Loved The Grand Budapest Hotel? Now, meet India's very own Gustave
No task is big enough for these concierges - be it a tour of Mt. Everest or delivering an auto rickshaw in Saudi Arabia. No wonder they are driving business at their hotels.
Three years ago, an Austrian couple came up to Stephen Fernandez, a six-foot tall man, who is a familiar face in the lobby of The Oberoi, Gurgaon. They had a nerve-wracking task for him. "We would like a tour of the Himalayas in a helicopter. And of Mount Everest."
Fernandez had been a concierge for 37 years, but the task was like shooting in the dark.
Luxury hotels are fussy about their services and the service providers they recommend. And when there is no direct contact, concierges depend on their 'network'. Fernandez started calling one helicopter operator after another. Finally, someone pointed to a contact in Kath- mandu - it would cost "thousands of dollars", but an aviation company in the city would attempt it. The couple was taken around the Everest foothills in a chopper where they made stops at three Buddhist monasteries nestled between snow-capped peaks. They returned to Gurgaon after eight days.
"How did you do it?" the couple asked Fernandez with a gleeful chuckle. "Don't ask me," he replied. "Was it safe and comfortable?"
If you ask concierges about their role, as this writer did, they would come up with two statements. The first is a question that usually goes like this: "Have you seen the film The Grand Budapest Hotel?" It's a film about the life and times of Gustave, a dedicated concierge who finds himself in the middle of a theft and murder mystery. While the lives of Indian concierges may not involve such intrigue, they are often as dramatic. That's due to the second statement they come up with: "We cater to every demand, from a needle to an aeroplane."
Concierges are today labelled as magic makers, fixers and problem solvers, all rolled into one. Les Clefs d'Or, the international association of professional hotel concierges, says they accommodate every guest request as long as it is morally, legally and humanly possible: "Concierges handle all duties with zeal: mails and messages, recommendations and reservations, travel and meeting planning, personal shopping and professional communication. They are also supreme social advisors, business expediters and personal confidantes".
While being all this, concierges drive repeat customers. Fernandez says he meets 80-100 repeat guests a month who remember him and acknowledge his service. Satish Gaikwad, Chief Concierge of The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, often receives calls from guests travelling to Mumbai. "They may want to know if tickets are available for a cricket match. We can arrange. All this results in business in a subtle way. He will also bring his friends and family along," says Gaikwad.
Better With Age, Like Wine
The ability to forge friendships and ensure repeat guests has made concierges powerful in Europe - they can often be the face of the hotel. India, where the profession is newer, however, is on a different curve. "The head concierge in Europe or in the US could step in for the General Manager. That's not the case in India. But they are much more empowered now than they used to be," says Zubin Songadwala, General Manager of ITC Maurya, New Delhi. When Songadwala started his career in hospitality 28 years ago, little separated the concierge and the bell desk services in India. "Concierges were gods internationally, but in India, they started coming of age only in the last 10 years. About 12 years back, we identified this as an opportunity. We got a concierge trainer to train our select associates across hotels," he says.
Oberoi's Fernandez was the earliest in India to become a member of Les Clefs d'Or, which translates into 'Society of The Golden Keys', in 2000. Members can be recognised by crossed gold keys on collars of their uniforms. The process to get affiliated to the Paris-based society wasn't easy. "In order to become members, we had to first get associated with Singapore, as the country handled all new associations. We formed The Concierge Association of India in 2000 with 10 members," Fernandez says. He became the Founder-president. Nevertheless, many concierges started leaving the association in subsequent years. Around 2006/07, many more hotels started concierge training, and so interest in reviving the association grew. In 2011, India received its independent status from Les Clefs d'Or at the body's 57th Congress in Toronto. A large contingent of concierges from India was in the city to celebrate - the golden keys were important to tell international travellers that they were on a par with the best in terms of service and professionalism. Also, when odd cross-border requests couldn't be met single-handedly, Indian concierges could tap into the contacts of Les Clefs d'Or members across the world. India today has 129 Golden Key concierges. By 2019, there could be 200.
