There exists within the ranks of worldwide Concierges a society known as Les Clefs d’Or – or the Golden Keys – and when you see those crossed keys on the lapel of your attentive Concierge, you know you’re in good hands.
Part tour guide, part restaurant reviewer, confidante and all-round fixer, they are one of the most important members on any staff. They’ve seen it all, done it all, and given enough time can solve pretty much any problem, all while sourcing tickets to your favourite sold-out concert. AT recently invited a group of Les Clefs d’Or members to lunch at Matt Moran’s famous Aria Restaurant in Sydney to see what makes a good Concierge tick. Here’s what transpired. Interviewed by Quentin Long, Greg Barton & Sally Edwards from Events NSW.
AT: The first thing we really want to know is, what makes a great Concierge?
Mark Peyton, Sofitel Wentworth: Passion has to be the first. You have to be passionate. You have to want to help. You have to love the tourism game, you have to love your city. Passion to me is the buzz of it all. Having a guest arrive not knowing anything, then leaving three days later and he’s done the best restaurant, the Harbour when it’s fine and sunny, the Blue Mountains when it’s blue and he’s tried kangaroo if he wanted to do that – he’s seen an Aboriginal performance and then you shake his hand at the end and he drives off to Cairns or Uluru or elsewhere. So mine would be passion.
Michael Anderson, Observatory Hotel: I’ve always maintained that what you do and the way you do it, you have to do it with a sense of theatre. I say to my guys: we are actors. Our stage is the lobby. The only difference between us and a theatre actor is that the audience are onstage with us. And they are interacting with us onstage. And the reality is that it’s the whole mystique of Concierge and almost, for want of a better word, the dark arts that we can conjure up. So you want to have a bit of fun with it and do it with a sense of theatre.
Mark Musumeci, BLUE Hotel: The strength of your relationships are important as well. Knowing everyone in town, getting in to places where people are after last minute tickets, things like that. We can make it happen.
AT: Well, on that, what’s your most impressive last-minute story?
Mark Musumeci: Mine involved someone from Saudi Arabia. He came to me at midnight wanting his photos developed, and he was leaving at six in the morning. So I actually got someone who owns a photo store – he opened up, developed the photos, they were ready by six and he left the next morning.
AT: You guys would have similar stories.
Michael: One of the ones that’s gone into folklore at the Observatory Hotel was when I had a Japanese guest many, many years ago come up to me and ask me to source an orange poodle. Now, I had no idea that such a thing exists. I didn’t think he was serious. And I’m keeping a straight face, but I’m thinking inside, “I’m going to have to get a poodle. He wants to give it to his girlfriend and I’m going to have to spray paint the poodle.” That was my first thought. “I’m going to have to spray a poodle.”
But it turns out there is such a thing. There is an apricot poodle. And this was about ten years ago before the internet was really online, so it took a lot of phone calls and that sort of thing and there was a breeder in Adelaide so the phone calls went on and the guest went back to Japan. He couldn’t have the current litter, had to wait for another litter to come in, then quarantine, but he eventually got his apricot poodle about six months later. And I kept tabs on it all the way through, but yeah, very quirky. It’s one I’ve always remembered. I can still remember when he walked up to me, and I sort of smile about it because my first thought was quite literally, “Spray paint the poodle.”
Colin Toomey, Shangri-La Sydney: There are difficult requests that you get, and for the majority it’s a timing issue. The toughest one I’ve had personally was an Eastern European parliamentarian who was staying here – it was an official delegation – and they were all about to head off and he said, “Look, we need a film crew.” I said of course we’ll be able to sort one out, and he said, “But we’re leaving in 20 minutes.” And we did it.
One that’s gone into folklore was when I had a Japanese guest ask me to source an orange poodle. My first thought was, “I’m going to have to spray paint a poodle.”
AT: You got a film crew in 20 minutes?
Colin: We couldn’t get one to the hotel in 20 minutes, but I found out where he was going and I said, well, we’ll get a stringer, there’s a crew that we can get out there, and that’s where contacts come into play. Knowing people in the industry. I’ve got a good friend who works over at Channel Nine and I said, “We need to get a crew out to this fellow and the money is not an issue.” A lot of these it’s not money, it’s the time. You’ve got to be able to get it done. So for us that was the most satisfying thing, to be able to get it there and get it all done for him. But it was a challenge.
Mark Peyton: I’ll always go back to the call we got when Sammy Davis Jnr was about to arrive. Everything had to be in place, his room had to be icy cold, but his wife had a separate room that had to be nice and warm – it was all very particular. But the unusual thing was that Sammy Davis Jnr preferred tubular ice, not square ice. So it was a case of “call the Concierge and get it sorted”. But what it always turns out to be is that it’s the people around the stars are the problem. He probably couldn’t have cared less if it was square ice. But they explain that he likes it like this, and as a hotel we try to give them what they want.
Michael: We certainly get a bit of that. Invariably you find that celebrities are just ordinary people and it can tend to be that the interference comes from the people around them. I remember when we had Glenn Close staying with us. She was doing a movie over here for about a month and I was doing all sorts of things for her – again it was before emails were used and she was using a lot of faxes. And she had a dog that was sick while she was away that she was very concerned about. Anyway, about two weeks after she left I got a letter, opened it up and it was from her. It was handwritten, saying how much she appreciated everything I did for her during her stay. It was a beautifully written letter, quite long and effusive and that sort of thing. And it’s not the fact that it came from Glenn Close, it could have been anyone, it’s just that sort of acknowledgement is just a wonderful affirming thing to be able to help people in that way.
