Need the next-to-impossible? Ask the concierge

Special to The Times

HOTEL guests have strange requests. Consider the American who asked the concierge at the Four Seasons Hotel London for a dresser to help his wife through the many steps it takes to don a traditional kimono. It was 4 p.m. Christmas Eve. He needed the dresser at 8.

Then there was the family whose nanny left her passport at the hotel and then got stuck in immigration in Dubai. The concierge put a porter with the nanny's passport on the next plane to Dubai, where he rescued the stranded nanny, did a bit of duty-free shopping and returned on the next plane to London.

An exceptional concierge can be a traveler's savior. "That's what we're here for," said Joshua Gardner, head concierge for the Four Seasons London. "We're problem solvers."

Most luxury hotels have concierges, a word that evolved from a French term meaning "keeper of the candles." During the Middle Ages, this person catered to the whims of visiting nobles. Today they're more accustomed to getting restaurant reservations and booking theater tickets for guests. But some of the requests they receive are unusual, to say the least.

I recently played fly on the wall at the concierge desk at the Four Seasons London, spending an afternoon hovering and taking notes as Gardner and his team fielded requests. I repeated the exercise several weeks later at the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills.

A wedding party called the London concierge desk to ask how much a stretch Hummer would cost for an evening. I figured it would be a stumper. But Gardner whipped out a 4-inch-thick folio of business cards and flipped to the card for A member of his team was on the phone and in minutes had a quote -- $1,300 for the first four hours, $360 per hour thereafter.

Being a guest at the hotel is not a prerequisite for receiving service. Gardner told me the story of a man who was running late for a train and did not have time to return a rental car. He spied the Four Seasons and pulled in the driveway.

"He had stayed at Four Seasons hotels before and knew if he popped in, we'd be the people to help," Gardner said.

The staff did, returning the car and even paying the congestion charge, a fee for driving cars in central London, which they then billed him for.

How does one say "no" to customers who are accustomed to hearing "yes"?

"We never actually say no," Gardner said. "You can always say no with a yes."

A concierge, however, will refuse requests that are illegal or unethical.

And "sometimes people ask for things, and it's just not going to happen," Gardner said.

Los Angeles sleek

IT was a sunny Friday afternoon in early June when I paid a visit to the Four Seasons Los Angeles. The MTV Movie Awards were that weekend, and the hotel -- which is show-biz central -- was abuzz with entertainment-industry folks.

Head concierge Marta Krejci was busy trying to find a location for an Austin Powers impersonator to perform for a bachelorette party. Meanwhile, her staff was busy helping guests.

The L.A. vibe is reflected in the personnel, an attractive group of personable young men and women.

Felicia Wesley could have stepped from the pages of Vogue. Tall and thin, she appeared stylish even in her concierge uniform. She speaks three languages -- "Italian, French and American" -- and has been a concierge for eight years.

A casually dressed man stepped to the desk and asked where he could buy a racing form. He wasn't staying at the hotel, he said, just having drinks at the bar. Wesley said she would look into it. He wandered back to the bar.

He returned 10 minutes later; by then Wesley had reserved a racing form for him at a nearby newsstand. He handed her a $20 tip.

"Now can you give me the winners?" he asked.

"Give me 15 minutes," Wesley said.

A hotel guest then inquired about "a good Japanese restaurant." Concierge Gwen Sukeena recommended Matsuhisa, one of L.A.'s top-rated restaurants. The guest needed a reservation for five for that evening. Good luck, I thought.

But Sukeena got on the phone and uttered the magic words: "Hi, it's Gwen from the Four Seasons." A 5:45 p.m. reservation was secured, with "5:45 and no later" gently but firmly emphasized.

The average traveler has access to much the same information as a concierge -- through the Internet, newspapers, local magazines. But there are two things Joe Traveler can't duplicate: a concierge's in-depth knowledge of a city and his or her well-cultivated contacts.

In London, Gardner is always making mental notes as he walks the city's narrow streets -- a new shop here, a restaurant closed there. In Los Angeles, Krejci drives different routes to and from work to see what is new.

Many top concierges belong to the Society of the Golden Keys (Les Clefs d'Or), an association for professional concierges. It has nearly 3,000 members worldwide and 450 in the U.S. The concierge teams at both London and Los Angeles include several members of the society, which requires five years' experience and two recommendations from working concierges.

According to the society, concierges typically earn $20,000 to $50,000 per year. Tipping, although not officially expected, is always welcome.

"There is no rhyme or reason to a gratuity," Krejci said. "Some people show a tremendous amount of gratitude for the smallest request."

Others do not tip at all. The habit of tipping the entire concierge desk at the end of a stay is waning, she said.

Tips in London are pooled among the team members. Tips in Los Angeles to individual concierges belong to them, and tips to the desk in general are shared.

Various concierges I spoke with described the job as that of baby-sitter, travel agent, personal assistant, counselor, psychoanalyst and even anthropologist.

"The job's not rocket science," said concierge Nigel Frith of the Four Seasons London. "We're creating people's memories."

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