For Kings and Generals: A short history of Concierges and Tour Guides

By Sam Cook

When I first traveled to New York City, I was a cadet at West Point in the late 1990s, and I was not too impressed.  I came to the city on a succession of trips, because it was close, and it was supposed to be fun.  After all, it was New York City.  I left my travels, however, with the impression that it was an unfriendly city, overpriced, and all commercial chain stores.  When I returned to New York City in 2007, before I deployed to Iraq, I did so to visit some friends.  Overnight, my impression of New York City changed.  All of a sudden I was going to local restaurants that had real character, I was seeing the hidden bars that you can only find in New York City, and I finally knew where to go to actually meet people.  What changed?  I had finally found good, caring, authentic local advice.  Advice that is hard to find on the internet, try as we might.  Now that I am in the tour industry in New York City, I have realized that for most guests have lost the ability to connect on a personal level with people who genuinely care about the quality of their travel experience.

So, for those guests who do not have the fortune of staying with friends and family that have both the time and energy to show them around the city, where should they turn for the personal, friendly advice?  In the age of internet booking and review websites, we seem to have forgotten about the two oldest professionals in the travel industry: concierges and tour guides.  Their job is to be the personal liaison that we crave when traveling to a new city, and they have a rich history in the travel industry. After all, if kings and generals throughout history have been wise enough to use these professionals, why should we as mere tourists not also be of need of their services?

The first concierges in history emerged in medieval Europe.  A concierge was actually an officer of the king who was charged with administering justice on his behalf with the help of the bailif.  As the medieval aristocracy evolved, noblemen began to also take on the service of concierges who tended to the needs of administering their vast country estates, including organizing their social calendar, organizing for chefs and dinners, and taking care of the most minute day-to-day needs.  In the 19th Century, as the middle class evolved in Europe, and apartments and hotels began to emerge in the major cities, the role of a concierge became more diverse and shared, and hotels and apartments would organize a team of concierges to provide for the most personal needs of its guests. They acted as they would have for a nobleman but for a larger group of people. With the emergence of mass travel among the middle class, hotel concierges became more important across Europe, and they joined together on 6 October, 1929, to form the Les Clefs d’Or, which became the worldwide organization for concierges.  This distinguished organization today operates with over 3,000 members in over 50 countries, and it is the keeper of the oldest traditions that distinguish this elite profession.

The first tour guides emerged on the battlefields of antiquity.  Perhaps the most famous one of the ancient era was the battle of Thermopylae, where the Spartan King Leonidas, along with 300 elite warriors, managed to hold off the vast Persian Army at the narrows until Xerxes employed a local Greek guide to show him the path around this impregnable position.  Armies from Alexander the Great to Napoleon employed guides as their primary source of navigation and local knowledge.  Even with maps and satellite technology, modern armies still use guides to help navigate their missions.  In the age of the Renaissance, an emerging merchant class began to travel around the Mediterranean. It was during this time period that nobles engaged in the first leisure travel.  These old travel journals detail extensively the invaluable assistance guides provided in foreign lands.  The great explorers from Columbus to Captain Cook employed guides extensively.  Since the advent of large scale commercial travel with the steamships in the 1800s, organized guide services became the norm at great tourist destinations across the world.

The emergence of the Internet in the 1990s has changed the way people have booked and planned their travel.  With the mountain of information on the internet, we tend to believe that we have all the information we need, and it is free.  Why should we take the time to consult with people when we can just find it in Google?  Well, Google can only display so much information, and it is organized not necessarily with the best information first, but the companies with the best resources to display their information first.  Moreover, Google takes no responsibility for the information it displays.  You can’t go back to a computer and yell at Google for a bad recommendation.  But with a concierge, you can be sure that you will get a good dinner recommendation, and they will even call the restaurant that they are friends with to get you a seat.  And you can bet that any tour they send you on will be with a reputable company.  With technology, you don’t need a tour guide, right?  You can just read a guide book or put a tour on your iPod and walk around.  Well, if you like not hearing the traffic around you, and feel safe, this is a great way.  If you like walking around alone with no human interaction, this is a great way.  If you want to meet other people, experience the emotion of a well presented story from a passionate guide, then perhaps you should reconsider.  After all, if concierges were good enough for kings and guides good enough for generals and the great explorers, shouldn’t we be humble enough to consider their services?


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Filed under Tourism, Travel

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