AT: Gary, are you going to give us the story about your most bizarre or unusual request?
Gary Lee, The Westin Sydney: My boss received an unusual request actually. One of our guests wanted to hire a dog to walk – just to walk around the city with. So he thought, “Okay, this is challenging,” and started calling around to a couple of the other members of Les Clefs d’Or, and he did eventually find a family that was willing to lend their dog out.
AT: So what’s the going rate for renting out your dog?
Gary: There’s a special Concierge rate! No, they didn’t pay because my boss asked them, “Where do you actually want to take this dog?” And they said they wanted to take it to the Royal Botanic Gardens, and of course you can’t actually do that, so that pretty much put paid to that. Then she said she wanted to hire a trainer, someone to run with her, so we sourced a trainer for her and she went on runs twice a week.
AT: Is that common with bizarre requests, where you’ll go 95 percent of the way, you’ve done all the work, and the guest changes their mind?
Colin: It can be, yes, and it’s so underwhelming when it happens to you because you’re almost there and they shut the door on you and that sense of achievement that you might have got . . . well, that’s why everybody does the job. At the end of the day it’s that willingness to provide the ultimate in service and it’s true it can be very deflating when something like that happens. When you’ve finally got to the stage of working it all out and put the plan in place and on a whim they change their mind. But that happens at that level.
Mark Peyton: Part of our job is to work out if it’s not worth our while as well, and you do get a whiff of it. You think, “This guy’s in two minds about this,” so how far do you go? You might not go all the way. That’s common with us.
Gary: It all comes back to being able to read people. After so many years you start being able to read people. Not every request is bona fide.
Michael: And you do have to be careful sometimes, because if someone comes to you and they say, “I want four front-row tickets to Beyonce,” you need to establish right from the get-go that once you start sourcing the tickets, they’re committed. And however you implement that, whether by sign-off or a waiver – we all have policies and procedures – you need to be very clear in the way you communicate that. Colin made the reference before about promising something that may be difficult to deliver ultimately. So you need to be careful how you frame things, because what you don’t want to do is set yourself up for failure. You want a classic win/win situation with the guest. If you can’t do it, it becomes a case of not saying “no” but you finesse them into a way that you still achieve the same result. That’s experience. It takes years to develop that sort of thing.
Having a snapshot of exactly what’s happening in a hotel is where the Concierge comes to the fore.
AT: That’s one of your secret powers.
Michael: Yes, that sort of thing, to be able to finesse someone, is very, very important.
AT: Do you find that it’s generally high-powered, high-profile guests that are problem guests? Or can ordinary punters be just as problematic?
Colin: It’s the people who are making their way to that level. On the majority of occasions, the ones that I’ve found have been a little more difficult on occasion to deal with, or present more of a challenge I suppose, are the people that haven’t reached that level but they aspire to it. And in order to do that I think sometimes they want to look at all the options. Again, you’ve got to be able to work out exactly what people are after. And for them to be able to work it out, sometimes they want to look at various options. And as Michael said, the one thing you can’t do is you commit yourself to doing something on a whim. The problem is you’re not only committing your own resources but you’re drawing on somebody from outside who you may have a distinct relationship with. Like a restaurant; people will want to book sometimes two or three restaurants at a time. They’ll say “Can you get a reservation for me? I want an 8:30 on Friday night at Aria and at Quay and at such and such,” and it’s then up to you to keep an eye on it because the guests themselves may not necessarily realise the importance of that relationship or how important it is for you to be able to cancel. And that tends to be not necessarily the people at that upper level that you’re dealing with, but the people on the way up.
Mark Peyton: It’s quite often that you can see Colin sitting at a table at Quay on his own on a Friday night, eating four portions all on his own (laughter).
Colin: I had to take it. I just had to take it. I reduced it by one (laughter).
AT: How did you become these people? Where did you all start from? Because you are all very obviously at different levels of your careers, you all have one thing in common – which is an association with Les Clefs d’Or – but where does it all start? Do you grow up saying “One day I want to be a Concierge?”
Colin: I think it’s true that we all have more than one thing burning on the plate, but you’ve got to have a genuine willingness to want to serve. And you probably do, at some stage during your life, you do realise it. A lot of us, funnily enough, come from either retail or banking where there’s a general level of service – I came from a banking background and I was standing there dealing with customers at our bank and I thought, “There’s got to be more to it than this. ‘Next please’ just doesn’t really work for me. I want be able to engage people and make an experience for them.” So I looked at other options and basically fell into hospitality, as a lot of people do, you do it as a bit of a short-term thing. But I realised at the time, where I’d started as a porter and then graduated through to the Concierge desk, that there was a real buzz about what you do. Not just the fact that it’s different every day, there’s something new to the job, that’s exciting, that’s thrilling in its own right. But when being able to serve people and be able to achieve an objective and really add something to their experience when they’re visiting Sydney . . it’s inherent. I think it’s inherent.
