Feeling pampered is an essential part of the hotel experience: returning to your room to find that in your absence someone has cleaned, folded and hung your tossed clothes, made up the bed, and restocked the fridge with essentials (like wine and chocolate). Yet there is a special service that some guests overlook: the concierge. Some assume that the concierge exists only for the benefit of guests in top-floor suites, but that is not the case. The job of a concierge is to act as “ambassador to all our guests,” says Robert Watson, Chef Concierge at the Willard InterContinental Washington DC, which stands a block away from the White House (fittingly, Watson is honorary president of the prestigious Les Clefs d’Or, an organisation of the world’s top concierges, recognisable by the crossed gold keys on their lapels).
“Making sure our guests are ‘in the know’ is a big part of our job,” says Watson. A good concierge needs to be up to speed on all the latest openings, shows and exhibitions, and be aware of anything that might create a truly memorable visit to the city. The internet makes the job of a concierge easier, but it is no replacement for personal relationships and first-hand experience.
Which is why days off are typically spent checking out places to see whether they are worthy of being recommended to guests. “There’s a lot of homework to be done,” says Watson.
A Concierge’s craft resides in his ability to answer this one question
Florida-born Teiva Milz is a Concierge at InterContinental Tahiti Resort. He begins each morning by checking his emails and task list before heading out into the lobby to greet guests on their way to breakfast and asking about their plans for the day.
Ten o’clock is action time, when he starts making calls to secure trip and restaurant reservations, and organise transportation. The most frequent question he’s asked is ‘What should I do in Tahiti?’ “The question seems simple,” he says, “but you have to hit it one hundred per cent. You need to instantly size up your guest and know what kind of thing is going to appeal to them and make a recommendation based on that.”
Invariably, the most common questions concierges are asked—wherever their hotel is in the world—are variations on what to see, where to eat and how to get somewhere. But occasionally it does get more interesting.
Special requests: from long-distance classical quartets to late night hairstyling
Teiva Milz (who is half-Tahitian and always enjoys being asked questions on the island’s history) was once asked to organise a string quartet to play on a client’s yacht for his wedding anniversary.
The catch: the anniversary was in just a few days and he didn’t want Tahitian musicians but a professional outfit from somewhere with a strong classical tradition. Milz reached out through the Les Clefs d’Or worldwide network, and managed to find four musicians with a gap in their calendars who were willing to grab their instruments and run to Los Angeles, a city with daily flights to Tahiti.
Getting hold of the improbable in a seemingly impossible time-frame is an important part of the concierge skill set.
Asako Onoyama, who is front of house with InterContinental Osaka, once received a 2am call from a guest who was a well-known French actress, and who wanted a DVD of one her films delivered to her room by morning for an engagement at the French embassy. Some internet research in 24-hour stores, a few phone calls and a cab ride later, and the DVD was served with the guest’s breakfast.
Oscar Fernandez of InterContinental London – Park Lane once had the wife of a footballer calling for blond hair extensions at 3am. “It took three hours to find someone to do it that early in the morning but it was absolutely worth it—she looked stunning on television the next day!”
Robert Watson was once asked to help a fellow concierge perform his magic: he was working in London at the time when he received a call from a colleague in Chicago asking him to videotape the Grand National horse race and express it urgently by courier so that a VIP guest would be able to watch it the next day. “The VIP was the British Prime Minister who was visiting the US at the time.”
The Concierge way to a would-be fiancé’s heart
Another essential concierge skill is that of wedding planner. Asako Onoyama says she has lost count of the number of surprise marriage proposals she has facilitated. On more than one occasion she was charged with steering an unsuspecting partner to the spot where the significant other was waiting to spring the ring.
Marseille – Hotel Dieu was even asked by one would-be fiancé to help choose the ring and a couture dress, which was then hidden in a wardrobe, and even work on his proposal speech. “Thank god she said yes,” she says.
Once love takes its course, the concierge still sometimes plays a role: Robert Watson in Washington confides that, in all his long years of service, the task that has given him the most satisfaction was “sending ‘expressed mother’s milk’ to her infant child on the other side of the US”.
Looking for the past in Marseille
The personal service Berr is most proud of rendering was to a visiting American woman, who arrived at the InterContinental Marseille Hotel Dieu with an old photo album belonging to her dead grandfather, who had passed through Marseille as a soldier in World War II.
She asked if the hotel could help identify the places in the photographs. Berr, a native Marseillaise whose family have lived in the city for six generations, spent that evening examining the pictures.
When the guest came to collect the album the next day, Berr introduced her to a driver who was briefed to take her around the city to all the places her grandfather had visited as a young man. “It was so emotional to see her reaction when she heard what we’d done.”
Rewarding as these exceptional requests are, there are at least some limits on the kinds of tasks a concierge can be expected to fulfill. “Our guests are entitled to ask for anything and everything,” says Robert Watson. “As long as it’s moral and legal.”