Jack Nargil, head concierge at the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, D.C., can get guests anything they want -- provided that it's "legal and ethical." He's routinely called upon to do everything from securing a dinner reservation at a booked restaurant to making sure a guest's shirts are cleaned and pressed in time for dinner. On occasion, he's even been asked to take care of more challenging requests -- for example, filling a rock star's suite with thousands of dollars' worth of white flowers.
Concierges like Nargil are "part Merlin, part Houdini," according to the hotel concierge association, Les Clefs D'Or. They can solve virtually any problem, and handle seemingly impossible tasks with surprising speed and alacrity.
Although the primary image of the concierge remains the hotel employee who makes dinner and show reservations and books sightseeing tours, the responsibilities that fall under the title have expanded significantly over the past three decades. Today, concierges offer a wide range of services in a variety of venues, from corporations to condominiums. And despite the common misconception that concierges work only for the very wealthy, in reality, their services are available to people of all incomes.
In this article, you'll find out what it takes to be a great concierge, learn the history of the profession, and read some of the bizarre requests that concierges have accommodated over the years.
The essence of the concierge job is to provide service. A hotel concierge is there to ensure that guests have everything they need during their stay. Typically, the concierge sits at a desk in the lobby, and guests can either stop by or call with their requests. Those requests may include:
- Getting restaurant reservations
- Booking theater or concert tickets
- Scheduling sightseeing tours and shopping excursions
- Giving directions to local attractions
- Hiring a car/limo for sightseeing or to get to the airport
- Making complete travel arrangements, from confirming flights and seat assignments to securing visas
- Replacing a toothbrush, toothpaste or other personal items that a traveler left at home
- Storing luggage until a guest checks in or out
- Helping to plan a corporate meeting, party or wedding at the hotel
- Arranging for an interpreter to assist a foreign guest
In the next section, we'll look at personal concierges.
Personal concierges work in a variety of settings. Office buildings or luxury condominiums may hire a concierge to attract and retain tenants. Corporations offer concierge services as a benefit for their employees and a perk for their clients. Retail stores and private clubs have concierges who take care of guest services. Tour and transportation services have concierges who act as tour guides and travel consultants.
The goal of a personal concierge is to take care of all the little odds and ends that get overlooked in the frenetic pace of daily life. "Everyone is time-starved, and we're trying to squeeze 36 hours into a 24-hour day," explains Katharine C. Giovanni, President and Co-founder of Triangle Concierge, Inc., and Chairman of the Board of the International Concierge and Errand Association (ICEA). "A concierge can do the things that have to be done so that you can do the things you want to do."
A personal concierge may handle any of the following jobs:
- Making dinner and theater reservations
- Getting tickets to concerts and sporting events
- Buying a gift
- Hiring a caterer
- Arranging for pet sitting, car detailing, housekeeping or babysitting services
- Shopping for groceries
- Going to the bank
Hiring a personal concierge can cost anywhere from $25 to $65 per hour. In New York, Los Angeles and other big cities, rates typically start at $50 per hour.
Next, we'll learn about the training that goes into become a concierge and get a sample of some unusual requests posed to concierges.
Although a few university hotel schools offer programs in hospitality, and many of the larger hotels provide training for their concierges, most of the skills needed to be successful in the position are either intuitive or learned on the job. In fact, some of the best concierges in the business never had any formal training. They've started in other positions at the hotel, such as bellman or front desk clerk, and worked their way into the concierge job.
Larry Johnson, Lobby Concierge and Historian of the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, started out as a doorman. He then worked his way up to bell captain, and finally became a concierge in 2002. Johnson learned the business by literally pounding the pavement. "I would pick two streets a week, and all I would do is walk up and down the streets to see all of the restaurants and businesses," he recalls. In the process, he became so knowledgeable about the city's historical and cultural sites that the hotel made him its official historian.
Knowing your city inside and out -- every restaurant, theater, attraction, and shop -- is essential to becoming a successful concierge. Other necessary skills include:
- Critical thinking and problem solving
- Organizational skills
- Clear and effective communication skills
- Ability to talk to anyone
- Administrative skills
- Positive attitude
Concierges also need great connections -- a Rolodex stuffed with contacts in the restaurant, entertainment and tourism industries. So when a guest comes in asking for tickets to a hot new Broadway show, or front-row seats to a sold-out concert, the concierge knows exactly who to call to get them.
Despite their often posh surroundings, the average concierge earns only about $23,500 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. More experienced hotel concierges can make about $50,000. The position does come with some perks, however. There are free meals from local restaurants trying to make a good impression, and complimentary tickets from theaters and sports arenas. Concierges also receive tips, from $5 to $100 or more, depending on the service they provide.
By far the most profitable side of the profession is the personal concierge business. Personal concierges who own their own company can earn well into the six figures.
In the next section we'll look at the unusual requests concierges sometimes handle.