AT: How about yourself, Michael? Where did this career come from?
Michael: I’m the youngest by far in a large family and I grew up in a very social environment. My parents were always having parties and that sort of thing. It was in the old days of being seen and not heard but I got very used to that sort of social contact. The family had an appreciation of the arts, so I grew up in that environment as well so it sort of transpired from there. Originally I was going to go to university and do a Sports Medicine degree, believe it or not. I take a lot of fun out of saying that I am the dumbest of a very bright family. Anyway, I like people and I like conversation and I sort of fell into it. In essence, to be able to deal with someone on a face to face level – to be able to create something wonderful for them and really contribute to what they want to do – it might be their one trip here, and to be able to make that as fulfilling as you can make it for them . . . I mean, to me that’s just incredible. We’re giving service, not servitude, and there’s a big difference. Certainly I’ve seen service grow in our sector here. It’s something that I very much enjoy.
Mark Musumeci: I finished school in ’95, then in ‘96 I applied for a job at the Regent Hotel as a bellhop, so basically a gopher, picking up things around the city. I went from bellhop to Commissionaire – which is like a doorman – then a porter and bell captain, until I realised I love the Concierge department and to help guests. So when the W Hotel [now BLUE Hotel] opened in 2000 in Woolloomooloo I went for a job as an assistant and I’ve been there ever since. A few months later I was appointed Chief Concierge.
AT: How about you, Gary?
Gary: This is something I’ve always known that I wanted to do. Ever since my work placement in Year 10 where I was placed at the Seibel Town House and had my first interaction with the Concierge there, I’ve loved the different aspects of being a Concierge in the hotel world. Then I had my first Les Clefs d’Or experience when I met Jorge Souza, who is the chief Concierge at the Four Seasons, and I thought, “Wow, this is even better. This is something I’m going to do.” So, ever since I got out of High School I’ve always strived to try and get into the Concierge game or industry, and here I am.
Since I got out of High School I’ve always strived to try and get into the Concierge game or industry, and here I am.
AT: That must have been a proud moment, when you received the crossed keys.
Gary: Oh, huge, huge. It was overwhelming because I had little steps set in place to be able to reach my goals and it felt like the weight of the world was lifted. It was a very good feeling. I’m still very proud to be a Concierge, and even prouder to be a Les Clefs d’Or member at such a young age.
AT: Are you the youngest member of Les Clefs d’Or in Australia?
Gary: Well, I’m 25 but I don’t know if I’m the youngest.
Colin: There’s a minimum requirement of five years to apply for the key, so in effect you’ve only had them for how long?
Gary: Six months.
Colin: Six months? It’s very rare that you have anybody under 23 or 24, so you could be the youngest.
Michael: It’s also interesting that Gary’s been berthed by Jorge Sousa and Colin berthed George. So this is full circle.
Colin: I interviewed him. That was the only time I’ve ever sat on the interview committee. I was seconded onto the interview committee, so that was a great experience for me. It was nice for me to be able to present the key. I presented a lot of the keys to the newer members when I was the Australian President and I was called upon when our National President couldn’t attend to present Gary with his keys. It was a nice moment for me as well. I really enjoyed it. As a president, you couldn’t get a better part of the job than being able to present the keys to a new member, especially to someone like Gary, who was beaming on the day with his family and the hotel there.
Sally Edwards, Events NSW: Yes, your whole family was there and was a part of it. They understood how important it was to you.
Gary: I’ve always spoken to my family about what I want to do and they’re always very supportive about my career path.
AT: Those of you who are a bit more advanced in your careers, do you see Gary, who’s made a clear, committed decision from an early age, as the mould for the next generation of Concierges?
Michael: Absolutely. I’ve always seen people like Gary as our future.
AT: The idea of service in Australia – take yourselves ten years back: Where were we, where are we today, and what have been the major changes you’ve seen along that journey?
Colin: Well, Hotel Schools are one of the main things. Thankfully now the focus within a lot of the training establishments tends to be geared towards Concierge training, whereas in the early days of the Hotel Schools it was more management, very much front office, but there was very little within the curriculum that dealt with Concierge work. So I think that on its own has changed; there’s more of an emphasis on Concierge. But it’s interesting to hear people like Gary who come through from school days. I wouldn’t have had a clue that I was going to be a Concierge. I wouldn’t have known what a Concierge was when I came out of school. Gary knew he wanted to be one. So I think that’s the big change. People are dedicating themselves to the profession a lot earlier on in the peace. They have a clearer understanding of what the role is. Very few people in hotels when they first started would even know what a Concierge was. But I think there’s a clearer picture out there now because the term Concierge is a much more widely used term, not just within the hotel industry but within shopping centres, Amex, Platinum Centurion, there’s so many different areas – even caryards! BMW, Mercedes, these places have their own Concierges!
Michael: In fact the interesting thing about that is that they’re using our brand. Our brand is so valuable and so recognised that they are using it.
I would expect people staying in my hotel to get the very best of service and I get disappointed and I get upset if they don’t.
AT: So has service improved in Australia?
