Savvy travelers know that one of the easiest ways to make dinner reservations in a European restaurant -- especially if you don't speak the language -- is to ask your hotel concierge to phone for you. At most, the service costs only a small tip.
A long-standing tradition in Europe, the concierge is beginning to find a place in many of this country's better hotels, particularly those that cater to business executives. U.S. concierges, too, will make dinner reservations for you -- among many such services -- and they just might get you a better table than you could on your own.
"It's because we know all the maitre d's," says Margery Silverman, the head concierge at the Westin Hotel in Chicago. "If you came to Chicago and called cold, they're not likely to give you the same table as we can get."
But as Silverman and other concierges in this country point out, many -- or even most -- traveling Americans are unfamiliar with concierges and don't know when and how to seek their help. The exception is travelers who have been to Europe and have returned looking for the same kind of service here.
The U.S. hotel industry is responding to the demands of "a very sophisticated international traveler," says Dianne Duffin, director of corporate public relations for the Sheraton chain, which has placed concierges in 80 of its hotels. Though in this country concierges are found chiefly in luxury hotels today, it's anticipated that other quality hotels will follow their lead as more travelers become aware of the service.
What kind of assistance can a hotel guest expect from a good concierge?
"Ask for anything, as long as it's not illegal," says Michele Holter, a spokesperson for the Seattle-based Westin chain, which in the past few years has added concierges to many of its hotel staffs.
That covers a multitude of possibilities, but the basic requests include making dinner reservations; obtaining theater and concert tickets; suggesting sightseeing itineraries; arranging for a baby sitter; and finding someone who can quickly repair damaged luggage, sew up a zipper or replace a shoe heel that's come off.
Business travelers can turn to a concierge for help in hiring secretarial assistance; renting a personal computer; rebooking hotel and airline reservations; shipping packages; renting a tuxedo or arranging for a limousine.
And, importantly, says Silverman, "We can get it done in an hour."
Concierges sometimes also have to manage the unexpected:
Silverman recalls being asked on the spur of the moment by corporation officers staying at her hotel to hire a helicopter to meet a visiting dignitary at the Chicago airport and have him flown to the convention.
Marcelle Cattan, concierge at the small Hotel Beverly, a suite hotel in New York City, remembers recent guests from South America who wanted to know where they could buy a replacement part for their 1934 electric refrigerator. She thought for a bit, she says, and then phoned the main office of the manufacturer for the answer.
"You can get any kind of a question," says Cattan, who once brought fresh-squeezed orange juice from home for a guest who couldn't find it in nearby restaurants. "It's a challenge."
Though still little-known in the United States, the profession of concierge is a proud one maintaining certain standards watched over by an international association based in Paris, Les Clefs d'Or (The Golden Keys). The U.S. branch was formed in 1977.
At the moment, there are about 80 American members (and about 2,000 internationally in 23 countries), and the numbers are growing. Not every concierge is eligible for membership. To be accepted into Les Clefs, applicants must be employed full time at a hotel, working from a desk in the main lobby; and they must have five years experience in the hotel industry, including three years as a concierge.
Those who meet these and certain other requirements are entitled to wear the golden crossed-keys symbol pinned on their uniform lapel. Whether in a European or American hotel, you can check the lapel to distinguish a registration clerk (a position with its own responsibilities) from the concierge.
"Some day, we hope to arrive at the point where people choose their hotels because of the great concierge there," says Les Clefs President Jack Nargil, who is head concierge at Washington's elegant Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown. Among other Washington hotels with a Les Clefs concierge are Embassy Row, the Grand, Bristol and Hay-Adams. There are about 40 concierges in Washington-area hotels.
As concierge, Nargil oversees the work of bellhops and the door staff, and he looks on his duties "as the maestro of activity in the lobby," welcoming guests as a "graceful host." A good concierge, he suggests, certainly will recognize repeat guests and remember, for example, whether they prefer a room on a lower or higher floor.
Guests should have no hesitation about asking a concierge for help, says Nargil. The job is to be of "support and assistance." He has helped business travelers to Washington arrange for an afternoon of golf and tennis. And once he put together a five-piece orchestra and rented a sound studio for a wealthy visitor from the Middle East who wanted to cut his own record.
