there are no requirements or incentives for the private sector to build green in San Francisco.
Santa Monica also requires government buildings to be green, but it offers grants up to $35,000 for LEED certified buildings, including those in the private sector. In addition, Santa Monica requires most developers to incorporate four kinds of recycled material into their buildings and to recycle at least 60 percent of their construction and demolition waste.
Likewise, Portland, Ore., was just voted America’s most sustainable city in the 2006 SustainLane Rankings, largely because of its attitude toward green building. Beyond its 11 LEED certified buildings, Portland is brimming with small natural structures like benches and kiosks made from clay, sand, and straw. The city also boasts an entire community of sustainable homes for the homeless, known as Dignity Village.
“Their natural building has totally transformed the spirit of their community, and it feels different than if you walk through Oakland or San Francisco,” Marisha Farnsworth, an architect with the Natural Builders in Oakland, told the Guardian. “I got together with some architects, builders, and designers, and all of us said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have city planners come down from Portland and explain to our officials what’s going on up there?’”
That isn’t to say officials in San Francisco have completely missed the memo. The San Francisco Department of the Environment just finished negotiations with the Department of Building Inspection for a new priority permitting program set to be rolled out in the coming weeks. It would allow developers who pledge to build green to get fast-tracked through the bureaucratic morass of the city’s permitting process.
Department of the Environment officials have also worked to reduce the amount of time and money it takes to get a rooftop solar permit. And with the opening of the Orchard Garden Hotel at Union Square on Oct. 12, San Francisco will soon become the first city in the country with a LEED certified hotel.
The point of West Coast Green was to ask how this city and the rest of the country can do more. Should we offer rebates for efficiency consultants to assess how energy is being wasted in our homes and businesses? Can the city offer larger incentives to the private sector or require more rigorous standards for developers? Should PG&E be pressured into pledging more of its public benefit money toward green building?
“Green architecture is still very much emerging,” Eric Corey Freed, one of San Francisco’s top green architects and a host at West Coast Green, told the Guardian. “And although San Francisco is the capital, even here it hasn’t reached the point of ubiquity that we expect it to. We’re still very much in our adolescence. We’re like teenagers with pimples and crackly voices.”
In 100 years, Freed added, history will likely look back on our time as the era of the green revolution. If he is right, perhaps San Francisco will have done enough to be deemed a nucleus of the movement — and important conferences like West Coast Green will take priority over the opening of new shopping malls. SFBG