Gary: You have some guests coming over from other countries and they say the service isn’t all that great here, but I travelled overseas recently – two years ago to the US and Canada – and I think the service we provide here in Australia far exceeds places like the States and even some European countries. I’ve had colleagues who’ve travelled over to Europe and they’ve said the front office staff or some of the hotel staff are very snobbish. If you’re just a tourist they don’t really care about you. Whereas I think in hotels and restaurants and everywhere in hospitality in Australia, we care very deeply. That if you come to our properties we try to make your stay as memorable as possible. And for those of us, as Concierges, who don’t actually make a clear-cut profit for the hotel – we’re more of an intangible – we add that extra value to your stay. So I think we definitely have got a good style service.
Mark Peyton: Our difficulty is that we’re a non revenue-earning department, so that’s always a struggle with the reporting line. But I think if you spoke with Concierges from Europe, or perhaps Paris in particular, I think you’d find very much an aloofness in the typical Concierge. I think we’re quite different from that. I’d like a dollar for every time I’ve heard a guest checking out and saying, “The service in this country is fantastic.” I’ve always thought the service standards here are pretty high, and I do think they are improving too. My hobby is travelling and unfortunately I spend most of the time slipping into that Concierge role. My wife hates it. In the airport I feel like helping people with their bags. I hold the door open for people at David Jones. And at work I insist that the people around me, who work with me, must do that as well.
Michael: There is a bit of a flip side to this sort of scenario. I can’t suffer bad service. It doesn’t matter how much I want a product or anything like that, if I don’t get the service I think I deserve, I won’t qualify it by buying the product. Simple as that.
AT: So you don’t have a mobile phone then?
Michael: [Laughs] I have a mobile phone and in fact I had an issue with Telstra and believe me, everyone said to me, “You won’t get this issue resolved.” And I got it resolved. Because I know how to deal with things like that. I got a $2500 credit. You don’t want to be apathetic about these things.
AT: So are Concierges terrible travellers because they are absolutely nitpicky on service?
Michael: I am.
Colin: I’m not. I would expect people staying in my hotel to get the very best of service and I get disappointed and I get upset if they don’t. But when I travel myself, and as much as you see the faults in service, I’m not a complainer. And sometimes you look behind it and you see why and you empathise with them. I’m not happy with service if it’s poor for the sake of being poor, when people just don’t care. That really upsets me. But if people are busy as we were today, the hotel was a madhouse and people were running around doing things left, right and centre, and I think some guests understand that and they can see, they can read the moment. But you’ll get other people where all that means nothing to them. And in some respects it probably shouldn’t, because they’re paying great money admittedly. But I take on board that yes, there may be issues that they’re encountering here and you just understand a little bit more. I’m not as hard as Michael [laughs].
Mark Peyton: I’ve got a lovely picture of Colin throwing a glass of water over a first-class check-in girl [laughter].
Colin: Oh, that was a moment of madness.
AT: Are there membership or annual fees?
Colin: There are membership fees. The individual fees aren’t particularly expensive. Most of the hotels cover the cost of the fees anyway. Ours are now $200, but each national section also pays a due to the International body UICH which is Union International Concierge de Hotel. The parent body receives a subscription from each of the national sections as well.
In reality the Concierge almost becomes the face of the property because very often we’re the first people they meet and the last ones they see.
Michael: The other fortunate thing is that there are 38 member countries now and the Australian chapter is held in very, very high regard. In fact, we were talking earlier about how we do our interview process and admission into the society. Colin did a project with Regina Faulding from the US section. We’re looking to standardise the qualification globally and they are using what we do and what the Americans do as a template for a guide to the interview process which stands us in very, very good stead.
AT: Here’s a question from leftfield. Can you all tie a bow tie?
Colin & Michael: Yes. Yes, I can tie one.
Mark Peyton: When I’m on the interview panel for prospective members of Les Clefs d’Or, I’ll sometimes place one on the table during an interview. The question of whether they can tie one may never be used, but it’s just the threat of it [laughter].
Colin: Well, you should be able to. Those are the little challenges you get thrown, where guests expect that you should know these things.
Gary: I could do it when I was in training, but I can’t remember how to do it now [laughs].
Mark Peyton: The internet has been a great thing for us. When you go back some of the questions you get asked – five past five in the afternoon, you know, I’m going to Canberra tomorrow, what’ s on at the National Gallery – and of course you ring them and they’re closed, aren’t they? They’re only operating from nine to five, so the internet’s had a huge impact on us. We have to think laterally most of the time, outside the square, and I don’t know how we really survived without the internet. It’s one of our major tools.
AT: Do you think expectations of guests have changed because of the internet?
Mark Peyton: Online check-ins are ever increasing. Every second person is online nowadays.
Michael: It’s interesting though, you take the thing with online check-ins with planes and that sort of thing. The guests can do it themselves. But they don’t want to waste their time doing that sort of thing. They want to manage their time in different ways. So they want you to actually do it. So you might have thought that the internet is actually taking away from us and in actual fact it’s not. It’s just giving us a different set of direct tools. Because at the end of the day, our guests are here to enjoy themselves. Where it may help them is they may do a little bit of research prior but I can tell you from my perspective the number of emails I get from guests, or phone calls I get three months prior to them coming out, directly say to me that rather than use the internet, they’d rather speak to you direct because they see you as that key person in this location.
