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Front of house – the Dorchester chronicles

24 September 2009 by
Front of house – the Dorchester chronicles

Earlier this month, Mark Lewis went on a mission to capture the essence of customer service, five-star hotel-style. What qualities must hotel staff embody in order to delight their guests and ensure their stay exceeds expectations? What better way to find out, than by spending a day in the lobby of the Dorchester.

It's 8am, and an Indian summer sun is illuminating the bank of flowers that stripes the front of the Dorchester hotel.

Just hours before, London's paparazzi had laid siege to the forecourt, snapping the A-listers and telly royalty that had converged on the hotel for the Harpers Bazaar Woman of the Year Awards and TV Quick & TV Choice Awards respectively. This morning, there's no sign that they were ever here. A road sweeper finishes a cigarette, drops the butt and sweeps it back up. A gardener fishes leaves from the pond that fronts the hotel's car parking bays with a net on a stick. Peace reigns.

Beyond the revolving doors, hotel staff go about their business quietly but diligently. Florists preen the mile-high arrangements that stand sentry in front of the hotel's famous Promenade; a housekeeper buffs the brasswork on the front doors; and Antonio from the gentlemen's cloakroom vacuums the carpet beyond the lobby area.

A calming hush prevails, which serves to amplify even the slightest noise. An overweight American at reception booms: "breakfast was famous, thank you"; and a businessman's jarring ringtone plays the theme to 24. All the while, the soft thud of the revolving doors provides a pulse to this beating heart of the hotel.

There's a sign reminding staff that "we are creating the world's finest hotel" in the concierge's office where I go to deposit my coat and bag, and a mirror by the door into the lobby. I straighten my tie, walk out, take a seat at one of the two tall-backed lime banquettes that flank the lobby, and watch.

Behind the ivy and pink hydrangea displays that dress the concierge desk, the night concierge is handing over to Paul Stocker and Andy Davies, who have just come on-shift. Across the floor, three receptionists stand, straight-backed, peering intently at their computer screens. They look like a Kraftwerk video with the volume turned down.

Two lycra-ed joggers headed for Hyde Park spring out of the lift and sprint past lobby manager, Scott West, who prowls the floor on the look out for guests in need of assistance, or maybe just a smile and a welcome. Scott heads up the Sense of Arrival team, a new initiative aimed at offering all guests a red-carpet entrance into the Dorchester.

"We are creating a new department from scratch, and we're three weeks in," he tells me. "Some hotels forget about the first-timers. We want to create the same experience for every guest rather than limit it just to VIPs".

NEW ARRIVALS

This starts out on the driveway, where members of Scott's team are on hand to "create a welcoming presence" for new arrivals. If the driver transporting the guest to the hotel has called ahead, they'll welcome the guest by name. Otherwise, they'll elicit it by asking: "what name should I put the luggage under?" Where possible, someone has Googled the guest in advance, to aid recognition. Importantly, new guests are welcomed; and returning guests welcomed back. A doorman spins the revolving doors like a Waltzer attendant at a funfair, walks the guest into the hotel and presents them to the receptionist. A wireless system is imminent, which will allow Scott and his team to radio ahead and describe a new guest's name and attire to the lobby team.

If creating a perfect arrival is partly a matter of process and communication, it also hinges upon getting the right team in place. "It's a simple process," he concedes, "but it's about hiring the right personalities and then training them. You're looking for someone open and easy to approach, but who knows when to back off as well. They need to understand other people's feelings and not over-work them if they don't want to interact."

Scott concedes that his welcome is not radically different from other hotels down Park Lane. "It's the fact that a department has been created that is different", he says. "In other hotels, it's usually led by the head concierge. But concierges are busy with what they do, therefore sometimes doormen aren't managed throughout the day". Scott's team of nine doormen and 13 luggage porters and car jockeys offers the flexibility to ensure guests are never ignored.

