Concierges--they would have us believe that they are both omniscient and omnipotent.
They would have us believe that in a world of turmoil, they have the power to provide soothing civility. If we only would allow them, they insist, they would free us from worry, stress and inconvenience--no matter the cause.
They claim they exist only to please us, the traveling public, and that their pleasure is in making possible the seemingly impossible.
Not merely finding tickets to a sold-out concert or getting 8 p.m. Saturday reservations at the most popular restaurants in town. Those accomplishments are so common as to be mundane. Rather, the requests that concierges truly live for are the stuff of legends:
Like arranging a wedding 1 1/2 days in advance (including getting the license, minister, rings, a location, flowers and music, plus acting as a witness) for a rather impulsive couple who were driving down from Washington. Christina Crawford, concierge supervisor for the Anaheim Marriott, pulled that off. Or tracking down two sets of Scrabble--in Russian--for two visitors from the Soviet Union. Robert Duncan, now chief concierge for the Beverly Hills Hotel (though at the time with the Biltmore), says he found the games at a small toy company outside of New York.
A traveler's disaster--a flat tire or, worse, having a wreck in a borrowed Jaguar the night before the car is to be returned--or finding you have two left shoes to wear with your tuxedo and the party is in 30 minutes, or realizing you left your briefcase with the details of a $5-million deal back at the last hotel, two hours away by plane--these are problems that bring a glow to the concierge's invariably eager face.
Yet the concierge's heartbreak is not failure. (Failure is possible, of course, concierges concede. But few will admit having experienced it themselves.) No, the curse of their existence--at least at this point in time--is that most Americans just don't understand what concierges are.
In Europe, where concierges have been around for centuries, it is understood: Concierges are people hired by a hotel to bring service to its highest form. As purveyors of service, they seem almost independent of their hotel. And yet it is often the concierge who will bring people back to a hotel.
Essentially, if there is a concierge in a hotel, then any guest need--from restaurant reservations to getting a suitcase repaired--should not be the guest's concern. It is for the concierge to get the reservation, to track down a luggage repair person. Not that the guest is incapable of picking up a phone and doing these things themselves, but sometimes, that's inconvenient. And, more importantly, the concierge--thanks to a long list of contacts developed over the years and the cache of his position--almost always gets better, faster results.
Until recently, most Americans had never even heard of a concierge unless they had been to Europe. The nearest thing to a European concierge in a U.S. hotel was the bellman or information desk. But while these people were capable and available for handling a great variety of problems, they had neither the status nor the power of the European concierge. They were merely a convenience.
What's happened, however, is that Americans are traveling more. As the Beverly Hills Hotel's Duncan noted: "They're going to Europe, getting exposed to concierges and the notion that there's more to a hotel than a room." And as a result, in the last seven years or so, just about every U.S. hotel worth its red carpet and initialed awning has decided it wants a concierge too.
But there are concierges and concierges. If you want The Real Thing (and many hotels insist the difference is worth paying for), then look to members of Les Clefs d'Or, the professional fraternity of concierges. You can tell them by the golden keys they wear on their lapels.
Rapidly Growing Membership
A U.S. chapter of Les Clefs d'Or was established 6 1/2 years ago. Its rapidly growing membership--requirements include three years as a concierge and nomination by two members--currently stands at 90. (Of these, 20 are in California, 5 in Los Angeles. At least 50% of the U.S. membership are women, compared to only a handful of women concierges in Europe.)
If concierges are invading the American hospitality scene, it's not without controversy. In Europe--where Les Clefs d'Or cites 4,000 members in 23 countries--concierges universally operate from a desk in the lobby and usually oversee several assistant concierges and all the uniformed staff. Most American hotels with concierges operate in the same manner.
(The Beverly Wilshire claims such respect for the European tradition that because its lobby hasn't sufficient space for a concierge desk, its management will say only that it offers "concierge services" through its veteran bellman Mac McKinney and Information Department headed by Arlene Meinert.)