Mark Peyton: It’s much more interactive with the internet, though. We can swing the computer screen around actually show them the seating plan of a flight and ask, “Where would you like to sit?” You can talk about a restaurant, then follow that up by saying, “Here’s a picture, here’s the view, here’s the menu.” It’s far more interactive. But guests who use the internet for their research can sometimes be led astray too, so you might have to steer them onto a better path. You talk them out of going to the Blue Mountains if it’s going to rain tomorrow, because I couldn’t think of anything worse. But there are some Concierges out there who would sell a tour in the rain no problems because at the end of the day in comes a little something for them – very nice, thank you very much. I would hate that. I would hate the idea of sending someone to waste their entire day looking out the window of a bus in the pouring rain. That would hurt me.
Sally: You talked earlier about not being a revenue source for the hotel, but in ways you always could be by extending people’s stay because of the service that you actually offer.
Michael: Absolutely. There’s huge potential to value add.
Sally: How do you do that?
The reality is that the cross keys themselves are a luxury brand. It’s no different from Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Chanel.
Colin: Sell the businesses within the hotel itself. Obviously the restaurants, which should be with any Concierge, presuming that they’ve got a very nice restaurant inside. Thankfully we’ve got “Altitude” on top of the restaurant so being able to sell that is not a difficult thing for me, but you’ve got to have it at the forefront of your mind. It’s true that it is a source of revenue we can generate indirectly, which is also the case with any of the other services that are provided in the hotel, such as day spas. It’s difficult to measure, but it doesn’t mean that we’re not generating funds indirectly through the property itself. Return business is of course one of the great sources of revenue that we would have. I’m sure that there’s a lot of return business from the fact that people come back and see a familiar face at the Concierge desk, whereas they would not necessarily see the same face at the reception desk or in other areas of the hotel, such as the restaurant.
Michael: Continuity is important to people. In reality the Concierge almost becomes the face of the property. And certainly longstanding Concierges become the face of the property. You’ve only got to go onto sites like Trip Advisor or something like that and if you scroll through Trip Advisor and see how often they mention or thank the Concierge, or thank them by name or thank the Concierge team to see that that is a key and critical point because very often we’re the first people they meet and the last ones they see.
AT: Do you think the hotels themselves and the General Managers are recognising that? Do you get good support from your General Managers?
Mark Peyton: I’ve had 17 General Managers at the Wentworth. You hear the rumours about a new General Manager going into a property and not being a fan of the Concierges because they think they’re all on the take and just in it for themselves half the time. Anyone can be a Concierge if all you’ve got to do is type “Italian Restaurant” into the computer when somebody asks, “Where’s the nearest Italian restaurant?” I’ve had staff do that from behind the desk. “Oh just one moment—this one here, this is close.” And they’ll write down the address or ring the restaurant but that’s not really what they’re asking. They want the nearest best Italian restaurant, not the nearest Italian restaurant. So those young General Managers that come in thinking that we’re all a bit big for our boots realise that we probably are worthwhile in the business. We’ve had some great supporters. It’s very important for us to have General Managers on our side.
Colin: I think in Australia there’s been a shift almost towards the support of Concierges whereas, particularly in the US, they’ve outsourced Concierge desk, which has become a real problem. We’re quite concerned about it because you’d hate to think that it might become a trend. There could be a revenue stream in the selling sometimes of either direct tours or the recommendation of certain products over others where the hotel would be in a position, perhaps, to source some funds out of that, but in Australia it’s almost been to the contrary. We haven’t lost any Concierges in three-, four- and five-star hotels. There’s been more of an emphasis on that. Some of the hotels are actually going out there and putting in their request through HR that they want a gold keys Concierge. So it’s reassuring that there’s emphasis on that. I think that most of the General Managers have been very supportive. They certainly have been at my hotel while I’ve been there. They can understand the importance of the Concierge department and how, from the hotel’s point of view, we’re making sure that everything gels within the front office area. It’s critical to have a functioning Concierge department.
Michael: We aren’t islands. We can’t function without a very good team around us. So we create supportive networks around us within our own properties and that type of thing. It’s not about the individual, it’s about creating the team because none of us are there 24 hours a day and in actual fact, this is how we talk about growing members and people coming through. The reality is that the cross keys themselves are a luxury brand. It’s no different from Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Chanel. And as Colin so rightly said, hoteliers know that. I’m fortunate; I’ve had the same General Manager for 17 years. He and I are very close and we work very closely together. He actually jokes in front of guests that I run the hotel.
AT: And they don’t know how serious he is.
Michael: Yes; he is actually serious. There is a lot of truth in that because the other thing that I think, and the other Concierges here will be able to relate to this, is often if a guest has an issue he will come talk to the person who knows about it rather than asking the duty manager. He would entrust his message with someone he knows and often it’s the Concierge.
Sally: Is there a career path that allows a Concierge to become General Manager of a hotel?
Michael: That has happened.
Colin: You could always take that demotion, but I wouldn’t [laughter].
If the General Manager wants to know what’s happening in his hotel, the first person he talks to every time is the Concierge.
Michael: And it is seen as a demotion, too.
