The Concierge

You've Got Questions, She's Got Answers

con1.jpg

It had been a good lunch. That much he remembered. Now, three years later, the Japanese businessman is back in San Francisco and wants to eat at the same place. Unfortunately, he can recall neither the name nor the location of the restaurant.

This is a case for Diana Nelson, chief concierge at the Grand Hyatt. By eliciting descriptions of the restaurant from the guest, Nelson concludes that he had eaten at the Greenhouse—“That’s it!” he cries—an establishment that has long since gone out of business. No matter: Nelson recommends a restaurant with similar ambiance and cuisine. The man walks away smiling.

Nelson performs this bit of detective work while pressing a phone to her left ear. The ticket office of the San Francisco Ballet has her on hold. A quarter of an hour earlier, an Italian guest with limited English, multiple chins, and a robust sense of entitlement had asked her to procure three tickets for that night’s performance of Balanchine’s Agon.

While Nelson is holding, an elderly couple moseys up to the desk. They wonder if someone could look into some cheap flights to Las Vegas for them. “Come back this afternoon and we’ll have that for you,” says Nelson, who seems vaguely disappointed that they didn’t ask for hotel and restaurant recommendations also. This native San Franciscan, now in her 21st year at the Hyatt, enjoys a reputation as one of the finest concierges in the world. In April, she was reelected president of the U.S. chapter of Les Clefs D’or—the Golden Keys, the international society of hotel concierges.

Five Clefs D’or members work at the Grand Hyatt; only the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., with seven, has more. All three concierges on duty this morning—Nelson, Mary Ann Smythe, and Anne Sullivan—wear les clefs on their right lapels. Problems, questions, and requests ranging from the routine to the recondite—from walking tours to whale watching, from frozen yogurt to astanga yoga—stand little chance before their combined knowledge and expertise. They rely on a small library’s worth of references: Zagat, Fodor’s, and airline guides; sample menus; maps; theater and music listings; yellow and white pages; and much, much more. If stumped or in need, they unhesitatingly capitalize on their Clefs D’or connections, phoning concierges at other hotels the world over. To stay abreast of goings-on in their own city—we learn this morning, for instance, that pianist Larry Vuckovich is no longer playing at the Shanghai, and that the once-hot restaurants Vertigo and Chez Michelle have closed—they steep themselves in entertainment guides and restaurant, music, and theater reviews. Finally, they do as much legwork as possible. “My philosophy,” Sullivan says, “is to go out and eat out as much as possible. And run marathons.”

Enhancing vacations, facilitating lactation—it’s all in a day’s work for Nelson and her staff. The previous week, a new mother stayed at the hotel. Three times a day she would drop by the concierge desk with a small cooler containing freshly expressed breast milk, to be overnighted to a grateful baby back home.

“Pretty standard stuff,” Nelson says. Others in the industry disagree. “Diana goes way above and beyond the call,” says Louise Mountford, assistant general manager at La Colonial, a Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco. “When we have customers who need a recommendation for a hotel or out-of-town restaurant, I call her.”

“Diana is exceptionally competent and creative,” agrees Marjorie Silverman, who is not exactly bumbling and unimaginative herself, having once produced a helicopter for Steven Spielberg on 30 minutes’ notice. Silverman is the chef concierge at Chicago’s Intercontinental Hotel and the president of the Clefs D’or International.

The Clefs D’or was founded by legendary Parisian concierge Ferdinand Gillet in 1929, some eight centuries after concierges had begun appearing in the castles and palaces of Europe. As members of the household staffs, they welcomed and assisted guests throughout their stay, no doubt offering valuable advice on where one could find a good goblet of mead without encountering cutthroats or contracting the plague.

It took concierges rather longer to establish a foothold in this country. Nelson was bored and managing a beauty salon in 1978 when a friend told her to give Holly Stiel a call. Stiel was a pioneer in the field, the concierge at the Hyatt, one of perhaps two dozen concierges in the United States at the time and the first American female to hold the job. “Being a concierge,” Stiel says, “allowed me to do two of my favorite things: talk about San Francisco and tell people what to do.” In 1978, she needed someone to cover her shift on Sundays and Mondays. She describes the day Nelson called as “one of the luckiest days of both of our lives.”

Nelson was “fabulous from the beginning,” recalls Stiel, who left the Hyatt seven years ago to begin a consulting business. (Her book, Ultimate Service: The Complete Handbook to the World of the Concierge, is available at Amazon.com.) Nelson also brought to work each day a San Franciscan’s fierce pride in her city. If you are a Hyatt guest unfamiliar with San Francisco, you will enjoy your stay, if Nelson has anything to say about it.