A sense of arrival team… great idea, but strictly five-star, right? Scott disagrees. He points out that anyone can use Google; and that any hotel can strive to greet guests by name. He advises: "Have good relations with the company that transports guests to your hotel. Speak to the local cab office, take them a bottle of Champagne or some chocolates once in a while. Ask them to phone ahead with guests' names: that'll improve your arrival experience."

It's time for the 9.30am morning meeting, at which department heads update general manager Roland Fasel on events around the hotel. With around 90 departures and 60 arrivals scheduled, it's not a busy day. The spa manager reports the previous day was a good one for F&B in the spa, and says she hopes to reach 30 treatment bookings today. "I told you Monday was the new Friday," says Roland. Someone shares the hotel's latest press coverage. The Guardian has reported on a "glitzy event at the Dorchester"; and Wedding magazine has tipped the hotel as "hot for hen parties". Tomorrow Marie Claire and Sainsburys Magazine are coming for a shoot, she announces. Oh, and there's some bloke from the Caterer hanging around all day. The duty manager's log reveals that a regular guest wishes to change suite.

Back in the lobby, Scott is discussing the finer points of burning lampes bergers with front of house manager Massimo Moreschini. "All the Paris hotels have them," Massimo says. The trick with these posh fragrance diffusers, apparently, is to light the wick for two minutes and then snuff it out. The one in the lobby has been left on for hours.

INTERPERSONAL SKILLS

Massimo oversees the 70-plus people working on reception, sense of arrival, concierge and guest liaison. He's full of sound advice. Like Scott, he stresses the importance of interpersonal skills: "What is it we do? We welcome with a smile, and accommodate guests in many ways. Guests aren't objects of revenue, they are people - so engage with them. The Dorchester can say ‘yes' to everything, but smaller hotels should still offer great service. The philosophy should be the same in all categories."

Massimo's golden rule of customer service is that attention to detail and effective communication are crucial. "Guests should roll into the Dorchester as if they are on a travelator, everything should happen by magic. We need to know what they need and inform other departments by means of a consistent communication culture."

If a mistake is made, Massimo advocates total honesty with your guests. "Always say you are sorry if you make a mistake - being honest is the important thing. If there is a problem, face to face resolution is better. Ask, ‘can I come upstairs to see you? Or can we meet downstairs?' Guests should leave our hotel with solutions found and a big smile."

The concierge desk is big on solutions and smiles. There's a stance all concierges assume as they scrutinise their screens: they lean forward with arms outstretched and hands on the counter. It's as if they are being frisked up against a car in a cop show. And they spend half of every day with a telephone receiver cradled between shoulder and cheek. Behind the counter, Dorchester pens and maps of London are stacked high. On the floor, bags of shopping from the city's most exclusive stores await delivery upstairs. Among them are several bags from Harrods, which a guest was expecting hours ago. "The Harrods courier couldn't find the Dorchester," Paul tells me, shaking his head.

STRANGE REQUESTS

Between guest enquiries and phone calls, I ask Andy and Paul the question they must have been asked a million times in the 19 years they've both been at the Dorchester. "Strange requests? We've been asked everything - when someone says they have a strange request you know you'll probably think it's run of the mill. But every day there's something new," Andy says. As if to prove his point, the following requests come in through the day. A Russian guest has a trolley load of public school uniforms that need school name tags sewn into them. Delivery from Skibo Castle needs to be arranged for a wood pigeon that was shot by a guests two years ago and has now been stuffed. Someone wants them to buy a Wii and five of the latest games and send them to Somerset as a birthday present. And a very regular guest who has been hospitalised after a fall wants a basket of fruit and two bottles of Corbieres smuggled in to her.

I ask Andy and Paul the secret of being a good concierge. Andy says "the most important thing is remembering the guest's name and storing the knowledge you learn every day. And you have to inject some fun into the job even if you are really busy". Paul echoes the importance of having fun and letting your personality show, and adds the ability to read guests. "Sometimes you know what someone wants before they open their mouth." I would add multi-tasking to the list of necessary attributes.

