Concierges - Helping Hands

28 Feb 2011

No gleaming lobby is complete without a concierge desk, and behind it smiling faces ready to help with your every need. While the idea behind the service hasn’t changed, the job has become increasingly demanding over the years. Concierges are expected to assist guests with requests ranging from the trivial to the urgent to the downright bizarre, all while keeping their finger on the pulse of the local nightlife, culture, restaurants and tourist spots.


And concierges don’t just interact with guests in the lobby - requests for help can come in by phone or email, and major hotel groups such as InterContinental even offer a concierge service via iPad. Advances in technology mean that concierges need to be up-to-speed on the latest gadgets – and that guests increasingly expect instantaneous answers.

“A lot of guests would ask us to teach them to use certain electronic products that they are not familiar with, so all of our concierges have to know how to use almost every electronic product,” says Alex Lai, chief concierge of The Regent Taipei.

Alex Lai

And then there are the times when a crisis strikes, when guests are put in impossible situations and there are no solutions in sight. In these circumstances, how far are concierges willing to go? Here are their stories.

Natural disasters

Three months ago, on December 18, 2010, London’s Heathrow Airport suffered massive delays as heavy blizzards raged, dropping about 13cm of snow on the airport within an hour and shutting down flight operations for two days. It meant that numerous flights across the UK and Northern Europe were grounded, stirring up a storm of a different nature.

“None of the guests could get out and none of the guests who were supposed to come in could get in,” says Alan Noone, executive head concierge at The Berkeley in London. “We tried to get the guests on flights the next day, which wasn’t a problem with most of them, but Heathrow didn’t re-open, and once the waiting stretched to two or three days people started to worry because Christmas was approaching.

“It was an incredibly busy time. We had to rearrange transport for over 100 guests a day. We looked for alternative routes. At that time Gatwick [Airport] was open. We arranged for transport from Paris and Copenhagen and got people there through the [Channel Tunnel],” he explains.

In the midst of all that chaos, Noone received one plea he couldn’t ignore: from a guest who wanted to get home to Belgium for the birth of his first child. He immediately contacted one of the hotel’s drivers, who always kept his passport in the office in case of emergency, and arranged for him to take the guest to Belgium there and then. “Planes weren’t taking off at Heathrow and the Eurostar to Belgium wasn’t running, so we got him in a car. That was the only way we knew he’d get there.” The journey took about six hours but the guest made it home in time.

Some weren’t as lucky. Biljana Nedeljkov, front office manager of London’s Citadines Prestige South Kensington, faced many guests who were left stranded after checking out of the hotel. Some tried to book back in, but by then there were no rooms available. Nedeljkov immediately arranged for alternative accommodation in other Citadines properties in London, as well as those of sister brand Ascott, even paying for their cab fares going there.

Eight months before that, in April 2010, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull erupted, spewing thick plumes of ash across Northern and Central Europe and bringing the skies to a virtual standstill. Many flights to the Continent were affected. A family of five approached Roman Angulo, chief concierge at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Hong Kong, desperate to return to London to see a relative who was on her deathbed. But flights to the UK capital were the worst affected due to the high demand and there was a one-week waiting list for passengers stranded in Asia. Arranging not one but five tickets in those circumstances was a challenge, to say the least.

“I contacted each of the airlines to see if I could get them on any flights, even if it involved going via another country that may have interconnecting flights to London, but kept failing,” says Angulo. “The faces of the family, when I told them this, were seriously concerned, so I refused to give up.”

He then recalled an ex-colleague who used to work closely with British Airways (BA) and asked him to help. He was transferred to a senior person at BA and explained the situation. A few hours later, Angulo received a call confirming that he had managed to secure five first-class seats on a flight the following day; again, the family got home in time.


Social unrest

In 2008, anti-government protesters the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) sealed off Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport to pressure Somchai Wongsawat, then prime minister of Thailand, to step down. The airport shut-down affected an estimated 90,000 passengers, and thousands of them were struck in the facility when it was raided.

Adisorn Songcharoen, concierge at the Shangri-La Hotel Bangkok, received news that an Australian family of three – father, mother and 11-year-old child – were trying to get to the hotel but were stranded at the airport. “I had to call and talk to the Thai police and airport security to ask them if I could send transport to pick the guests up, but the protesters wouldn’t allow anyone to leave the airport,” he says. “I had to beg (the PAD’s) leaders: ‘Please, please let the family go’ – and eventually they did.”

After successfully negotiating with both the police and PAD leaders, Adisorn arranged for transport, and for the hotel’s airport representative to fetch the family. But the area was cordoned off and no vehicles could enter. The airport representative had to escort the guests out of the building, through the protestors and to the car that was waiting 1km away.

“When the family reached the hotel they hugged me!” recalls Adisorn, laughing. “They kept saying, ‘Thank you! Thank you for saving my life!’ This was one of the most memorable experiences.”