Unusual Concierge Requests
Because concierges pledge to satisfy every request, every once in awhile, concierges are asked to provide some pretty bizarre services. Here are a few of the strange requests concierges have received:
No matter how strange the request, concierges rarely turn down a client or guest. "We always say that if we can't get you a white elephant, perhaps we can get you a pink elephant," says Nargil. "The word 'no' really doesn't exist. It's a word concierges rebel against."
Concierges will turn down a request if it is illegal or unethical, however. "Once I had four guys come in, and you can guess what they asked for," says Johnson. "I gave them one of the local publications that had phone numbers in it and told them to call for themselves. I'm not a pimp."
Another hot button for concierges is confidentiality. It's an unwritten rule, and a stipulation for joining organizations such as ICEA, that concierges never reveal their client's requests. "I deal with celebrities all the time. What they've said to me stays with me," says Giovanni.
We'll look at the history of concierges and what's in store for the future next.
History and the Future of the Concierge Industry
The roots of the title, "concierge" are from the Latin word conserves, meaning "fellow slave." The word itself is French, meaning "keeper of the keys." During the Middle Ages, concierges did just that. When castles across Europe hosted visiting nobility, the concierge kept the keys to the castle rooms, and ensured that guests had everything they needed during their stay. By the 1800s, a number of buildings in Europe, from government offices to prisons, had their own concierge on staff.
In the 20th century, the introduction of steamships and steam trains helped launch the modern travel industry. Guests from distant locales relied on hotel employees for tour assistance and other services during their stays. Hotels throughout Europe began creating concierge positions to take care of their guests.
In 1929, Ferdinand Gillet, head concierge at the Hotel Scribe in Paris, founded Les Clefs D'Or. This association enabled concierges throughout Europe to share ideas with one another. Today, Les Clefs D'Or has 3,000 members in 39 countries.
It wasn't until the 1970s that the concierge position emerged in the United States, although hotel bell captains and front desk staff had unofficially been performing the same duties for many years. Thomas Wolfe is known as one of the first American concierges. He worked in Europe for several years before taking up a position with the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco in 1974, and he founded the original West Coast chapter of Les Clefs D'Or (the West Coast and East Coast chapters eventually merged to form the organization's modern incarnation).
Technology has impacted the concierge business, just as it has virtually every other industry. Using a Web-based system, concierges can now track guest requests until they're fulfilled, and can make reservations even before a restaurant opens.
In some hotels, touch-screen kiosks have supplemented or even replaced concierge. These kiosks provide information on restaurants, shopping, city tours, and services. Guests can use them to print out maps, coupons, and tickets without ever interacting with a human being.
Personal concierge services also have gone virtual. For a set fee, companies such as VIP Desk provide corporations with 24-hour-a-day phone and e-mail access to concierges for their employees and clients.
The hotel concierge business has also changed in another way. Not all hotel concierges today are the real things. They may wear the concierge uniform and provide the same services, but many are actually contract employees of hospitality companies and ticket brokers. Outsourcing saves hotels on benefits, and some hotel industry insiders say it helps lower-tier (two- and three-star) hotels provide a service they couldn't otherwise afford. But outsourcing may not always be in the best interests of the guests, says Shujaat Khan, President of Les Clefs D'Or, and Chef Concierge at the Capital Hilton in Washington, D.C. The contractor may have relationships with particular restaurants, sightseeing companies, and venues, and it may tell its concierges that they can only recommend those places to guests. "Whereas, as an employee of the hotel, I have no obligation other than to the guest," explains Khan. "I will recommend the place that is best suited to the guest and is of the highest quality."
For lots more information on concierges and related topics, check out the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Bowles, Susan. "Concierges Work Miracles Behind the Hotel Desk." USA Today, September 28, 2005. http://www.usatoday.com/travel/hotels/ 2005-09-27-bonus-concierges_x.htm
- "Concierges." U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2005. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes396012.htm
- Gross. Janet R. "Concierges do (almost) everything for employees." Washington Business Journal, January 12, 2001. http://www.bizjournals.com/washington/ stories/2001/01/15/focus10.html
- Interview with Jack Nargil, PR Director, Les Clefs D'Or and Head Concierge, Hay-Adams Hotel, Washington, D.C.
- Interview with Katharine C. Giovanni, Chairman of the Board and Interim President, International Concierge and Errand Association.
- Interview with Larry Johnson, Lobby Concierge and Hotel Historian, Seelbach Hilton.
- Interview with Mary Naylor, Founder, CEO, VIP Desk.
- Interview with Michelle McManus, Owner, The Virtual Concierge.
- Interview with Shujaat Khan, President, Les Clefs D'Or, and Chef Concierge, the Capital Hilton.
- Les Clefs d'Or http://www.lcdusa.org
- "Summary Report for: Concierges." Onet Online. http://online.onetcenter.org/link/summary/39-6012.00
- Wright, Christian L. "Concierges, a User's Manual." Conde Nast Traveler, December 2005. http://www.concierge.com/cntraveler/articles/detail?articleId=10060