Mark Peyton: I was on the path, actually, through Sheraton front office manager and through that and I was basically going to work when my children were asleep and going home when they were asleep. So I was going four days a week without seeing my children. So I saw another option, went to Concierge and never looked back. Once you get into the Concierge role, you don’t want to do anything else. These training schools, the school students that come to us and they have cross training with us and they go to housekeeping and they go to the front desk and they go to sales and marketing and they go to banquets – they all want to come back to Concierge because of the excitement and the activity in the lobby and the people helping. Nine out of ten of them want to come back to Concierge.
Michael: If the General Manager wants to know what’s happening in his hotel, the first person he talks to every time is the Concierge.
AT: In terms of the pecking order, the Concierge is the one that stands out as the person that absolutely has to have everything and knows exactly where everything is. But the hotels recognise that and reward it. Would you agree with that?
Colin: I would agree. It transcends most of the areas of the hotel, that’s the difference. You have a food and beverages manager, of course, and their focus is entirely on what’s happening in the restaurants, whereas the Concierge needs to know what’s happening in the restaurants, what’s happening in any of the other outlets within the hotel, what’s happening in terms of the groups that are turning up or VIPs, so you’re right. Having a snapshot of exactly what’s happening in a hotel is where the Concierge comes to the fore.
Sally: And do you do that with a regular briefing?
Colin: You attend the weekly meetings as we have, or you have daily briefings. There is always an opportunity there for the Concierge to state something, generally something that’s happening outside of the norm. You’ll state what your stats are. You’ve got 120 arrivals, but what’s really important is the VIP who’s going to be turning up today or if there’s anything that’s particularly unusual about what’s going to happen through the course of the day. You’ve got to have your finger in the pie with all of these things.
AT: You all are very aware of the business metrics that the business is running at as opposed to the service provision alone. It’s amazing. I don’t think many people understand that.
Mark Peyton: Well the tough thing is if you’re expecting a certain politician. We get a lot of politicians at the hotel and you’re supposed to know everything—and sure, Google helps you and so does Google Images—and the General Manager, a new one, might not know who someone is so you’ve got to be able to say, “Okay, that’s him.” He’ll stand very close to you and you have to be right.
Michael: Sometimes you save them. I had an incident very recently, and I won’t say who it was, but a very high-profile ex-politician was in the hotel. He walked out of the hotel and someone was walking down the street and basically accosted him about his policies in the street. And I could see that he was being very polite and so without him even looking at me, I just concocted a story. I went out and said to him “Oh, Mr so-and-so I know you are going to be late for your flight. I know your car is not on time. Let me get a car for you. Let me get you in the car.” And off he went. He rang back and said “Thank you so much for doing that for me.” You are often reading a situation before it actually happens. I’m sure that’s something you’ve done many a time and we all do it.
Mark Peyton: Our lobby lounge has morning tea and you can get on the phone so we have people coming through and staying with us all the time because of our location. Everyone uses us, as Barry Humphries said, as a deluxe telephone booth. So you just have to be on the ball. It’s very rare that a General Manager comes into the lobby without me seeing him. Our vision spans about 360 degrees. It’s not just that you need to know what’s going on from the lifts to the front door and be on top of it. Leave the work to other people but as a Concierge, you’re in control of that lobby and it’s embarrassing if you don’t know who someone is.
Michael: Your vision becomes very peripheral, and one of things you learn is to recognise and know who people are. For example, there’s Troy Bayliss over there [without looking, Michael indicates a group at the next table], the ex-World Superbike champion, and to be able to go up to people and actually acknowledge them by their name – they like that. So you’re reading the paper, you’re digesting information, you’re remembering faces. It’s very important to do that.
Your vision becomes very peripheral, and one of things you learn is to recognise and know who people are.
Colin: I have the ability to remember a lot of people staying in-house and then the day when they check out, it’s gone. I couldn’t remember them if they turned up two or three days later. But funnily enough, you’re able to put them against the name, the face and the room number.
Sally: Earlier we were talking about Sydney and you were passionate about it. What excites you most about Sydney?
Colin: I think the big thing is the variety of things to do in Sydney. The only other city I’ve worked in is Brisbane and there are probably two or three major things that you would do in Brisbane, but in New South Wales or Sydney there is a host of things we can recommend. At the beginning of the day, if a guest comes to you and says, “I’m here for two days. What do I do?” There are so many different options we can give them irrespective of the weather. When it’s not a particularly nice day, they can go to Darling Harbour or any of the major public buildings. You can offer them the option of the Art Gallery or whatever it might be, but Sydney has world-class entertainment facilities for so many different styles of guest. I think that is probably one of the bonuses of working in this sort of city. It’s a great city. It’s got a lovely climate and we’re fortunate to be living and selling in a city like Sydney because there are more things to sell here than in any other capital city in Australia and in most of the cities around the world.
Michael: There is a huge amount of resource here and sometimes it’s not even the obvious resource. One that I use particularly on a wet day, even with International guests, is sending them up to the Mitchell Library because it’s a wonderful portrait of Sydney and Australian history and people get enamoured with it. When you suggest, it they look at you like you’re a freak. It doesn’t work for everyone and you’ve got to pick your mark on it. It’s what I was saying earlier—we have all these wonderful resources but there’s also this resource of non-tourist Sydney. You show them a part of Sydney that they may not actually know exists. Our hotel is fortunate because if we’ve got tourists for any length of stay, it’s not going to be just for two days. It’s normally five or six days, so you get time to paint a very broad scope of Sydney for them. You’re able to have a bit of fun with it and play around. Another one that I love to throw up is sending them somewhere like Jones the Grocer or Simon Johnson, somewhere like that.
