Meet ‘Charles,’ the area’s new interactive concierge

Charleston Post and Courier
Warren Wise
January 10, 2012

The No. 1 tourist destination in North America is about to unveil a new device to make sure visitors maximize the Charleston experience and help the city remain on top.

The Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau will roll out its new interactive concierge service called “Charles” today at the Courtyard by Marriott at Calhoun and Meeting streets.

The free-information device offers everything found in a kiosk of brochures or a visitor’s guide with an added amenity: visitors can buy their tickets to an attraction and print them out with directions on the spot. The machine includes a secure credit or debit card swiper.

Hotels now sell vouchers to attractions, but they can’t guarantee availability. The concierge unit will let tourists know when a tour boat is sold out or a dinner reservation is available.

“If we are going to remain the No. 1 destination for tourists, we have to be ahead of the curve and do a better job of letting them know what’s here, how to get around and what it costs,” CVB Director Helen Hill said.

Last fall, the readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine selected Charleston as the top tourist destination in North America and third in the world behind Sydney, Australia, and Florence, Italy.

In March, the first 50 refrigerator-sized machines will be placed in several CVB-member hotels around Charleston. If all goes well, the kiosks will eventually be placed at the airport, welcome centers and other sites to guide tourists through the Holy City and all it has to offer.

The touch-screen kiosks will offer rolling photos of Charleston area tourist attractions who advertise on the large-screen home page. Below the screen will be a menu of icons to choose from. They include Entertainment and Events, See and Do, Dining, Transportation and Maps, and Hotel Information.

For example, if visitors want to go to Patriots Point, they would click on “See and Do.” A list of participating attractions, those who pay to advertise on the kiosk, would pop up by icon and the visitor could read information on Patriots Point and, if they want to go, then buy tickets, print them and the directions.

Each kiosk will be set up to give directions from its location, so one set up in a hotel in downtown Charleston will give directions from the specific site in downtown Charleston to the attraction, restaurant or entertainment venue while one set up at a hotel in North Charleston would give directions from there.

It will even offer up-to-date departures and arrivals at Charleston International Airport.

“It gives the visitor accurate and credible information,” Hill said. “There’s not always someone behind the front desk with that information.”

The information constantly changes, so it’s always up to date, she said. They will be maintained every 48 hours to make sure they are operating properly and have enough paper.

Linn Lesesne, marketing director for Charming Inns Inc., called the machine another tool for Charleston’s ripe tourist market.

“It offers an amenity to guests that personnel can’t handle all of the time,” said Lesesne, who markets Kings Courtyard Inn, Fulton Lane Inn, John Rutledge House Inn, the Wentworth Mansion and Circa 1886 Restaurant. “It takes the place of a person when they are not present or they are busy.”

The options are still being tweaked before it officially enters hotel lobbies. Places to park and restaurant menus could be added, CVB spokeswoman Catherine Dority said.

For hotels interested in matching the machine with their decor, it comes in a variety of cabinet finishes as well.

Concierge creator City Corridor of North Charleston is not charging the CVB for the machines, which cost about $14,000 apiece. Instead the company and the CVB plan to share the profits from attractions, hotels and restaurants that advertise on them. City Corridor will get most of the profits in the beginning, and then the CVB hopes to earn more as interest picks up. “It’s on a sliding scale,” Hill said.

City Corridor President Warren Lasch said the company started working on the machines in February after two employees sitting in the Francis Marion Hotel noticed guests asking for information at the front desk and picking up brochures that were mostly quickly discarded.

“They said, ‘There has to be a better way,’ ” Lasch said.

The company patented the devices, met with local hotel officials and then the CVB as it worked out details on what to include on the machine.

“It combines technology with existing services,” Lasch said. “It will help those who have a concierge service and add to those who don’t.”

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