Say you’re a college kid who suddenly remembered mom’s birthday is tomorrow.
At New Mexico State University, help might be around the corner: There’s an on-campus concierge who could, for example, send a birthday bouquet or make reservations for a celebratory dinner.
In an effort to distinguish itself in the competitive higher education market, NMSU launched the Crimson Concierge program earlier this year. The free service is staffed by employees trained in The Ritz-Carlton mold who can book travel, make hair appointments, arrange laundry pickup or even offer advice about the area’s best tacos.
But Crimson Concierge isn’t just a hotel-style offering; it also functions as a centralized call center for all types of university inquiries. Its staff fields questions about financial aid issues, course registration and parking tickets, providing a personalized handoff to the right departments around campus.
It’s all part of a broader customer service initiative meant to enhance campus life, said Steve Bettner, assistant vice president of auxiliary services at NMSU.
“Running a university has really changed over the last decade, and I think it’s going to continue to evolve into being one where not only are we competing to be the best academically, but the student life aspect is really important,” Bettner said. “National trends show that students are picking where they go to school and where they continue to go to school in large part due to the amenities, the quality of life. They’re looking for … the ‘college experience.’ ”
Many universities responded to those trends in recent years by investing in robust recreational venues and swanky student housing projects – a move some dubbed the college “amenities arms race.”
NMSU recently commenced a new dormitory project, but Bettner said it generally cannot afford to construct extravagant facilities. Its student union building is 50 years old, and some of its residence halls are even older.
Bettner said he saw customer service as a less costly way to differentiate NMSU. To that end, about 100 employees from auxiliary units across campus – including the concierge desk, the bookstore and the golf course – even went through training this summer with representatives from The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.
“We made the strategic decision within the auxiliary department that we would focus on service; that’s where, with very little resources, we can focus our efforts and stand out as being the best at what we do,” Bettner said.
Crimson Concierge was born of discussions NMSU had with its dining contractor, Sodexo. Bettner said the university wanted to increase convention business on campus, which Sodexo caters.
The parties began considering a concierge service for visitors unfamiliar with the community, but the idea evolved into extending the service to anyone associated with the campus.
Circles by Sodexo manages the program. The concierges charge no fee and do not accept tips. Bettner said Sodexo, which has an eight-year contract as NMSU’s food services vendor, is funding the service in lieu of what would have been a cash payment to the university.
Crimson Concierge has recorded more than 2,400 interactions since it launched in early 2018 and has begun attracting national attention.
“A College Concierge? It’s About Time,” Forbes titled an October story on the program. It’s the only program of its kind that Sodexo offers on a U.S. college campus.
“I definitely think it has caught on very nicely. We’re getting quite a bit of repeat clients,” said Kelly Ahrendes, the team coordinator on the four-person Crimson Concierge staff, all of whom are NMSU graduates or alumni who hail from the Las Cruces area.
Ahrendes has a degree in hotel, restaurant and tourism management, and spent a decade working in hotels and resorts. He said Crimson Concierge is quite comparable to a hotel service – aside from the setting, of course.
Crimson Concierge has a desk near the student union building entrance, offering what Ahrendes called “the welcoming attitude.”
“We get a lot of people coming up to us saying, ‘I’m not sure if you can answer this question,’ and my answer is ‘We can certainly try,’ ” he said.
The staff field in-person inquiries, but also take requests via phone and email.
One of Crimson Concierge’s signature achievements thus far was arranging a three-week international trip for the then-student government president, Kevin Prieto, and his friends.
Most of the common requests are less complex, though Ahrendes said some research was required to help a student wondering if the dorms allowed residents to live with pet turtles.
“Unfortunately, they could not,” he said. “They could bring a fish in an aquarium, but not turtles.”