Mark Peyton: I always tell someone who’s training with me that I can send someone tomorrow on a fixed wing aircraft up to Scone—picked up in a 4WD, taken up to the lookout point, he opens the back of his vehicle and he gets a coffee and Anzac biscuit and they’re looking over the view, then down to his homestead, bbq lunch—the wife’s there with the bbq lunch—and then after lunch, walk around the homestead and he gets his sheepdog out and the sheep come to you and then they all get back in the car again. The plane takes off from the front of his property and goes up to the Hunter Valley. You’re picked up at the Hunter Valley, you see Tyrrell’s, one of the deluxe two vineyards up there, fly down at 500 feet off the ocean at Sydney Harbour, you do two laps of Sydney Harbour and then land, and that guest comes in at the end of that day saying, “Wow!” Then at the other extreme, for $25 or $27 for the day, I can send them on just as good a day. Canadians and New Zealanders like to walk, so I can send them on a local bus to Coogee or Bronte and they can do the coastal walk and then take a bus to Watson’s Bay for fish and chips on the beach and then catch the ferry home. That’s one extreme to the other extreme. And we can deal with everything in between. What great scope.
Gary: It’s just the variety of things that we have in Sydney to offer our guests, the travellers that come out here. 20 minutes out of Sydney you’ve got Chowder Bay. It’s so secluded out there but no one knows about it, not even some locals, but you send them out there and they think, “Wow, this is great.” You can do so many walks around the city or from the skip bridge.
Michael: And of course they love being out here too because it’s the best city in the world. And I don’t mind reminding them.
AT: Do you honestly believe that Sydney is the best city?
Michael: We’ve all travelled pretty extensively, but I have to say that I come over the Harbour Bridge every day and I have made a pact with myself to never get blasé about Sydney and I never will.
Colin: Of all the cities I’ve travelled to, and certainly in terms of being a liveable city, I think Sydney is the best. All of those factors including the climate and the people themselves, which I think is one of the big things our visitors take away with them, make Sydney great. It’s not just the fact that it’s a beautiful, clean city, which it is, but also that the people have are so friendly because that’s what ends up making someone’s trip.
Colin: The transportation here is great too. Look at the States. There are very few cities over there that have proper infrastructure with any transport. So when they come over here and see how well our buses work and that we’re just a two minute walk from the major transport hubs like Circular Quay, they can’t believe how good the transportation is.
AT: What are some of the good things that have happened in Sydney in the last 12 to 18 months?
Michael: I’m very passionate about this. I like the events that we do. I think they are very, very important and they add another dimension to Sydney. And it’s good for us because it gives us an opportunity to showcase the city in a different way. So I think those key events are very important. Sometimes, and not so much these days but in the past, being that we were key indicators in some way of getting that message out, we were left out of the loop to a certain degree. We’ve started to become a lot more included in that loop now. A great example of that is the Festival of Sydney. Now we get regular email updates, but initially we got a handout and that was it.
God help one of my staff if they sent someone to a restaurant because they knew that tomorrow they were going to get a little something in an envelope.
AT: It just seems so obvious to keep the Concierges in the loop.
Colin: Surprisingly, that isn’t always the case. We’re bypassed sometimes, or we used to be. I think it’s better now. There must be an integrated system now where it’s communicated through the line. And of course it’s not just us at the hotel, but we are the point of contact in the hotel so we go out to all of the areas of the hotel and keep everyone informed.
Sally: As a group of Concierges in Sydney, do you have an email listing?
Colin: We have our own little Les Clefs d’Or website, which is a great tool for us.
Sally: So we could communicate information to you through the website?
Colin: Yes. Most organisations would make contact with the hotel and do it through the Concierge’s email address, but you could certainly communicate information through the Concierge website that we have. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort on it and now we’re very happy with it.
AT: What can we do better in Australia and Sydney?
Mark Peyton: A small thing I find particularly frustrating is having to send visitors in all different directions just to find tickets for a bus. Having to go sometimes in the opposite direction to the bus stop just to get a pre-paid ticket is ridiculous. In all the great cities of the world it’s made very simple.
Gary: We actually get asked a lot by visitors if they can purchase bus tickets directly from us.
AT: Is there a shadier element within the Concierge game who might perhaps misrepresent themselves for their own personal gain?
Colin: There would be some people within the industry that probably aren’t as altruistic as us, and aren’t there for the experience but more so for the opportunity to sell something for financial gain.
AT: Do you mean like having preferred partners to recommend?
Colin: Well, we all have our preferred partners, but they’re preferred because they’re the best at what they do or they fit the bill. But not everybody has the same scruples and there might be an opportunity to sell a product to somebody for other than genuine reasons.
AT: How is that dealt with by Les Clefs d’Or?
Mark Peyton: There are a few restaurants out there that will offer some sort of “financial advantage” if you send someone to their restaurant – and God help one of my staff if they sent someone to a restaurant because they knew that tomorrow they were going to get a little something in an envelope.
