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Holding the Keys to Power, Tuxes if Needed

Concierges Prepare For Clients' Demands

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 2, 2005; Page C01

Second inaugurations tend to be relatively low-key affairs compared with the first go-round, but the most experienced concierge in Washington feels certain this one will be a blowout to rival its predecessor.

"We're not calling it an inauguration," said Jack Nargil, head concierge at the Hay-Adams Hotel, as he gazed across the street at the White House last week. "Because the president's supporters believe he has a mandate, there's going to be, in effect, a coronation."

"There will be requests which we had not anticipated, and that's where we scratch our heads and scratch our Rolodexes and get it done," Nargil said. (Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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Some of Nargil's fellow concierges agree and say they are preparing for four days of celebration that will have more of everything: more energy, more activity, more zealousness, more requests.

"You have to understand, the winners are coming to town," said Nargil, a registered Democrat and the longest-serving Washington member of Les Clefs d'Or, an international association of professionally trained concierges. The group's name translates as "the keys of gold."

Every four years, the rich and important sweep into the city for the best and closest seats to power. But the concentration of money and influence that the hospitality industry expects next month doesn't mean that all the guests plan carefully. To plug the holes in their itineraries, replace items forgotten at home and make sure that their sway conveys, they turn to some of the most plugged-in people in town.

"It's who you know," said Michael High, a concierge at the Ritz-Carlton on 22nd Street NW, explaining how he clears hurdles. He knows which formalwear shops will reopen on request after their closing hours. He has already called brokers about inauguration event tickets, which are selling for about $800 to $1,500 each. He's even been known to offer to wash dishes at a restaurant when calling in favors.

Concierges across the city are making sure their networks are in place. They are trying to anticipate every visitor's need, from booking extra hair, makeup and massage appointments to keeping spare ties, cufflinks and cummerbunds handy. Innumerable routine tasks such as finding a dog-sitter or choreographing the ballet of limo drivers in the front drive become an art form when all the needs come at once.

"People are coming from all over the world for the world's biggest prom," said Desmond McKenna, concierge for the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown. "It's like a prom gone crazy."

Providing enough rain ponchos, pocket warmers and mugs of hot chocolate for hundreds of well-dressed revelers is simple enough. But concierges have also had to help a Hollywood celebrity with a bad hair day who needed a particular brand of hairpiece trimmed and styled within hours. Or to address the request of a longtime guest who missed Christmas because of a business trip to China. He returns a day before the inauguration and will check in to find a Christmas tree and poinsettias in his room, plus a Christmas menu and his favorite carols on the stereo.

For the best concierges, there is no such thing as an impossible request.

"Nothing is out of the ordinary here," said Michael Chase, a concierge at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown; he who once flew to New York to retrieve a pair of forgotten tuxedo slippers from an inauguration guest's apartment after finding nothing at nearby stores that met the man's approval.

Four years ago, a woman from Texas asked McKenna to put on her fur coat and roll around in the snow, he said, because she had heard it was good for fur. He was too big to wear the coat, but a female colleague in housekeeping obliged.

"I've never seen so many fur coats in my life," McKenna recalled. "And this lady paid one of our ladies to go out in her mink and roll in the snow, because it doesn't snow in Texas, so she never got the chance to do it there."

Then there was a woman, a big donor from Ohio, who arrived with a diamond necklace but lost a gem in the hotel. It was never found. John Dignan, a former concierge at the Ritz, the Hay-Adams and the Jefferson Hotel, said he hopped on the shuttle to New York and had the necklace repaired at Harry Winston on Fifth Avenue.

"It was like $35,000 for the one diamond," Dignan said by phone from Sedona, Ariz. "It was unbelievable."

The kind of political bigwigs that celebrate an inauguration in full are the kind of people who can afford to buy tickets to every event, no matter whether they attend, Dignan said.

"It's like the ultimate networking event," he said. "A good number of people will come into town with a set of tickets for every ball, just in case they're able to go to them all, just to cover themselves."

Four years ago, a Texas couple with reservations at the Ritz in Pentagon City wanted tickets for every event, including good seats at the swearing-in ceremony. Otherwise, they planned to cancel their trip. The hotel had already remodeled two other suites to make a second presidential suite for the couple.

"The hotel and corporate office of the Ritz was scared to death," said Dignan, who three days before the couple's arrival got tickets through a friend at $2,000 apiece. "It ended up working out just fine."

It rained, however, and the couple never showed up during the swearing-in ceremony.

Apart from tickets, dinner reservations at the hottest restaurants are some of the hottest commodities during inauguration week. And yet, scores of people who expect to be seen at the best tables rely on hotel employees to use their connections at the last minute.

Concierges are discreet about how they work their magic. They concede that it is a balancing act that requires crucial relationships with reliable and well-respected shopkeepers, seamstresses, florists, jewelers and the like. "There will be requests which we had not anticipated, and that's where we scratch our heads and scratch our Rolodexes and get it done," said Nargil, the Hay-Adams head concierge.

Through it all, said High, at the Ritz, he has never encountered rude behavior, even from the most impatient of guests. "With all the controversy that surrounded the last election, when it was all said and done and our president was inaugurated, they were just happy," he said. "You'd be surprised: Everybody I encountered, they were so elated."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company