July 30, 2014

The Concierge Craze

You may be the savviest of travelers, but when it comes to reserving an oversized helicopter, finding tickets to Barbra Streisand's final, sold-out concert, or securing an impossible-to-get reservation at the hottest restaurant in Manhattan, your best bet is to go to the concierge.

"We are the final answer," says chef (or chief) concierge Maurice Dancer, who has been making guests happy at The Pierre, a Four Seasons hotel in New York, for 15 years.

At the moment, Dancer was fielding phone calls to determine if one of his celebrity guests (he wouldn't divulge the name, as discretion is sacred to all good concierges) could have a private tanning bed brought into his room. Dancer wasn't sure he could do it, but he was calling all the right people-attorneys, insurance folks, tanning bed owners. And if the answer turned out to be no-perhaps because of liability issues over the strength of the floor or the wrong sort of electrical outlet-he would most certainly supply an alternative for the guest. Yul Brynner always wanted a tanning bed, too, says Dancer, but back then the legal issues weren't as thorny. "But no request is ever a shocker," Dancer hastens to add. "And we won't let go of anything until we get an answer."

That never-say-no attitude is the mark of the concierge. The Latin root of the word concierge is conservus, meaning "fellow slave," and that definition isn't too far off when you think of the lengths the professional concierge will go to in order to satisfy a client. Concierges are willing-and have been known to-throw rose petals on your bed, find a suit of armor and a white horse so you can propose to your sweetheart, comb through garbage in the bowels of the hotel to find your lost papers, or track down your stolen antique set of golf clubs.

The concierge first appeared in France in the 12th century as comte des cierges-the person in charge of satisfying palace guests, according to the elite concierges' professional organization Les Clefs d'Or, which means "keys of gold." A few centuries later, these high-level servants became known as "keepers of the keys." By the 20th century, the era of rail and steamship travel, hotels needed special staff who could cater to the upper-class traveler and all his arrangements, and the modern-day concierge was born. Concierges quickly became known for their absolute discretion and their composure in even the stickiest situations. Consider, for example, the Paris hotel concierge who famously remained unruffled when a wife and husband who regularly stayed at the hotel together showed up minutes apart from each other one day, each with a different partner and a request for a room for the afternoon.

Up until a decade ago, however, most Americans-unless they had oodles of money and stayed in expensive hotels, especially in Europe-had never heard of a concierge. But personal service and pampering are no longer the province only of the upper classes, and today the concierge appears not just in four- and five-star hotels, but in nondescript hotels off the interstate, condos, luxury communities, concierge services businesses, even shopping malls and car rental companies.

And that does ruffle some concierges. "The word 'concierge' is generic nowadays," laments Inger Boudouris, the president of Les Clefs d'Or USA and a concierge at Hotel St. Francis in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "A lot of people are using it because it sounds good. It's replacing the word 'receptionist.'" (To be an elite Clefs d'Or member, permitted to wear the pin of golden keys, one must follow the classic tradition of serving guests in the lobby. Les Clefs d'Or members must also pass personal on-the-job inspections and exams that ask such questions as how much a stamp from America to Hong Kong costs and what time it is in Singapore.)

The Pierre's Dancer, a pin wearer and a board director of Les Clefs d'Or (and the concierge who went through mounds of garbage to find a guest's marked-up Wall Street Journal and also once tracked down stolen golf clubs to a taxi driver's front porch), says the concierge concept is especially popular in Florida, where snowbirds and tourists are always moving about.

That's certainly true in Southwest Florida, where, in addition to the ritzy resorts with a long tradition of concierge service, just about every luxury condo from Sarasota to Naples now claims to have a concierge-although some just buzz guests through or call to announce a repairman on the way up. That kind of concierge won't make sure your favorite cookie is FedExed from London or figure out how to get a bouquet of flowers to your parents cruising on the Mediterranean Sea. And as in every new idea that hits American soil, the concierge concept has been seized by entrepreneurs who are repackaging the profession.