Colin: We have a code of ethics within The Keys that we enforce rigorously, because once upon a time there was talk about that and it’s something that we really need to hold the line on. To be able to maintain the integrity of The Gold Keys, you’ve really got to have the individuals conducting themselves in the right way. So it is true, there are cowboys in every industry. And if they’re out there tainting the name of Concierge, or in particular of Les Clefs d’Or, then they get found out pretty quickly. And that’s why we’ve set up our code of ethics. It’s not a toothless tiger.
Mark Peyton: Also, if you’ve sent someone out somewhere and they’ve had a terrible night, the responsibility is yours. And when they walk back through the door in the evening, after they’ve had a table next to the kitchen door for a business meeting that you’ve set up for them, and they’ve had the worst table in the restaurant, they’re not looking for anyone else but you. At the end of the day you are responsible.
AT: What’s the worst day you’ve ever had as a Concierge?
You always love it when a guest comes up to you and says, “You’re going to get really sick of me really quickly.” I’ve actually said to some guests, “Come on then. Give me your best shot.”
Colin: Do you know, I think it was after September 11. Because on top of that awful disaster, about two days later Ansett airlines collapsed, and that day just never ended. We were hosting a huge number of visitors from the States at the time, and the timing could not possibly have been worse. We had 150 rooms of all the top corporates trying to get out of the hotel, and it was just a logistical nightmare. That was the worst possible day, but again in some ways you look at it – and it’s a little hokey to say it – but it’s also one of your best. At the end of the day you’re mentally and physically exhausted, but you’re able to say, “I’ve done a lot here. I’ve been able to help some people get through a pretty tough time.” But you’d never wish another one of those on anybody.
Michael: You always love it when a guest comes up to you and says something like, “You’re going to get really sick of me really quickly.” They warn you that they are going to challenge you. And I’ve actually said to some guests, “Come on then. Give me your best shot.” And with some of these people you become their confidante, their Father Confessor, their friend away from home, you become everything to them.
AT: So do you have many Concierges call you from international destinations asking for favours?
Mark Peyton: All the time. Your classic example is that perhaps you’ve got a guest of 30 years staying at the Wentworth who wants a Wimbledon ticket, so you’d use your contact in London. And they might use me as a contact for the opening night of Carmen at the Sydney Opera House for one of their regulars. However, you wouldn’t use that favour for someone who was in Sydney on a Saturday night for their first stay. There’s got to be some parity there in the trade. You might not even use it for your General Manager, knowing that they’re only going to be here for another four months [laughter].
Michael: I once had a regular guest that I source a lot of stuff for, and one day he rang me up and he said, “I want to go and see Madonna in Las Vegas. I want four tickets, front row.” I said, “Give me 48 hours.”
AT: Did you get them?
Michael: Yes. I got him four front-row tickets in 48 hours.”
Michael: I’m not going to divulge that [laughter].
Colin: You think the carbon trading emissions scheme is complicated, you should see what we do!
Michael: There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors that goes on. It’s got a lot to do with “Favour Bank”. If you’ve been in the industry for 20 years, you’ve built up a good Favour Bank. You can’t simply ring someone up and say, “I can get this.” And to be honest, with things like those Madonna tickets, I might already have them in my pocket, but I’ll save it up until the 11th hour and then say, “Got ‘em.” That’s what I mean by doing things with a sense of theatre. In fact a guest might come to you and say, “I want to go to this, and I want the best tickets.” Well, you look at them and you say, “Are you assuming I would give you anything but?” And integrity with your Favour Bank is everything. Because if you let someone down just once, it’s gone. And it’s gone forever. And that’s why we have to be so direct with the guests, because we can’t allow that resource to be threatened, because it would affect every other guest. And that’s one of the main things we’re talking about when we talk about the value of the Concierge to his or her property – it’s what we can resource, our Favour Bank. I pride myself on being able to get basically anything. Globally.
AT: Is that why some people get the impression that, if they wanted to get tickets to see Britney Spears for example, they can just check into a hotel and ask the Concierge?
Michael: That’s an interesting one. We’re not a ticket booth, though. That does happen quite regularly, people will ring up and say, “We want to go to this show, and if you get us the tickets, we’ll come and stay at your hotel.” I don’t do it. I won’t do it. Because I’m not a ticket agency, and they have to understand that my intellectual property is a resource of the people that are staying and paying. It’s not general intellectual property. Now, don’t get me wrong – if there’s an association there, if it’s a regular guest or even the friend of a regular guest, I’ll do it no questions asked. So there is some give and take.
I pride myself on being able to get basically anything. Globally.
Michael: Recently I sourced four Beyonce tickets for a Melbourne Concierge. Now, for all intents and purposes, and with my blessing and this is something I’m perfectly happy with, he represented that to his guest as HIM obtaining those tickets. And I have no issue with that whatsoever. He came to me because he knew I could get them.
AT: Is there anything you steer guests away from?
Michael: You’ve got to look at things positively and make the recommendations that fit. It’s like ordering off of a menu; there’s an art to it. You can come to the best restaurant, order the wrong thing off the menu and not enjoy the experience. Which all harks back to reading people and asking the right questions. Being able to take a negative and turn it into a positive is key for a good Concierge.
Michael: Making recommendations is interesting too. You can only give an opinion if you’re asked to give one. That’s my golden rule. You’ve got to be very careful. It’s a very fine line.