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 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
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."