The lobby is eternally fascinating. The constant movement of people is like a slow dance: stare long enough and you start to discern patterns. These are some of the things and the people I see. Author Barbara Taylor Bradford sails through to the Promenade, stopping to chat to Andy and Paul en route. A Middle-eastern man approaches person after person, asking, "Excuse me, are you Mr Smith?"; none of them is Mr Smith. A couple of Australians, George Michael ringers both, idle in the lobby. Suits talk on mobile phones. Old-money ladies with big hair-dos come in to take tea. A short, moustachio-ed man crosses the lobby accompanied by a tall, pneumatic blonde. Lionel Ritchie swings through the lobby and waves and smiles to the receptionists. Christophe Michalak, a visiting pÁ¢tissier from the Dorchester's sister hotel, the Plaza Athenee, looks on as people take pictures of his pÁ¢tisserie display. I hear Russian voices, American, Indian. When I bump into Roy Ackerman, he has already met six people he knows at the hotel. "All life revolves around the Dorchester," he declares.

By early afternoon, there's a steady stream of people checking in at reception. Some have the dog-tired faces of long-haul arrivals. During a lull, I talk to Raoul Deflorian, who tells me that being genuine, engaged and interested is crucial to good customer service, along with a willingness to find solutions. "I led one guest to a suite at the end of a corridor," he remembers. "Halfway down he stopped and threw his bag in the air and said ‘I'm not gong any further'. We found him a closer suite…"

A little later, a guest with a tan the colour of mahogany asks after Concetto. "Don't worry," he tells the doorman who offers to track him down, "I just haven't seen him on this trip." Concetto Marletta is Guest Liaison Manager. It's a tribute to the rapport he develops with guests that they ask after him by name when they return.

PSYCHOLOGY

"We try to understand the psychology of the guest," Concetto tells me. "You have to adapt yourself to their personality and nationality. Some want to be embraced, others don't even speak to you. But all guests need to feel welcome, to feel they can rely on you. It's all about attention to detail, about trust and attitude. We have guests who live here through the week. Sometimes they call you at midnight. My motto is ‘never say never, never say no'. Someone texted me at 11pm last night on my day off, saying, ‘I want 49 roses in our room and a bottle of a certain Champagne.' You don't want to upset guests paying thousands for a suite three times a week - you have to go the extra mile."

I ask him what advice he would offer to other hotel workers. "Do what guests ask you and more. If they ask for ‘a', give them ‘a' and ‘b'."

Late afternoon gives way to early evening. In the Promenade, tea gives way to Champagne. Business travellers return from meetings and collect their keys and diners drop in for aperitifs. I spy my first bow tie at 6pm. Karen is having a late surge on the theatre desk, as people look to make last-minute show bookings. Meanwhile, Paul and Andy are busy with dinner reservations. Is there an ethical issue with making recommendations? I ask. "We give a range of four or five," Andy explains. Predictably, Le Caprice, L'Atelier de JoÁ«l Robuchon, Nobu, Ducasse, Cipriani, Scotts and Zuma feature heavily on the booking screen. Though they try their best, they can't always work magic. "You build up a rapport with certain restaurants," Paul says. "But you can't always get someone into Zuma on a Saturday night."

It's time to leave. My day at the Dorchester ends as it started, with Paul and Andy on the phone, piles of shopping bags behind them awaiting delivery to rooms. Exiting the cloakroom, I say goodbye to Antonio. "See you again, Sir," he says. "We're open 24 hours a day."

DORCHESTER VALUES

All employees at the Dorchester hotel operate according to its stated values:

â- Passion - with pride we enthusiastically deliver exceptional service.

â- Personality - with confidence we take on challenges as opportunities to express our generosity.

â- Respect - with integrity and fairness we value the diversity of people, cultures and environments.

â- Working together - with trust we act as one team celebrating everyone's contribution and successes.

â- Innovation - with a spirit of curiosity, risk taking and ongoing learning we share creative solutions for continuous improvement.

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Front of house: In the front line
Front of house: Peter Avis - an Englishman in New York

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