"The moto of our fraternity is 'In-service through friendship'. A lot of our work is done through networking," says Fernandez. That network cuts across hotels; all concierges are great friends and ask and return favours when needed. These networks get better with experience; concierges get better with age, like nice wines. In Europe, it is not uncommon to find those in their 70s. Fernandez sits in The Oberoi, Gurgaon's The Paino Bar as he talks about him being only "sweet 59". He is going strong, is passionate, today in the hotel in spite of a bad throat and a minor racket that morning. His face is swollen in many places.
"I have been bitten by ants today. They were in my towel."
Of a second wedding, a stranded jet, an auto for Saudi Arabia
Nearly all luxury hotels now have 24/7 concierge coverage. And every concierge has stories to tell. Requests for getting suits stitched in eight hours or booking chartered flights in two hours are common. So are finding lost passports and bags. These extraordinary acts drive repeat business. Business Today asked star concierges about their "heroic" deeds.
Sunny Prasher, Head Concierge, The Leela Palace, New Delhi, says a guest wanted seven jacket buttons replaced with buttons from a shop in Savile Row, a street in central London, known for bespoke tailoring. He had a party to attend the next day. "He showed us the pictures of what he wanted and we managed to get those buttons within 24 hours," says Prasher, a concierge since 2005. "We mailed the pictures to a concierge in a hotel in London. He picked up the buttons and sent it to Delhi through a traveller in a British Airways flight."
His favourite story is about a middle-aged American couple who wanted to re-marry in a temple. "We got the car decorated with marigold flowers, arranged a priest, and got the barat party from the hotel - all hotel staff. We rented a sherwani for the bridegroom and a lehenga choli for the bride. We decorated the temple in Safdarjung Enclave with flowers and lights," he says. The couple stayed with the hotel twice more thereafter.
Albert John, Manager, Concierge at The Imperial, a historic hotel inaugurated in 1936 in New Delhi, got his golden keys in 2007. He cut his teeth in hospitality as a bell boy before being promoted as an airport officer. "If you are a bell boy, you are well-oriented with the rooms. You meet the guests and interact with them. When you move to the airport, you greet them and assist them from the beginning. You get the gist of hospitality," he says.
His learnings over the years helped in 2013, when a Russian guest, flying his own plane, wanted him to take over the fixing of his jet, stranded due to a fuel leakage problem. "He found comfort in me. I went to the airport and got an aircraft maintenance team to fix it. Parts had to be sourced. It took us time but the plane was fixed," he says. Then, two months ago, a Japanese guest broke her expensive French sandal. "She wanted it repaired by the next day. We fixed it in two hours through one of the cobblers I knew. She has promised to come back and stay with us again," John says.
Nothing in concierge can happen by the textbook. Narender Singh, Concierge Manager, ITC Maurya, New Delhi, realised this when a British guest wanted him to trace where his great grandfather was buried. Through online search and with the help of a friend's family, he could trace the likely grave to St. John's Church in Meerut, founded in 1819. And recently, a non-resident Indian called from Singapore. He needed 10 Indian cricket team T-shirts with his family members' names printed on them. "We got it done. He called back again to say he wanted four more shirts, which had to be dispatched to Singapore in time for the ICC Champion's Trophy in England," says Singh. Since he was stuck at work, Singh asked a fellow concierge at the hotel for help, who in turn asked his father. The shirts were sourced, printed, and dispatched. The effort worked - the NRI was elated as his whole family was featured on television wearing these blue T-shirts during a match.
Satish Gaikwad from The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, was once given a task by a Sheikh's wife who took a fancy to autorickshaws during her visit to the city. She wanted to take one home. "We spoke to a manufacturer in Pune and got an autorickshaw delivered to Saudi Arabia. We just make it happen," Gaikwad says. Once a guest checked in at the hotel late at night with a bad toothache. He had a board meeting the next day. Gaikwad spoke to a dental clinic and got transportation arranged for a doctor to visit at midnight. The doctor arrived in pyjamas.
"No two services we render are alike. They come in different shapes and packages," Gaikwad says on phone. "Guests remember our service. And they talk about it. They send across boxes of chocolates."