'A good concierge sees everything but holds his tongue'
Discreet? Quick thinker? You might just have what it takes to do one of the most exacting jobs in hotels
Disaster! There are minutes to spare until a band of musicians strike their drums to mark the start of a glittering Indian wedding. But, wait, cries a guest in the hotel lobby, my sari has torn. Not even blinking, the head concierge reaches for his desk drawer as if for a cape and mask. He fetches, instead, a sewing kit. In a flash, the sari has been repaired, the guest is on her way and the deafening serenade begins.
Sean O'Beirne is no superman, but rather an amiable 22-year-old whose needle skills would make his Irish mum proud. Nor does the costume drama come close to stretching his talents. But it offers an insight into a peculiar profession steeped in tradition, lore and secrecy, whose members deal in the unpredictable, the barely obtainable and, occasionally, the "I'm sorry, sir, but that won't be possible".
O'Beirne has been a concierge at London Syon Park since the hotel opened last year in the grounds of the house of the same name, the west London home of the Duke of Northumberland. It is part of the Waldorf Astoria group. The firm claims its new, personalised "true Waldorf service" evokes the spirit of the first Waldorf Astoria – the marriage, in 1931, of two landmark Manhattan hotels.
I join O'Beirne at the bar to talk shop, and to test his skills. Not being the sort of hotel guest who expects more than a working loo and warm scrambled eggs at the buffet, I imagine what it might be like to be, well, loaded. So, Sean, what would you do if I called down to say there's a tiger in the bathroom that may or may not belong to Mike Tyson? "That would be one for housekeeping," he says (he's seen The Hangover, too).
OK, more seriously, oysters. I want the best anywhere in London, and I want them, like, yesterday. "I could recommend good places I know but I have a good contact at our Park Lane property who I would call to be sure. Alternatively, we could provide the equipment for you to catch a trout from our lake and bring it back to our chef who can cook it the way you like it."
O'Beirne, who started working in hospitality at 16 in his local pub, has the key attributes of a concierge. He's quick-thinking, resourceful and always armed with an alternative. His service, which includes contact by email before a guest has packed their bags, is impressive, but he admits he has much to learn before he can be called a master.
"Concierge" supposedly derives from the French comte des cierges, or keeper of the candles, whose job it was to look after guests at medieval castles. Later, after the dawn of the age of tourism, "candles" became "keys" and, until recently, one of the concierge's most important duties was to lock the doors of his hotel (and know when –and to whom – to open them).
As the world slid into depression at the end of the Twenties, concierges in Europe decided to start working together. A 1929 meeting in Paris laid the foundations for what became Les Clefs d'Or, or the Golden Keys – the international union for hotel concierges. Its members, who number more than 300 in Britain, must be nominated and pass rigorous tests before they may adorn their lapel with a golden key (O'Beirne is working towards his).
Frank Laino has more stories than he could share after more than 20 years as a concierge in London, where he was born in Battersea to Italian parents. Now 53, he's the man with the golden key at The Stafford, a five-star hotel in St James's. "People in hotels can behave in a curious manner," he says, "but a good concierge sees everything and holds his tongue."
Go on, Frank, what's the strangest request you've had? "I had a client who had a very small dog that shivered the whole time, like a bag of bones. She told me it was very difficult to find it jackets. I told her, jokingly, that she should have one made in Savile Row. She said she thought that would be a very good idea. So I called some friends who were tailors and they made two little coats, one in tweed check and the other in plain burgundy."
More recently, Laino was asked by a guest to help him with an unusual mission. The man, a wealthy American doctor, wanted to see all 34 paintings attributed to the Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer. "He had got to number 32," Laino recalls. "Number 33 was inside a private room at Buckingham Palace."
More important even than a fast wit and UN-standard diplomacy skills is a concierge's contacts book. If you're not on first-name terms with the best maître d's, ticket agents and tailors, you're not going to be much help. Laino won't reveal who he called at the palace, but the doctor got his private viewing.
"I had another old American client who loved riding London buses," he says. "He had read an article about the old London Routemasters being phased out. He called and said, Frank, can we buy one of these? I investigated and arranged for one to be shipped to him. It was actually quite easy."
While guests have become, if anything, more demanding, Laino says his role has changed greatly. "A concierge used to be expected to run a business within a business and if clients were happy, then management gave you carte blanche," he says. "Nobody knew what you were doing." Today's concierges, by contrast, are salaried company men.
Laino says that throughout his career, a concierge would never do anything illegal or immoral – although short of that, he adds: "From time to time the boundaries get pushed." Despite the modernisation of his profession, best represented by O'Beirne and the next generation of concierges, he says: "We've hopefully retained a bit of an entrepreneurial streak." A well-insulated dog somewhere in America would be inclined to agree.
True Waldorf Service is available at all Waldorf Astoria Hotels. London Syon Park (020-7870 7777; london syonpark.com) has doubles from £259 per night, room only.
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