Hills & Hops goes concierge

For the last decade or so, I’ve seen my old pal Ranier but once a year, when our beloved Cincinnati Reds come to town to play the San Francisco Giants. So the first inning or two always is spent catching up over $12 beers. This year, I found out Ranier’s career was circling the drain. His profession, he said, was on the verge of becoming extinct.

Call it foreshadowing. A year earlier, during the yawning chasm of five scoreless innings, Ranier and I — inspired by a conversation in the row behind us, where a former telephone switchboard operator was celebrating her 80th birthday — began to tick off other jobs that had vaporized during our lifetimes: milkman, stereo salesman, video store employee, VCR and DVD repair technicians, and so on. From my own longtime (former) profession, newpaper journalist, I had witnessed the demise of typesetters; from Ranier’s vantage point in the hospitality industry, elevator operators had gone the way of telephone booths.

And now came the news that Ranier’s calling, as a concierge in one of San Francisco’s most renowned hotels, was knocking on heaven’s door.

Mama, put these front-row Hamilton tickets in the ground. I can’t use them anymore.

“Cell phones and platinum cards,” was Ranier’s eloquent summary of the culprits that led to his demise. “By the time most millenials can afford a $400-a-night hotel, they’ve been booking their own entertainment online for a couple of decades. In the past few years, I’d walk through the lobby and offer my expertise to a 30-something couple debating which wine tour to take, and they’d look at me like one of those guys handing out towels in the bathroom.”

As for platinum cards, I didn’t have the heart to Ranier that our seats were courtesy of the online concierge at American Express, where I had some points to burn.

Conversation and circumstance (watching the Reds and Giants was akin to waiting for water to boil) conspired to forge an idea: I would do well to market my one-man outdoor adventure company, Hills & Hops, to the myriad upscale hotels and resorts within a 20-mile radius of my home base in the funky foothill town of Fairfax, Calif., 15 miles northwest of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Hills & Hops began as a Meetup group in September 2012 with what I was surprised to learn was a novel concept: a weekend hiking group that would reward its efforts with an apres-hike excursion to a brewpub. Within three months, I had 500 members. Within three more, I had 1,500. As I expanded my roll call of brewpub partners in the nine-county Bay Area to several dozen and galvanized the group motto — Climb. Descend. Drink. — the hikes, limited to 33 members (beyond that it was cat-herding), would fill up within 15 minutes. Then 10. Then five. Then three.

For nearly four years, it was a labor of love. But it was labor-intensive, a one-man marketing and event-management effort conducted at the blitzkrieg pace of three or four excursions per month. I learned to repurpose my efforts: In the early years when Meetup’s expansive platform accomodated magazine-style essays and photographic layouts, I was able to sell my hike descriptions to outdoor adventure publications. That ended when when Meetup dumbed down its digital templates to appeal to those who were challenged by uploading photos and stringing sentences together.

On the trails, I had to operate at DEFCON 1 every week to keeping track of both the head and the tail of the caterpillar, as I liked to call it, the procession of hikers of varying degrees of experience and fitness that would routinely become separated by a quarter-mile or more on trails where one wrong turn on an unmarked switchback could launch a Search & Rescue operation. I became a Ninja of timing; while others were enjoying their backpack lunches at the top of a stunning overlook where the afternoon sun painted the vast Pacific in the trippiest shade of azure, I was calculating the exact time we needed to traverse four miles of steep descent and then drive four more miles to the brewpub, which was holding five tables on a crowded Saturday in the expectation that we would arrive within a 10-minute window on either side of 5 p.m.

All of that became instinctual. The trick was to do it all in good humor, without ever letting any of them see me sweat. Grace and self-assurance is contagious. But the burnout was inevitable, especially with no financial incentive.

By 2016, with nearly 200 uncompensated hikes under my belt, I graduated to getting paid. At the time, I was locked into one of the weirder work chapters of my colorful (itinerant) career: setting up micronews networks around the nation for a highly secretive investment group composed of former professional athletes, connections from my days of yore as a sportswriter and media trainer. The endgame was to have a small army of young (cheap), digitally savvy reporters in place when sports gambling became legal, which became reality with a Supreme Court decision handed down in May 2018. I spent weeks at a time on the road recruiting soon-to-graduate journalism students, renting office space and establishing pop-up newsrooms. Then I’d be idle for weeks at a time while the investment fund’s braintrust decided where next to establish a presence, be it in Rock Hill, S.C., Bozeman, Mont. or Bar Harbor, Maine.

It was during those down times that I slowly pivoted Hills & Hops to a business. Thanks largely to connections in the Human Resources world, I established H & H as a favored option for young, ambitous HR directors who wanted to break free of staid tradition when setting up employee outings or team-building exercises. Hills & Hops allowed then to think outside the walls and get their employees in touch with their inner John Muirs. Plus, you know, beer.

But setting up a corporate outings for a division of Coca-Cola or NASA took months from conception to delivery, and since I rarely knew more than a month or two in advance when I would or wouldn’t be in the Bay Area, I grew increasingly uncomfortable taking large deposits for events beyond the horizon. Despite rave reviews, by the time the last of my one-year contracts with the athlete investors concluded last month, I had decided to pivot, once more, to a more intimate business model, inspired in large part by Ranier; Hills & Hops would serve as a concierge service for tourists staying in upscale hotels in my adopted Marin County and adjacent San Francisco.

The fact that few of those hotels employed human concierges anymore, I figured, played right into my hands: Who could turn down a proven service that appealed to adventure-seeking tourists with large disposable incomes … and wouldn’t cost the hotels a dime?

Sure enough, hotel general managers agreed in droves to allow me to display rack cards in their establishments and, in some cases, establish a referrral system wherein I paid their employees what amounted to a finder’s fee for recommending my service to their guests. When my Honda Element proved insufficient as a shuttle vehicle for tourists scattered throughout the vast, bay-to-sea expanses of Marin County, I bought a passenger van. Tourist by tourist, general manager by general manager, I am forging a concierge service in the most upscale of lodging spots in the most well-heeled of American destinations.

Which is a bougie way of saying that I’m getting paid to hike and drink beer. John Muir, I think I love you. Ranier, the lagers are on me.