Inside the world of the concierge

By AAP with AG Staff 17 January 2011
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Chris Pritchard sneaks a look inside the world of hotel concierges and the strange and wacky requests they get.

WALK MY CHIMPANZEE … Deliver my speech… Remove anything green from my room… Send up a grand piano because I feel inspired.

And you thought you were a demanding hotel guest.

Australia’s top concierges say most requests they handle are simple: bookings at “hot” restaurants, airline ticketing, advice on local attractions – and routine appeals for toothbrushes, razors, combs, adaptor plugs or mobile phone chargers. Sometimes they’re asked to do what sounds impossible – and they oblige. Or they deal oh-so-discreetly with distinctly wacky demands – somehow managing to leave even the grumpiest weirdos smiling.

Effective concierges rely on networks of valuable contacts – and can draw on the expertise of colleagues at rival hotels. They have their own international organisation, Les Clefs d’Or (“the golden keys”) with rigorous vetting to ensure only the best are accepted for membership. Chapters exist in more than 50 countries. Members can be recognised by crossed golden keys worn on lapels.

“No position is more important in a luxury hotel than chief concierge,” chief executive officer and general manager at Melbourne’s Windsor Hotel, David Perry, says. When a concierge succeeds at the seemingly impossible the guest has positive memories, he adds.

“What we won’t do as concierges is anything illegal, immoral or unethical,” chief concierge at the Sofitel Melbourne on Collins, Andrew Natoli, says. “We won’t be involved in anything that could be deemed offensive – such as arranging practical jokes.”

Conceirges never say ‘no’

The key to success, maintains chief concierge at Sydney’s Observatory Hotel, Michael Anderson, is “never saying ‘no'” when outlandish requests are received.

Instead, he promises he’ll “get back to you in five minutes” – giving the impression he’s busily on top of things when he’s actually stalling for time to think of a solution and affording himself time to call contacts.

As for what patrons can do for concierges: “Make sure you tip the concierge when you arrive,” says Travelscene American Express travel agent Mel Haycock, who is managing director of Brisbane-based Travel Concepts. “Tip very discreetly. It doesn’t have to be a large sum – even $5 – and they’ll remember you.”

Concierge connections

A concierge’s connections can work wonders. Some examples of a concierge’s brilliance that I have experienced:

When an international food writer told me he’d be in Sydney the next day and would take me to dinner at celebrated Sydney restaurant Tetsuya’s if I could secure a table, I called the restaurant and, as expected, was told nothing was available. I then telephoned a concierge contact at a five-star hotel who says “leave it with me”. An hour later he called: a table was reserved.

When I told the head concierge of the Sofitel Buenos Aires that I wanted to book some regional air travel but didn’t want to break the bank an hour later he approached me in the bar with four printed-out options. I’d done my homework and couldn’t match the best of these through independent online booking sites. I made my selection – and e-tickets were delivered later than evening. At check-out I noticed “no service charge” appeared on my bill. A fat tip was in order but the concierge was off duty. So, I left it in a sealed envelope with his name on the front.

Quirky requests to concierges

Neither of these episodes is out of the ordinary – but some requests are decidedly quirky, concierges confirm. Chief concierge at Sydney’s Observatory Hotel, Michael Anderson recalls:

* Since the hotel is one of Australia’s few pet-friendly, five-stars, Anderson regularly accommodates requests to “take the dog for a walk”. A couple alerted the hotel they would arrive with “our baby, Bootsie”. But Anderson and other staff were stunned when Bootsie arrived. He was an adult chimpanzee in a stroller, dressed in children’s designer gear. Anderson was expected to take Bootsie for walks. “He was so well behaved,” Anderson recalls.

* A regular guest expected Anderson to remove anything green from his room before he checked in. Another requested a rented Ferrari be ready for him on each visit, along with a Harley-Davidson motor cycle for his wife.

* A prominent composer “felt inspired” and demanded a grand piano in his suite. It was delivered within two hours.

* A man discovered late one evening that he’d forgotten his pyjamas. He wanted a new pair: they had to be blue and of a specified size. The trouble was shops had closed for the night . But, calling on one of his contacts, Anderson managed to have the sleepwear delivered within 90 minutes.

* A couple wanted Anderson to find out where they could buy an apricot-coloured poodle. He thought these were dyed dogs but discovered they were a rare breed. He found a breeder in Sydney. A dog was selected – and shipped by the happy couple to Japan.

* When guests demanded a 3-a.m. low-level joy flight over Sydney, Anderson breathed a sigh of relief. He had the perfect excuse, revealing local anti-noise regulations forbid such flights. He suggested an early morning alternative – and the guests were happy.

Chief concierge at the Sofitel Melbourne on Collins, Andrew Natoli has had some equally interesting requests:

* A guest asked Natoli to collect works of art from his room and bring them to him at a restaurant. Arriving at the crowded eatery, Natoli discovered he was also expected to deliver a speech about the artworks. Somehow he managed it.

* A male guest asked Natoli for – and received – disposable overalls and a supply of chocolate body paint.

* A guest asked Natoli to arrange dinner at a famed Melbourne restaurant – but insisted the meal comprise little more than her home-grown zucchinis. Natoli arranged for the chef to prepare a meal based on the delivered zucchinis.

* Natoli speaks proudly of the time he saved part of the Melbourne Cup celebrations. The co-ordinator of a big chunk of the day’s festivities left his Blackberry on the back seat of a cab – and the device contained important race-day contacts.

* The cab was traced but the taxi company couldn’t get the driver to respond to calls. Natoli tracked him by GPS, “knocked on his window and retrieved the Blackberry that was still on the back seat”. It was delivered to an exceedingly grateful guest.

Chief concierge at Melbourne’s Windsor Hotel, Ali Sungkar recalls:

* A foreign dignitary took his family to Melbourne Zoo. After returning home he contacted Sungkar to request a life-size teddy bear for his children as a reminder of a pleasant afternoon. Sungkar sourced one within 48 hours and air-freighted it to the guest, whose kids were thrilled.

* A guest planned to propose to his girlfriend, who was particularly fond of the hotel’s afternoon high tea. The man mentioned, during a conversation with Sungkar, where and when he’d “pop the question” that afternoon. The savvy concierge, unasked, sent high tea to the beach that had been mentioned – even arranging for a nearby restaurant contact to bake scones to be served warm. The couple arrived to a romantic scene: chilled champagne, tea, three-tiered silver stands of sandwiches, strewn petals – and freshly-baked scones.

* A guest from Europe promised his wife he’d bring home a tin of the hotel’s own tea blend (sold on the premises). But he forgot – and called Sungkar from Kuala Lumpur, his next stop. Gift-wrapped tea was immediately couriered and the guest told to pick it up from his local post office on his way home. His wife was none the wiser.

So, if you have a strange request – don’t be shy about calling the concierge. Chances are he or she has previously heard something far wackier.