NEW YORK—From laundry to banquet staff, hotels have turned to outsourcing a number of services in order to provide guests with better experiences and help with the bottom line. Concierge services company LIVunLtd is allowing hotels to do both.
The company that became LIVunLtd was created in 2002 by Michael Fazio and Abbie Newman, who worked together at the concierge desk at InterContinental New York Barclay in Manhattan, almost by accident. “It was an interesting time when newer hotels were starting to pop up, and some of our guests were defecting to the places that had newer paint jobs,” said Fazio, co-founder/chief creative officer. “Everyone wanted to try something new, but they would still come to us for their concierge help. I didn’t think of it, Abbie didn’t think of it, it was one of our guests who thought of it, as they started saying, ‘Can’t we just pay you on the side to do this?’ Therein was kind of the lightbulb that went off: People will pay for concierge service. So we started Abigail Michaels, which was the original iteration of my now company LIVunLtd, and we were literally just servicing individual people on a membership basis.”
From there, one of their clients who owned apartment buildings suggested they provide their services to apartment buildings. “He said we should be doing this in apartment buildings,” Fazio said. “We just went along for the ride and said, ‘Let’s try it.’ That was where the momentum started, and the luxury residential market really picked up on it and pulled it in.”
What made their company different, according to Fazio, is that they were real concierges “in a world where concierges become cliché when it is offered by an insurance company. As naïve as it sounds, I still believe our profession is more than a job. People have a calling to do this. There is some kind of codependency involved because we love being wish fulfillers. It is really hard, but it is really fun and exciting. It involves a lot of networking. It is not for everyone. I hate to say it, but it is a bit of a dying art. It has actually been one of the biggest challenges and one of the biggest opportunities for us.”
In 2008, Abigail Michaels was acquired by FirstService Corporation, a public company, and in 2014, the company merged with American Amenities to form LIVunLtd. “It was this move that added spa, fitness/wellness and amenity management to our scope of services,” said Fazio.
The company returned to the hotel world when the InterContinental Times Square opened. “What is happening is that hotels are changing…and the engine behind the scenes does not always match the front-facing side and the brand out front does not necessarily own the asset,” he said. “The asset owners are always looking for innovative ways to stretch the dollar and give better service.”
After that, the company was approached by other hotels in the New York area and are now in five, along with four spas globally and more than 200 luxury residential properties.
“The way the asset stakeholder sees us as a cost savings is not on the salary, if you will, but all of the infrastructure that goes into running a concierge department,” said Fazio. “All of the resources that need updating, the creative content, the city guides—all of the things that a hotel would normally be doing behind the scenes to support their front-office concierges, they don’t have to do, because we have all of that. It is really not dollar-for-dollar…it is more about efficiency of operation. Hotels definitely benefit by LIV alleviating what they need behind the scenes.”
He said that many of the hotels have no problem with letting guests know that the concierge services are outsourced. “To the front-facing experience, as far as our staff is concerned, they appear as hotel employees. Hotels are not shying away from the LIVunLtd brand,” he said. “There are certain things that happen behind the scenes where our brand is revealed. It is interesting that hotel brands are not afraid to affiliate. We are not being pushed into some dark closet never to reveal who our family is.”
Concierge services are more important than ever for hotels, as guests are looking for authentic experiences. “Travelers are craving a local experience,” said Fazio. “Part of that is why we have been prey to things like Airbnb, because people want to see what it is like to live in that city. Sadly, the concierge community can—and I will try to put this gently—try to put their own agendas ahead of the guest experience just because it is more convenient, so if restaurants want to incentivize a concierge to send people there, as long as it isn’t a bad place, there are plenty of concierges who would be happy to do that. No one gets hurt, they are not sending them to a bad place, but they might not be stretching their imagination, whereas, we live and die by our access, understanding and knowledge of the hidden gems, the pop-ups, the little undiscovered, amazing places that aren’t going to make it into the newspapers.”
Beyond the cliché of concierges getting the tickets for the hottest shows or sporting events, he said it is now about finding those experiences and hidden gems. “People are also less prone to overspend. They might not be willing to spend the $500 for tickets to that show that is sold out, and would be just as happy if we direct them to something off-Broadway or some other form of live entertainment,” Fazio said. “There are so many options in New York that I think having this local imprint is just more valuable to the guest experience.”
Wellness is an area where clients are looking for those experiences. “People who come from smaller towns in the U.S. or other countries, they might not have a mindful meditation studio in their city,” said Fazio. “Mindfulness is this very progressive, amazing meditation experience, and someone not from New York would love discovering that it’s an activity New Yorkers do, as are all of these more unusual things that are usually identified as ‘New Yorky.’ We are definitely the trendsetters in a lot of the more unusual things.”
Although its hotel clients have been pleased with its work, the company has faced a backlash from the concierge community. “They perceive us as these opportunists who are going after their jobs,” he said. “These people are our former colleagues, so that is not the case at all. We constantly come to defend ourselves to explain that we didn’t come to them [hotels], they came to us.”
The company, in looking to expand, is sensitive to this issue. “We would love to expand, but we are at these crossroads where we weigh the negative feedback, battling fake reviews and all of the reputation management that we have to do,” he said. “We weigh that against the opportunity. But we love hotels, we love New York City. We also function in many other cities. We’d love to do more hotels.” HB