A mall's information booth, typically a prime real estate location, is undergoing a dramatic transformation in a pilot program that combines high-tech facilities with personal services.

Mainstreet Retail LP, a department of The Mills Corp., Arlington, Va., has changed the way landlords think about staffing and servicing the information booth. Beginning with Potomac Mills (Washington, D.C.), the space was redesigned by Rippeteau Architects as a concierge booth that offers additional services such as currency exchange, Internet access and travel arrangements for a fee.

Malls historically have employed people at the information booth who answer phones, direct shoppers to stores and bathrooms and to services in the mall, sell gift certificates, and provide wheelchairs to all shoppers who need them.

The landlord manages the booth and often incurs costs that go beyond payroll wages and maintenance of the booth, all in the interest of good customer service. Such a commitment can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in any portfolio - even millions of dollars in some larger mall ownership portfolios.

Consequently, the challenge presented to mall landlords is how to turn the booth into a profit center, while maintaining or exceeding the expected levels of service. Mainstreet Retail is solving the problem by making the information booth a full-service concierge kiosk.

The concierge booth's function remains the same: to provide superior customer service. Gift certificates are for sale, directions are cheerfully given and the phone is answered promptly.

New paradigm The booth at Potomac Mills was enlarged, finishes were upgraded, and electrical and telephone capabilities were increased. The entire process - negotiating with suppliers, contracting with vendors, finding sources and agreements with financial institutions - took more than a year to complete. All the details had to be in place before the concierge program could be implemented.

Three categories of services were introduced:

* Category I involves a wide range of financial services. The concierge now can conduct foreign currency exchanges, give cash advances, cash mall employee checks and sell gift certificates.

* Category II, travel services, includes ticketing for airlines as well as hotel reservations, car rentals and even special event ticketing. The concept is dramatically evolving as several relationships grow over time and new contacts begin to participate with The Mills Corp.

* Category III involves Internet services. Mills developed computer stations with digital cameras, faxes and printers - all allowing shoppers to write a memo, cruise the Internet, send or retrieve e-mail, send pictures to friends or family, or conduct research on the Internet.

Consumer advantages As a result, shoppers can buy or upgrade airplane, bus or train tickets. They can convert Canadian dollars to or from American dollars, or to euros. They can buy souvenirs and gift certificates and easily get directions to the restroom. They can plan a vacation to just about anyplace. Mall workers can even get their paychecks cashed at the concierge. Mills is in the final stages of being able to sell gift baskets, cookies and fruit baskets for shipment anywhere in the world.

Another new Mills program is the Restaurant Club. Certain local restaurants have been asked to provide discounts to members of the Restaurant Club. At the concierge booth, interested persons can become a member of this club and receive benefits at local popular restaurants.

The pilot program has been completed successfully, and other concierge booths are rolling out at various sites including Sawgrass Mills (Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area), Gurnee Mills (Chicago area) and eventually throughout the entire Mills portfolio.