Road chaos

While New Year’s Eve is a joyous occasion for most, it can be a nightmare for travellers as they try to negotiate road closures and hordes of people. That was the situation faced by a Japanese couple who were trying to get to the Grand Hyatt Taipei from the city’s airport.

The hotel is in the Xinyi district, also the location of Taipei’s major New Year’s Eve celebration that includes a firework display at the massive Taipei 101 building. No vehicles are allowed to enter the area from 7pm to 3am.

The Japanese couple was stuck in traffic at Dong Xing Road, approximately 2km from the hotel. Worried that they weren’t going to be able to reach it, they called the concierge for help. The team reassured the couple and promised to pick them up on foot as soon as possible.

One concierge, who could speak fluent Japanese, and one member from the bell service were then dispatched to meet them.

With the human traffic on the streets that night, it took the hotel employees 30 minutes to reach the couple. “When they saw us, they were very touched. And very Japanese. They bowed multiple times,” says the hotel’s chief concierge Vanessa Shen. They couple arrived at the hotel just as the New Year celebrations began.

Lost and found

Lost baggage is nothing new to hotels and airlines, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying for their customers.

When a guest checked into The Regent Taipei with his luggage missing and nothing to wear for a business meeting the following day, chief concierge Alex Lai came to the rescue.

It was late at night and all the stores had closed, so Lai had to look for a suit and a pair of shoes within the hotel. He managed to procure a suit from the hotel’s uniform room and he went through the lost-and-found to find a pair of shoes that fitted guest.

Lai also contacted the airline to trace the lost luggage and it was sent to the guest three days later.

At the end of the day, service is what makes a hotel.

Odd Requests

Anfernee Zhu, concierge manager at Grand Hyatt Shanghai

A guest in his mid-40s who was a big fan of jing ju, a form of Chinese opera, wanted to invite a group of performers to his birthday party so he could play a part in an opera in front of his friends and family.

Chinese opera is different from other art forms: it’s not casual at all – it requires ample preparation and a lot of rehearsal. Thankfully, I had a friend who knows a retired Chinese opera
actor very well. This actor was a powerful person in the Chinese opera field in Shanghai, and through him we got in touch with the Shanghai Institute of Chinese Opera and asked them for a special favour.

Anfernee Zhu

They agreed to help us and the guest went to their class to practise three times a week. They also lent him DVDs so he could familiarise himself with the performance.

After one-and-a-half months of preparation, the guest and the opera group performed Three Kingdoms, a military story based on events from the end of the Han Dynasty.

The performance was held at a private theatre in Yuyuan Garden and all performers, including the guest, were dressed in full opera regalia: mask, beard and costume. None of his friends and family in the audience recognised him, and he caused a sensation when he revealed his identity at the end.

Roman Angulo, chief concierge at Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong

Three months ago, one of our regular guests asked me to buy 4kgs of Kobe beef for him, along with a Louis Vuitton bag to transport the meat back to his home country – Belgium – that evening.

I found out that there were two places in Hong Kong that stocked Kobe beef, one being Sogo and the other Oliver’s in the Prince’s Building in Central. Since I wasn’t really aware of the differences between the quality of the beef sold in these places, I spoke to the manager of our butcher section here at the Mandarin Oriental to find out what qualities I should look for and how best to prepare the meat for air freight.

Roman Angulo

I then visited the two stores and found out that Oliver’s had grade one beef, which is the highest you can buy. So I purchased it from there and asked them to prepare it in an airtight bag for collection later that day. In the meantime I prepared a cooling bag and ice gel to keep it chilled, and kept it in our fridge until the guest’s departure.

Once I had seen how large 4kg of Kobe beef was, I went to a Louis Vuitton boutique in Central and purchased a bag big enough to contain it. When everything was ready, I helped our baggage team to pack the bag for the guest to take on the plane. I later met the guest again and was happy to learn he was very pleased with the arrangement. He is a Japanese food fanatic and he can’t get the same quality in Europe.

Adisorn Songcharoen, concierge at Shangri-La Bangkok

There was a lady from the US who was trying to locate a relative. It was her mother’s dying wish and she was only given the relative’s first name before her mother passed away. She’d spent 16 years looking for this relative before finding out that she resided in Thailand. She arrived in Thailand, was staying at Shangri-La Hotel Bangkok, and she approached me to ask if we could find the relative.

Adisorn Songcharoen

Since we only had the first name and no address, we checked with [directory enquiry services] 1133 and 1188, which are similar to the Yellow Pages, and also searched on the internet. We found a long list of people but narrowed it down to 60. From there, we patiently started calling each name on the list and asked if they knew the guest.

Fortunately, one contact called us back and asked us for the surname of the guest. After further checking, we found that this contact was indeed the relative and arranged for the guest to
meet her.

The relative lived in upcountry Sattahip, which is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Bangkok. We arranged for a local taxi to take the guest there and gave her my personal mobile phone number and the hotel’s number in case she needed any assistance.

Three hours after she left the hotel, we called her to check if everything was all right. She was extremely happy that she finally met the relative and kept thanking us.

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