Concierge: What it takes to be the keeper of the keys
One day a regular guest at the Park Hyatt in Washington, D.C. approached concierge Elaine Oksner, and said, "Elaine, I need an elephant." He wanted it for a photo shoot for his wife, who was running for political office. "I'll check in with you after lunch to see how you're doing," he added.
Using her ingenuity, Oksner first called the National Zoo to see if they rented out elephants. While they didn't, a local petting zoo in Virginia did. Oksner had her elephant even before the guest had finished lunch.
It was all in a day's work for a professional working in one of the most prestigious service careers in the hospitality industry - concierge.
The term "concierge" first appeared in France in the Middle Ages and came to refer to the officers of the royal palace guard whose job it was to protect the king in his palace. The concierge was the holder of the keys in the royal households, with access to all the important rooms. The concierge's responsibilities were diverse, including overseeing the administration of domestic services and performing special tasks at the request of the royal court. The definition broadened with the rise of the grand European hotels in the 16th and 17th centuries, though it was not until the mid-20th century that the concierge became a must-have feature of North American hotels.
So prestigious is the concierge that there is an association, from France, dedicated specifically to hotel concierges, Les Clefs d'Or, whose motto is "service through friendship". Today their membership numbers more than 3,500 concierges representing 37 countries. Members are distinguished by the gold keys they display on their lapels.
All in a Day's Work
Though it's not every day Elaine Oksner, a former president of Les Clefs d'Or USA and now concierge at the Four Seasons Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, has to find an elephant for a guest, one day is never like another in her busy career.
Yes, the concierge is often the person guests call on to make reservations, organize car rentals, give directions, share local knowledge, make activity suggestions. But his or her work rarely ends there.
"You often get called to help out with emergencies," says Oksner. "At The Breakers (where she used to work), a man got a call that his son had had a terrible accident, and all commercial flights had left for the day. We had to do whatever we could do to get him a flight." On a happier occasion, Oksner was called to organize a "faux" wedding for a couple who gave her very little time to create their special day. Once a customer had his high end luggage damaged. Oksner had to go online and locate which stores carried it. "You never know what you'll get in a day," she says in understatement.
The Successful Concierge
Roberta K. Nedry, president of Hospitality Excellence, Inc., which promotes service excellence through guest experience management and develops specific programs to enhance guest and customer service, offers these criteria for becoming a successful concierge:
- A willingness and passion to serve.
- An excellent background in guest or customer service.
- Good grooming and good personal presentation.
- Top knowledge of the venues and the clients of the environment you're
- going to serve or want to serve.
- Additional languages are an asset, plus excellent command of English.
- Ability to multi-task and display grace under pressure.
- Desire to be a creative problem-solver.
"A successful concierge is absolutely a personality type," says Nedry. "You must remain calm in a hectic environment and always display integrity. You need to have an extensive network of contacts and a knowledge of how to develop these contacts." The concierge can become a hotel guest's social adviser, personal confidante, and all-around information provider, with a knowledge of everything from antiques to zoos.
Your Career Path
Since being a concierge is not your average 9-to-5 job, it's no surprise the path to becoming one is not a straight line. Elaine Oksner, for instance, was originally a dancer, who likes to say she's "fast on her feet." Others have been teachers, nurses, public servants, flight attendants and travel agents - anyone with enthusiasm and a commitment to service.
Concierges earn on average $20,000-$50,000, but a successful concierge can earn much more, since this career relies heavily on gratuities. Many concierges make the leap from the hospitality industry to the corporate environment, says Sara-ann Kasner, president of the National Concierge Association. "There's a huge crossover from hotel concierge to corporate concierge." She herself came from a background in sales and marketing, public service and public relations before becoming a corporate concierge.
For all concierges, the greatest reward seems to be what Kasner calls "a psychic salary we all get paid - the mental satisfaction. This happens over and over. Someone says, 'I don't know what I would have done without you.'"