The Jumeirah Carlton Tower is a proper five-star hotel. Its rooms cost up to £5,000 a night and overlook Cadogan Gardens, in the heart of Knightsbridge. They are furnished with big sofas, exotic orchids, half the world’s marble and bathrobes so fluffy, you could survive a 10-storey fall in one.
Down in the lobby, fur-coated women soothe away the strains of a morning’s designer shopping with champagne and cake, while olive-skinned businessmen shake hands on billion-buck deals the way you or I would shake hands on who gets the last croissant.
There is a harpist, a murder of smiling receptionists, a gaggle of sprinting porters and, most important for the purposes of this story, four concierges. Three of them are wearing a gold key brooch on their lapel, signifying membership of the Clefs d’Or, the elite society of the concierge world. One of them isn’t. His badge reads: “Matt - Trainee.” That would be me.
My training has consisted of a brief demonstration of how to read a map upside down and learning the magic, time-buying phrase: “Certainly, sir, I’ll look into that and call you straight back.” I don’t feel prepared.
Looking at the guest register, every person staying here is a sheikh, an ambassador, the CEO of a yacht company or all three. I am not going to be able to cater to their every whim. I have only the most rudimentary knowledge of the restaurant scene in west London, I hold no sway with the guest list at Chinawhite and I can’t tell my Gabbana & Hawkes from my Dolce & Gieves.
At least it’s a Monday, so it’s not that busy. And we’re overstaffed. Richard is the head concierge, and Cyril and Jason are here too. Normally, there would only be two of them, but they’ve got a third in, presumably to make it harder for the pretend concierge to send a sheikh to Burger King or the president of Georgia on the Tube. He is staying here tonight, by the way. The president. I know it’s only Georgia, but it’s still a president, with all the potential for a concierge-related international incident.
Still, this is my big chance to find out what it’s like on the other side of that desk. A concierge is, after all, a special part of a hotel. He’s the Knowledge. The A-Z. The fixer. He knows everything, you know nothing. He can be quite intimidating.
Richard, as it happens, isn’t intimidating at all, but he is quietly all-knowing. He is better connected than the most Gatsbyish of socialite barflies. In his post this morning, he has a note from the manager of a top restaurant, thanking him effusively for dining there last week, along with several new invitations. He and his team are out constantly, building contacts, testing new places, swapping intel with other concierges. It sounds like a big party, but it’s work, says Richard. They all help each other out, particularly if they’re members of the Priory of Sion, sorry, Clefs d’Or. And, as we’ve established, I’m not.
THIS IS HOW the first (quiet) hour goes ... An American man looking thoroughly fed up needs a car, like, now (no problem). A Middle Eastern man looking only slightly less fed up needs to get to the airport, like, yesterday (no problem). A man wants a table for four at Nobu tomorrow night (nearly a problem, but Jason knows the Nobu girl, so we’re fine). The phone rings and a guest is in urgent need of a pencil sharpener. We have a pencil sharpener. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief.
The phone rings again, and it’s an alleged friend of a Middle Eastern princess who is staying in one of the posher suites. Friend demands a limo to bring her back to the hotel. We check with the princess. She’s fine with it. Off goes David the Driver in his S-class Merc. Everyone breathes another sigh of relief.
A disgruntled guest’s shoes arrive from the cobbler and we all look anxious, because, if it’s been done wrong again, we’ll never hear the end of it. The shoes look fine, so we FedEx them to Singapore, where disgruntled guest has now flown.
More sighs of relief are interrupted when the same disgruntled guest calls from Singapore. We tell him his shoes are fixed. He tells us the gentleman’s balding tonic we shipped to his office in Dubai has arrived smashed. Some people are never happy.
All the while, shopping bags are being delivered to the desk by puffed-out delivery boys. First Prada, then a small one from Gucci, then D&G, then Jimmy Choo. The order in which these bags arrive corresponds to the order in which the shops are laid out up Sloane Street. From this, we can deduce that the guest in room 3001 can’t be fagged to carry her own shopping, that she is heading north and that she is burning some serious cash. She’s only got Harvey Nichols to go and that’s a full set. This, apparently, is normal.
So far, I have avoided almost all direct contact with guests. I have smiled at a few, but they haven’t smiled back. They are too important. I have practised my upside-down map-reading and I have pretended to bark orders at a porter down my walkie-talkie, but I have not done any real concierging.
