Concierge To The Geek Set

Preston Rowe can't get you Celtics tickets. He isn't buddies with the maitre d' at Boston's top restaurants. And most guests at the Colonnade Hotel, where Rowe works, are happy never to encounter him during their stay. But if a guest's laptop suffers a 3 a.m. meltdown just hours before a key sales pitch, Rowe becomes the most important person in their world. If his staff can't fix the problem, they'll page Rowe at home (he averages two calls a night from guests). If he can't fix the problem over the phone, he'll drive 30 miles to the hotel. He'll take the hard drive apart, call his contacts at Toshiba or Compaq or load the drive into his own laptop so the guest is ready to PowerPoint by dawn.

For the wired road warrior, Rowe, 37, is a hotel amenity that's more valuable than Spectravision: a technology concierge. These pros--sometimes called e-butlers--are fast becoming a key attraction at upscale hotels. Ritz-Carlton claims to have invented the concept in 1998 at its Kuala Lumpur location; the following year it added full-time tech helpers at every property. Other high-end hotels like the Four Seasons have them in each location as well. Geek concierges are still uncommon at less expensive chains, where front-desk personnel may be trained to help guests solve simple PC problems and refer more complicated requests to a voice on an independent 800 line. But at the Colonnade, a four-star, 285-room independent hotel, they view someone like Rowe as a secret weapon. Says marketing director Christopher Lynn: "For a hotel of our size to have a full-time dedicated person on site is huge."

Rowe is a self-taught techie who worked at several hotels before getting his current gig in 1999. He spends much of his time helping guests with routine problems, like figuring out how to connect their laptops to the Internet. He'll install wireless cards, provide extra batteries, talk guests through disabling their personal firewall or, in a maddeningly common scenario, teach them that modem cords plug into phone jacks, not network jacks (hey, we knew that).

Only rarely do guests' PC woes become truly critical. There was, for instance, the couple who accidentally deleted the names and addresses of their wedding invitees just as the invitations were to go out. "The bride was just bawling," says Rowe, who was able to reconstruct the file. As e-butlering spreads throughout the hotel industry, more guests' digital nightmares turn into happy endings.