She can be a brilliant sleuth. Ten years ago, for instance, another Japanese gentleman wanted to know where he could purchase ox gallstones. Nelson worked the phones for a couple of hours and found a rendering plant in the Central Valley that dealt in such commodities.

While Nelson enjoys relating the ox gallstone anecdote, she also recognizes that the real value of a concierge is “how well you do the ordinary things, the small things”—the flower orders, the weather predictions, the winery recommendations. Stiel calls them the “relentlessly repetitive” aspects of concierging, and they are the kinds of quotidian duties Nelson discharges while on hold with the ballet: phoning a Ms. Fusco to inform her that her tickets to Beach Blanket Babylon have been ordered, assuring Mrs. Kaiser that a tour of Alcatraz has been arranged.

“You can imagine how many times we’re asked about cable cars,” Nelson says. “And each time you talk about them, you have to find the same level of enthusiasm. This is show biz. I can’t hang a sign up that says, ‘I’m having a bad day, so service will be off by 50 percent.’

“As a concierge, I have an opportunity to totally make a difference in what kind of visit to San Francisco the guest has,” she says. “It’s an awesome responsibility.”

She is dead serious. She is no longer on hold. After 30 minutes, Nelson got a live human voice at the ballet and ordered three tickets, in the orchestra section, at $72 a pop. During Nelson’s long exile on hold, Sullivan had phoned a local ticket broker. He’d offered similar seats for $160 per ticket. We’ll get back to you, said Sullivan.

By spending half an hour on hold, Nelson saved the guest $264, for which exceptional service she may or may not get thanked. Although her efforts are sometimes taken for granted, says Nelson, “nothing can buoy the spirits like a guest telling you how really grateful they are.” Yes, they appreciate tips (an envelope at the beginning or end of your stay is one discreet way of handling it).

And then there are the other guests, such as the Japanese gentleman who came to Nelson in search of ox gallstones. After Nelson did heroic research and told him where to get his exotic offal—the Harris Ranch in Coalinga, California—the fellow responded with a follow-up question. He was going to Texas next; where could he find ox gallstones in the Lone Star State?

“Once you get there,” Nelson told him, “find yourself a good concierge.”

What can they do for you?

It was 1980, the Mesozoic era of the service industry, before Spectravision and Starbucks in the lobby. Strobe lights still graced many a hotel’s cocktail lounge, and concierges were rare.

“There were pockets of us on both coasts, and a little pocket in the middle of the country,” says Marjorie Silverman, who opened the concierge desk at Chicago’s Westin 19 years ago. “Few people at the time could pronounce concierge, let alone define it. People were always walking up to the desk, butchering the pronunciation, and asking us, ‘What do you do?’”

An accurate reply would have been, “What don’t we do?” If you pride yourself on being a low-maintenance hotel guest, stubbornly handling your own dinner plans, plotting your own cultural outings, never asking for directions, you are squandering an incredible resource. Concierges, a Madison Avenue ad agency might sloganize, they’re not just for dinner (reservations) anymore.

An alphabetized list compiled by the Clefs D’or catalogs a tiny fraction of the things its members can help you find. A sampling from that sampling: antiques, baby-sitters, dentists, horseback riding, interpreters, jugglers, lingerie, notary services, opera, oxygen tanks, race tracks, X rays, xylophones, zoos. Says Nelson: “I tell guests we can do anything for them, as long as it’s legal and kind.”

A lovelorn young swain with an engagement ring in his pocket has no more valuable an ally than a concierge, who would be only too happy to make suggestions and arrangements for a marriage proposal. If the question, once popped, is answered in the affirmative, concierges again come in handy: Nelson’s staff at the Grand Hyatt recently handled a wedding party for which they took care of tuxedos for the groomsmen and a hairdresser for the bride and bridesmaids. “That’s fairly common,” Nelson says.

One time, she recalled, a photographer needed to shoot a landscape that would look like it had been taken in China. He’d come up empty in San Francisco’s Chinatown: Modern buildings snuck into every frame. Nelson remembered a Shinto shrine on Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park. Although it had been barricaded due to vandalism, a call to the police brought down the barricades. The photographer got his pictures. “I figure I saved him a trip to China.”

Photo by Markham Johnson

This article was first published in July 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

Your rating: None Average: 4.5 (2 votes)