In Naples, The Bonita Bay Group started a concierge program for residents of its single-family luxury communities The Estates at TwinEagles and Mediterra about two years ago. Called Concierge Services, it helps residents take care of their homes for about $75 a month. "These people are second-home buyers," says Susan Watts, a vice president of The Bonita Bay Group. "They're in and out. They like to have something in place that takes care of their environment. We can do landscaping, pool maintenance, pest management, window washing, handyman repair and cleaning." The service also picks people up at the airport, stocks their fridges, picks up prescriptions, babysits, even finds personal chefs.

In Sarasota, Luxury Domain, a two-year-old concierge services company affiliated with real estate firm Michael Saunders & Company, has 5,000 members. Luxury Domain was originally a "value service"-a perk, in other words-for purchasers of a luxury home. Tami Hillier, vice president of sales and marketing for the business, says anyone can make use of the service, however-as long as you agree to pay $2,000 a year. That fee gives you access to Sarasota-based concierges who will find tickets to sold-out London plays, rare paintings, Spider Man pajamas, or plan complicated itineraries and make all the travel arrangements. Members call literally from anywhere on the planet.

For example, Lisa Seaboyer, the senior concierge at Luxury Domain, remembers one of her concierges receiving a frantic cell phone call from a client who was standing on a corner in Manhattan right after a business meeting and needed to make a flight at JFK Airport. He couldn't get a taxi to stop, and every limo service he contacted reported that all cars were out. The Sarasota concierge called one of her limo sources in New York, then got back on the cell phone with the man to ask him what he was wearing; soon a white stretch limo picked up the man-wearing a red tie and a look of relief-and whisked him away in time for his flight.

The secret to this kind of success is the concierge's contacts. The concierge is a walking Rolodex, with connections to a world of insiders-including other concierges. For example, The Pierre's Dancer gets calls from Southwest Florida concierges whose guests are heading to New York. His name can open doors at the last minute, even to such chi-chi Manhattan restaurants as Nobu.

"Nobu?" Dancer demurs, when asked if he really has such pull on a Friday or Saturday night. "Well," he admits reluctantly, "I have the contacts whereby I can call and ask for assistance."

These contacts, or relationships, are built up over the years. When other people go home after work and have a glass of wine or turn on Friends, Dancer and other concierges are reading up on the latest hot spots in their communities and paying surprise visits of inspection. They make it a point to meet owners, headwaiters and key service providers. Ticket brokers and restaurant owners who would never give up that last Britney Spears concert ticket or corner table to us when we call will perform miracles for the concierge. That's because they know the clientele at places like The Pierre, where rooms can cost up to $6,000 a night, are cream-of-the-crop repeat customers.

But you don't have to be a celebrity or mega-wealthy to use a concierge. Barbara Michel, the chef concierge for 20 years at the Resort at Longboat Key Club in Sarasota, says the same services are available for every guest. "If you want to travel well," she says, "use a concierge. It makes all the difference in the world."

Michel would never send any guest-no matter how proletarian-anywhere without having full confidence that the guest will be pleased. "I would feel terrible if I recommended something that didn't work out," she says. Like Dancer, she is one of only 450 concierges in the country to wear the pin of golden keys that signifies she is a member of Les Clefs d'Or. Her restaurant contacts, she says modestly, "will make sure my guests have the best tables." And she rarely has to turn down a guest's request for tickets to local performances-she makes sure the resort buys up blocks of tickets to the theater and the symphony so that a guest's last-minute wish to attend can be met.

Perhaps the most typical requests from guests concern travel arrangements and suggestions for entertainment and dining. "I have a real knowledge of the island," says Patti Fuenffinger, a concierge at the Radisson Suite Beach Resort on Marco Island. "And I'm a real restaurant person. Since we're a family resort, I can tell people which places are good for kids. I also spend a lot of time reconfirming airline reservations, especially for foreigners."

Gil Ford, a concierge at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, says the trickiest requests concern changing flights when guests decide to extend their stay. Because the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport is small and has limited flights, his choices are narrow. But that smallness has its advantages. "I go to the same agents at the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport," he says. "I never call an 800 number."

"No day is ever the same," says Ford, and other concierges agree. And most say they relish those out-of-the-ordinary requests. Ford, who has helped find a massage therapist for a guest's horse and a dentist who would immediately make a set of dentures for a woman who had left hers at a restaurant the night before, normally gets about 20 to 25 requests a day. Those include occasional whispered requests for "escorts." "If I'm the only male at the desk, they'll pull me aside," he says about the common inquiry about prostitutes. "But we can't do that. I can't do anything illegal or immoral."

