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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/29/2010 11:22:01 AM ET 2010-10-29T15:22:01

If you need to deposit a check at the bank, get a boarding pass at the airport or fill up your gas tank at the service station, a self-service kiosk can be a real time-saver.

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But what if you’re in Southern California and the Australian sheep dogs you’re traveling with need a flock of sheep to herd? And where would you turn if you only spoke Russian and had a dental emergency while staying in a New York City hotel on a holiday weekend?

There are no buttons on the self-service kiosks for those situations. That’s when a hotel concierge can come in handy.

“We were able to locate some sheep for those Australian sheep dogs to herd and arranged for a car to bring the dogs to the sheep,” said Jessica Foster, a concierge at the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara.

And when a Russian-speaking guest at the Pod Hotel in New York City had a dental emergency during Christmas, head concierge Bryan Raughton called the Russian consulate, which found a translator in Brooklyn whose neighbor just happened to be a Russian dentist. “He set up the guest with an extraction and a night in Brooklyn, numbed with vodka,” Raughton said.

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Filling in the blanks
Concierges at hotels large and small can recount similar “we aim to please” stories.

In Los Angeles, the concierge service at the Peninsula Beverly Hills Hotel begins at LAX airport, where “airport concierge” Jimmy Bardolf is on duty to smooth the journey to the hotel. “Our job is to set the tone for their hotel experience when a guest arrives and to leave them with a fond memory of the hotel when they leave,” said Bardolf, whose desk is a briefcase that includes emergency supplies such as Visine, Band-Aids and Krazy glue to fix broken nails.

Peter Mortensen, chef concierge at the Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee, Wis., has done everything “from running out to purchase socks and underwear for special guests to tracking down a sugar maple seedling for an ambassador to take home.”

Related: Some hotel chains ditching the front desk

In Tokyo, a foreign guest at the Ritz-Carlton wanted to take home about $6,000 worth of the unusually-flavored Kit Kat bars (green tea, wasabi, strawberry, etc.) that are popular in Japan. “It was two hours before the guest’s departure,” said chief concierge Mayako Sumiyoshi. “And the [Kit Kat] warehouse is on the outskirts of Tokyo. So the concierge team visited all the local shops, convenience stores, etc., to purchase as many candy bars as possible.”

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At The Stafford London, Frank Laino, executive head concierge, arranged to ship a red double-decker bus from London to Texas. At XV Beacon, an upscale boutique hotel in Boston, a concierge visited a series of museums and amusement parks to reconstruct the flat penny collection a guest’s son lost during his stay.

“We are here to fill in the blanks and make memories,” said Maggie O’Rourke, chef concierge at the Four Seasons Hotel Boston. “As long as it is not illegal or immoral, we will do all we can to make requests happen,” she said.

If you dream it, they will come
“Our job is to weed through all the information and help with specialized requests. If you can dream it up, we can make it happen,” said Foster of the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara.

But helping guests make memories and figuring out how to grant wishes may not always be enough of a payoff for the hotel industry in a tough economy.

“Some hotels are trying to cut corners by outsourcing their concierge desk services to companies such as Expedia,” said Carl Winston of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at San Diego State University. Others are supplementing limited service by offering smart phone apps and other features for tech-savvy travelers.

Related: Tech-savvy travelers sign on for self check-in

But at the Hotel Galvez in Galveston, Texas, the payoff of having an in-house concierge is “return visits and referrals to friends,” said Jackie Hasan, a concierge who flew to Panama to deliver the luggage a couple left behind when they set out on a cruise.

For other hotels, it can be that much sought-after, glowing online review.

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After Anthony Baliola of Seattle’s Hotel Vintage Park brought soup to a guest who’d fallen ill, the guest posted a rave TripAdvisor review that reads, in part, “The chief concierge was a godsend. Recommend the hotel to friends? No. I would insist!”

Reaching new heights
The return on maintaining concierge service can also take place up in the air.

In 2008, Air New Zealand began adding a concierge to the crew of many long-haul flights; the first airline to do so. The team now includes almost 50 in-flight concierges. “They are empowered to solve problems by dealing with issues as they happen, in the air or on the ground,” said Roger Poulton, vice president for Air New Zealand for the Americas.

“That can mean offering a bottle of wine, a six-month cinema pass or some other sort of compensation to a passenger whose entertainment systems is broken,” explained London-based in-flight concierge Stephen Wareham, who makes a point to visit passengers in all cabins of the airplane. “My job is to make sure problems don’t fester away during a flight.”

While costly, the in-flight concierge program appears to be paying off. Poulton said, “Whether it’s delivering a sick passenger’s luggage to the hospital ... or simply being helpful and making a fuss of our customers, we’ve seen our unsolicited compliments this past year increase ... and our complaints drop.”

Harriet Baskas is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com, authors the “Stuck at the Airport” blog and is a columnist for USATODAY.com. You can follow her on Twitter .

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