A brief history of concierge services explains why staff behind the desk may not always be what they seem.
Many might be surprised that before the First World War some doormen and hall porters in London and Paris paid hotels for their jobs. Their living was made exclusively from tips and commissions. Taxi drivers paid doormen for introductions to fares, and hall porters who booked restaurants for clients were passed envelopes of cash from grateful proprietors.
All went profitably for hotel owners who saved the wage bill, while their uniformed staff benefited from the largesse of others. Then came the recession of the Twenties when the first waves of austerity obliged more socially progressive employers to start paying a wage to their frontline staff.
This coincided with the arrival of the term ‘concierge’ – a new concept. The word had a more common usage as that of a caretaker and is a contraction from the French ‘Comte des Cierges’, the Count of the Candles, the man originally responsible for cleaning and lighting châteaus. Paris hoteliers separated porters from front hall guest service and in 1929 also created Les Clefs d’Or – the global organisation of concierges, membership of which requires five years’ proven experience and vetting.
However, an aversion in London to any continental term meant that while the new role was understood, hotels such as The Savoy and The Ritz were reticent to jettison the term ‘hall porter’. Instead luxury hoteliers called the new department ‘The Enquiry Desk’ with enquiry clerks handling all guests’ requests and hall porters only handling luggage and the front door activity. The wage offered was still meagre and personnel in both positions were expected to make a large part of their living from tips, commission and any other opportunity that came their way.
This led to uniformed staff making some shrewd moves. For example, when black and white televisions were in most rooms, one enterprising Enquiry Desk bought several colour televisions to rent out to guests and made good profit until the general manager found out.
The good old days
By the 1980s a good hotel concierge could be making three times his salary in other income, and it was a great life. New restaurant openings always sent an invitation to the man with the Golden Keys (the insignia of Les Clefs D’Or). Limousine companies might offer an occasional complimentary airport transfer when holiday trips beckoned, and theatres were always keen to promote their latest productions with free tickets. Best of all, commissions came in untaxed cash envelopes.
While these arrangements suited some owners, the concept of a business within a business was not acceptable to the auditors of publicly owned hotel chains. They argued that while customers expected the very best service, the profit from all these activities should surely be for the benefit of the stakeholders and properly recorded in the accounts. What if a concierge made some dreadful error? What if the vastly over-priced tickets for an event turned out to be forgeries? Who would pay compensation to the client? The liability was with the employer and not the employee. It had to stop.
Consequently, most large hotels decided to swallow the cost and started paying their concierges a proper wage, keeping the commissions for themselves. All transactions had to go onto guest bills and the hotel expected to receive properly recorded contracts with suppliers, together with the subsequent income. Human nature being what it is, this arrangement was not, of course, watertight, so a new development occurred – the independent concierge.
In 2006 The Wall Street Journal reported that hotels in the US were adopting a ‘secret agenda’. They were getting rid of the concierge, reducing the wage bill and entirely outsourcing to specialist agencies.
Expedia rented 76 desks in hotels across the US and other companies followed suit. It was intended that customer service would appear seamless, as out-sourced staff wore hotel uniform. However, such was the success that some firms started opening desks in other locations, such as shopping malls, and movie theatres. It soon became clear that some companies were also favouring selected suppliers that paid better commission.
Then some properties with an outsourced concierge service began to route calls from clients to centralised call centres.
This has not gone down well with Les Clefs D’Or which says the development has led to a degradation of standards. Business travellers take heed. If you are seeking advice, look for the Golden Keys emblem and make sure the concierge actually works for the hotel.
Derek Picot has been a hotelier for more than 30 years, and is author of Hotel Reservations.