Knowing how to get things done quickly is the test of an accomplished concierge. Nargil keeps two books he calls his "bibles" filled with the names of contacts who can provide a private jet or repair a watch if a hotel guest suddenly requests them. When he calls, the contacts know he needs the service in a hurry and usually will accommodate him.
Les Clefs members form an international network, and a concierge in one city may seek help from a colleague in another city, says Michael Cawdrey, head concierge at Washington's Grand. He recently contacted a Paris concierge to track down a bottle of hard-to-find perfume for a guest at the Grand.
Getting to know your concierge could pay off in VIP treatment. It's not unusual for Cawdrey, he says, to give a departing guest the name of the concierge at the guest's next hotel. And Cawdrey, too, may contact the other concierge about the guest, requesting that "You take good care of him for me." Many concierges distribute business cards so guests will remember them by name.
In Seattle, hotel concierges meet at a monthly citywide meeting to exchange information on guest services, says Johnny Frederick, head concierge at the Seattle Westin. Some commercial shops, such as a quick photo-finishing firm, may even make a slide-show presentation at the meeting to acquaint concierges with their company.
And Seattle restaurants, he says, occasionally invite concierges to dinner so they will be familiar with the place when a guest asks for a restaurant recommendation. Frederick is so frequently asked about theater, airline and Puget Sound ferryboat schedules that he expects soon to get a computer to help him keep track of such details.
Because New York City gets so many visitors, the Beverly's Cattan finds her foreign-language ability a great help. Born in Casablanca in Morocco, she speaks fluent French, Spanish and Italian. If you know what special services you will need before you arrive (baby sitter, sightseeing tours, secretarial help), she recommends talking to the concierge as soon as you have phoned for a room reservation.
Concierges say they get their most fun from answering the challenging requests. But most questions are routine. So, says Frederick, a concierge has to "just love working with people," particularly when the 100th person that day has asked directions to the restrooms.
Some hotel chains are adopting a variation of the concierge desk, focusing their attention principally on business travelers -- who can be profitable repeat guests. Typically, these chains set aside one floor of the hotel where concierge service is available.
The Washington-based Marriott company, for example, now offers a "Concierge Level" in 43 of its 145 hotels, including the J.W. Marriott Hotel in downtown Washington. At most of these hotels, guests can skip the main registration desk and go immediately to the Concierge Level to check in.
Other hotel chains with a concierge floor, at least in some cities, are the Hyatt, Sheraton, Hilton and Holiday Inn's Crowne Plaza.
Marriott's Concierge Level usually features a private lobby, a library with current magazines and newspapers and an "honor's bar" where guests can mix their own drinks. Guests pay only when they check out, informing the hotel how many drinks they've poured.
And each of these special floors is staffed with a concierge, who can provide the full range of traditional services.
The concierge floor is "a new development in the hotel industry," says Marriott spokeswoman June Farrell. The idea is "to take the hassle out of travel" for frequent travelers and provide them the kind of personal attention they might otherwise not get in a big convention-size hotel.
She describes Marriott's Concierge Level as her company's equivalent of the frequent-flyer bonuses offered by the airlines. It has proved "very, very popular," she says. When business travelers are "out on the road," they "are constantly on, selling and promoting. It gets tiring. They need a place to come down."
Farrell says businesswomen particularly have found the concierge-floor concept appealing. "It gives them a sense of security, and they enjoy the privacy on this level." After a day's work, they can enjoy a drink in the relaxed atmosphere of the private lobby if they don't feel comfortable going to the hotel's main-floor bar.
The cost of a room on the concierge level is about $20 more a night than Marriott's standard rooms. The price also includes a buffet breakfast of coffee, tea and pastries.
Curiously, these concierge floors are a trend that is not viewed entirely favorably by Les Clefs, which, says President Nargil, takes the point of view that a proper concierge should be available to all of the hotel's guests. Concierges whose job restricts them to only certain hotel guests are not eligible for membership in the organization.
Should you tip a concierge?
It's not really necessary, say an assortment of concierges, but the position is one that traditionally is tipped in Europe.
Of course, guests should expect to pay for any commercial services they request, such as shoe and luggage repair or baby-sitting. But the size of the tip for arranging that service is up to the individual.
The Chicago Westin's Silverman, who is vice president of Les Clefs, suggests tipping $5 a day if a guest has asked for a number of services every day. For a simple request, such as making a restaurant reservation, a proper amount would be $1 or $2.
And, she advises, "savvy travelers tip you at