Then comes my chance. The others are all engaged with guests when a perfumed women in a catsuit approaches, holding a large box.
“Morning, madam, how may I help you?” I inquire in my smartest concierge voice, smiling what I imagine to be a winning smile.
“Do you know what I’m going to do with this box?”
I have already upset her.
“No, madam,” looking politely at her box, then nervously at my shoes.
“Well, then,” she replies, and edges away from the desk before vanishing backwards through the revolving door. Richard explains that I have just met Ms Smith. She has issues. Normally, she comes down in her underwear, and has to be marshalled sensitively back to her room.
This seems the right time to broach the subject of a concierge’s limits. I am told they won’t do anything illegal. Drugs are out, as are hookers, though of course they’ve been asked. Just in case you need to know, there’s a coded way to ask for a prostitute. You phone the concierge and say: “Can I have another pillow?” This is embarrassing, because my wife is quite partial to an extra pillow. Which means I’ve often called down and asked for a prostitute to help her sleep. Having said that, they’ve only ever sent a pillow. Which is probably for the best.
Although the concierge doesn’t arrange extra pillows, call girls do find their way into the bar. Only last week, Richard tells me, a cleaner discovered a guest and someone who wasn’t his wife at it in the restaurant toilet.
“How does a five-star hotel handle that sort of thing?” I ask.
“We waited until the couple had finished, then we suggested they might prefer to use a room next time.”
THROUGHOUT the afternoon, I get a glimpse of how the other 0.0000001% live. There are more orders and commands and panics and demands for tricky things immediately. Some guests are inordinately polite, others much less so. I pass one a phone, having connected him to a room, and he flings it back without so much as a cheers.
One fellow on a print-out I’m not supposed to be looking at has a tab of £97,000. He’s had the room for eight full weeks even though he stays only at weekends. The astonishing thing is that he’s pretty much matching the cost of his room with the cost of his phone use. I can see hundreds and thousands of pounds worth of calls. One, an hour to the Middle East, cost £700. That’s £12 a minute. Can’t someone give the man a mobile and a cheap web-based call provider? And post the savings to Africa? Or me? My friend from Georgia has made only one phone call. It was reassuringly brief.
By the end of the day, I did start to wonder, as I stood at my desk, watching rich people rack up huge bills on overpriced drinks and steaks and £125 lifts to the airport (even the Heathrow Express doesn’t cost that much), at the terrible injustice of it all. I didn’t get a single £50 tip for my troubles - tips have dried up since the arrival of that phrase “a discretionary service charge of 12.5% has been snuck onto your bill”. All I got was a phone slung back at me and a woman being sinister about a box.
I think it’s pretty established that money can’t buy happiness. But there’s no need to take it out on the concierge.
The Jumeirah Carlton Tower (020 7235 1234, www.jumeirahcarltontower.com)
It’s amazing what some people will ask a concierge to do
“A GUEST requested a reenactment of the exact conditions on the day he proposed to his girlfriend. A diver was hired, wetsuits were rented, a prop was carefully constructed. On D-day, the guest and his wife were seated at the same waterside table they had occupied 10 years before when, all of a sudden, the husband pointed to the formidable fin of a huge shark crossing the East River. “Look, honey,” he said. “It’s the same shark we saw 10 years ago, when I proposed to you. What an incredible coincidence.” Raphael Pallais, chief concierge, the Plaza, New York
“WHILE WE were docked in Monaco, a guest left her hat in a taxi. She had no idea which taxi she had used. All she knew was that the driver had been listening to a football match on the radio. I contacted the radio station and asked them to make an appeal, in the hope that the driver was still listening. He was - and the hat was returned.” Gabor Szarvas, chief concierge, Crystal Cruises
“A GUEST arrived very sad - his cat had died and he wanted us to find a graveyard. We did this for him. To show his gratitude, he asked us to join him at the funeral. We arranged a limo to take us and the cat there. Sinatra’s My Way played throughout the journey. We were all in tears.” Ali Oner, chief concierge, Ceylan InterContinental, Istanbul
“WITH A day’s notice, one guest requested the use of six red Ferraris to drive to the Billionaire Club, in Porto Cervo. After many calls, I managed to track down five red Ferraris and a grey one, but the guest was so disappointed, he used taxis instead.” Federico Barbarossa, concierge, Hotel Cala di Volpe, Sardinia