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Bel-Air's 5-Star Bell Captain Earns a Big Tip of the Hat

August 19, 2004|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Once the packages went in the box, Tony Marquez's award was in the bag.

That's the short version of how a Los Angeles bellhop has won the title of best hotel worker in America.

Marquez is bell captain at the Hotel Bel-Air. It's the sprawling hideaway in Stone Canyon north of Westwood where cottage-like suites can go for $3,000 a night -- and celebrity guests can come with a truckload of luggage.

But schlepping heavy suitcases and trunks around the Bel-Air's 12-acre grounds isn't what earned Marquez a national hotel-rating service's only individual five-star ranking.

It's the way he took care of one departing guest's shopping bags -- shipping them by air freight so the guest would not have to take them on an airplane -- that packed a punch for Mobil Travel Guide's undercover inspectors, who selected Marquez after visiting hotels across the nation.

With its 91 rooms, its patios and a tree-shaded dining area connected by meandering walkways, the Bel-Air puts special demands on its bellhops. There is no roof overhead on blustery, rainy days. There is no automated dumbwaiter to lift heavy room-service trays. Steps, not elevators, lead to some suites.

The guests can be challenging too.

High-profile actors, musicians and politicians who stay there can be high-maintenance. Some want their rooms set up almost like home -- with specific amenities and refreshments along with the Bel-Air's standard 440-thread-count linens.

Executives in town for pressure-filled deal-making can be edgy, abrupt -- and worse if documents aren't quickly delivered or guestroom fax and computer connections aren't perfect.

Once, a wealthy guest asked Marquez to arrange for a portion of Disneyland to open early -- and exclusively -- for him and his family the next morning. "I never say no," Marquez said. "But there are some things I can't do --like open Disneyland."

Things usually go smoothly, however: About 80% of the hotel's guests are repeat customers.

"I keep notes. I remember the little things, like what they wanted from room service," Marquez, 40, said. "It's the little details they can't get someplace else that makes the difference."

Some who are coming to stay months at a time send as many as 20 pieces of luggage ahead of them. Marquez unpacks everything and puts clothing away in closets or dressers.

"I'll hang clothes and line up the shoes just they way they want it. If a shoe is scuffed, I'll polish it," he said.

When guests arrive, Marquez greets them by name. Some of them he's known for decades. Others are listed by name and room number on a crib sheet he discreetly carries in his pocket.

First-time guests are treated like regulars. And one of them rewarded Marquez with the best tip he ever received.

An out-of-state woman delivering her daughter for the start of college at USC was fretting over where to stash the girl's belongings until her campus room was ready. No worries, Marquez said. He would store everything for her himself until the dorm was ready for it.

"I got a $500 tip from that lady. But there are people who tip nothing. I don't take it personally," said Marquez. Like most bellhops, he relies on gratuities to supplement his modest hotel wages.

Guests trust Marquez with their most prized possessions.

"An actress here for the Academy Awards came up to me in the lobby and said, 'Tony, I left my Oscar in my room. Can you send it to me?' She said she didn't want to carry it on the plane. So I wrapped it very carefully and sent it her by FedEx," he said, declining, much like a doctor or lawyer bound by confidentially, to name names.

It's that kind of service -- and tact -- that led to Marquez's Mobil Travel Guide award.

Mobil officials sent three secret inspectors to evaluate the Hotel Bel-Air this year before issuing it the top five-star rating. Also among the 30 U.S. hotels earning five stars for 2004 were the Beverly Hills Hotel, Peninsula Beverly Hills and Raffles L'Ermitage Beverly Hills.

Shane O'Flaherty, a Mobil Travel Guide vice president who oversees North American inspections, said Marquez "wowed" the guide's raters with his "warmth and affectionate greeting." But it was his packing skills that really won them over.

"An inspector was leaving the property with a lot of stuff from a shopping trip. Tony said, 'I'd be happy to ship it to you so you don't have to carry it on the airplane.' He took all of the shopping bags and packed everything up. It was not only beautifully presented when it arrived, but it came with a personal note from him thanking her for staying at the hotel," O'Flaherty said.

During this year's five-star awards ceremony in Colorado, Mobil officials announced that Marquez was the sole "Best of the Best" hotel employee. Hotel Bel-Air Managing Director Carlos Lopes said the individual award came as a surprise.

"I'd have taken him with me if I'd known," Lopes said. "This is a tremendous honor."

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