There are those dark moments and those never-satisfied guests, admits Ford, when the concierge silently asks himself, "How did I get this one?" One former Sarasota concierge (who also happened to find two tickets for Barbra Streisand's final New Year's Eve concert in Vegas for $5,000 apiece-and, yes, the clients did buy them) recalls the request that appalled her the most. It was a call from a New York woman who said she had no time to Christmas shop for her toddler son. "She wanted me to buy his Christmas presents and ship them up there," the ex-concierge remembers. "I asked her, 'What does he like?' and she told me, 'I really don't know, just do what you think. Here's $2,000.'"

Randy Ross, a concierge at The Pierre, says if he has to stereotype, the easiest guests to deal with come from "old money." "They're well-educated, gracious and polite and know more of what they want," he says. "Those with new money change their minds, sometimes several times in a sentence, and nothing is ever good enough. They don't say 'thank you' or 'please' and they're least likely to tip."

Which points to the subject most concierges loathe to discuss: gratuities. Most concierges make between $20,000 to $55,000 a year, tips not included. But unlike every other service profession, there is no rule of thumb for tipping a concierge. Most people know to tip 20 percent to servers and hair stylists, but concierge services at hotels are free, so guests are just supposed to tip "what they feel." When asked how much, the concierge always replies, "Gratuities are never expected, but always appreciated." Some guests, therefore, leave nothing, even when the concierge has performed a miracle; others send a gift or write a thank you note.

Ross says the best tip he ever received was when he was working as a concierge at a Four Seasons hotel in Toronto. Ross helped a guest who was moving to Toronto find a home, an interior decorator and furnishings; he even set up bank accounts and utility services, all while the guest was living elsewhere. Then one night after Ross had gone home, a bike messenger came to his door with a letter saying a stretch limo was picking him up in the morning for an all-expenses-paid, first-class vacation to New York City set up by his thankful patron. "I said, 'You're kidding, right?' I freaked out." That tip, he figures, was worth about $6,000.

Juliana DaCosta, the concierge at South Seas Resort on Captiva and president of the Southwest Florida Concierge and Guest Service Association, says often there is no tip other than the satisfaction of pleasing a guest. Recently a mega-wealthy Manhattanite and well-known CEO of a major retail chain called and said his family would be visiting the resort and asked her to make the arrangements. The family arrived by private jet at a local airport. Then the businessman insisted on taking a helicopter. Finding a two- or three-seat helicopter isn't difficult, but this man was flying with six-his wife, daughter, chef, nanny and pilot. Once DaCosta found a big enough helicopter, she needed to find a place for it to land. She made arrangements to use a nearby emergency helicopter pad. As requested, she also stocked her guest's resort home with chemical-free cleaners and special grocery items. Then he asked for a private shopping tour of exclusive shops in Naples during off hours. DaCosta called all the shop owners and scheduled private viewings. The businessman wanted to cruise to the shops by yacht, return by limo and then dine at a waterfront restaurant-oh, and just one more thing, he needed a swim instructor for his daughter. DaCosta arranged everything. Her long hours and attention to detail for the demanding businessman were rewarded with the leftovers in the CEO's refrigerator when he left the resort. But she insists, "That was fine. My payment is the smile I put on someone's face. That's what I come to work for."

On the other hand, DaCosta has had celebrity guests who were gracious and grateful, like Madonna and Tom Cruise, who each asked only that they be left alone. Rob Lowe just asks for hypo-allergenic clothing detergent. Henry Winkler, she says, is a prince, and invited her son and his girlfriend, who were then in high school, to spend time with his family.

Michel, from the Resort at The Longboat Key Club, has dished with Barbara Bush about dogs, made sure Robert De Niro's exercise equipment was in his room when he arrived, and found Itzhak Perlman a special motorized wheelchair while he was a guest.

And did that famous guest at The Pierre who called Dancer ever get his private tanning bed? "I continued on my quest, but no, no one would take it on as a liability," the tenacious concierge admits. But it didn't matter after all. The guest canceled at the last moment. "At the end of the day, that was the final answer," he says.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Advertisement