THE world of the concierge used to be as mysterious as that of the freemason. The public, and sometimes the industry itself, saw them as stuffy, suited types who sat behind desks and magically produced theatre tickets for shows that were "sold out". Jobs were passed down through families, and there was a popular belief that concierges could earn as much as a general manager when tips were included.
But today that has changed and, while some four-star hotels have recently closed down their concierge departments, hotels such as London's Metropolitan and St Martin's Lane have given the concierge's desk a new look, introducing younger, trendier staff and calling them guest relations executives.
Even in traditional five-star hotels the old military style is disappearing, to be replaced by customer-friendly managers who want their staff to shake off that stuffy image. Concierges like Paul Pugh, head concierge at the Savoy hotel in London, no longer aspire to be stern, off-putting figures seen only behind a desk. "In fact, I like to come out from behind the desk as much as possible," he says. "I think the job is a lot more exciting than it was 10 years ago."
Nigel Firth, chef de brigade at the concierge's desk at the Four Seasons London, says that the concierge's world is not as "clubby" as it used to be. The rules of how concierges operate are now set by the hotel company, and each tip must be recorded and accounted for. In the old days, he says, concierges "used to be businesses to themselves. Now it's all about corporate policy."
So the mystery has gone, but there may still be some in the industry who question what exactly these men and, increasingly often, women do all day. But in a time-poor global society where senior executives can often not spare the seconds to read their own e-mails, the demand for someone to do it for them is increasing. And, when the executive stays at a hotel, that someone is the concierge.
Michael Romei, chef de concierge at the Waldorf Towers in New York, says: "Everyone feels they can approach us now, not just the favoured few. Concierges have had so much publicity that every guest knows we are there." With growing numbers of business people staying at five-star hotels, the concierge's desk is called on to provide essential office services, organising faxes and accepting deliveries. "They don't want a long conversation," says Pugh.
In fact, the skills of the concierge are so much in demand that Kempinski Hotels, the German-owned international chain, is offering a home service to its best customers. Its private concierge scheme, now being introduced, will allow customers to call the concierge's desk for help and advice from their home or office at no extra charge. Already, 2,800 guests have joined the scheme and are expected to use the services of the hotel nearest to their home. "If they live in Berlin, they might call in at the Adlon for help on a theatre booking," says a Kempinski spokeswoman.
For Pugh, a recent typical day at the Savoy included sorting arrangements for the arrival of Mohammed Ali, finding and buying 12kg of chinchilla dust for a guest's dog (the dog bathes in it) and researching the details of a Suez cruise. He phoned kennels and dog experts he knows for suggestions on how to get hold of chinchilla dust, and eventually found it at Harrods. The cruise details he got from his regular travel agent. When a guest wanted to know the result of a horse race, he turned to the Internet and printed out a copy.
The Internet has fast become a useful tool in the work of a concierge. Pugh says the Internet is now vital. Not only does it help him cope with the demands of guests, but it affords him a starring role on the Savoy's own Web site, where he offers anecdotes and recommendations. Prospective guests can e-mail Pugh in advance of their arrival, asking for an airport transfer or to book tickets for shows.
Technology has introduced other changes. Hyatt International this year introduced technology concierges who will help travellers hook up their laptops and solve any technical problems, such as when a guest is missing a vital telephone adapter. Problems like these have become a significant source of stress for business travellers trying to work from a hotel and attempting to hit a deadline. "At a recent customer focus group, we discovered that the new generation of business travellers rated technology support higher than any other hotel service," says John Wallis, Hyatt International's marketing vice-president.
At one time, becoming a concierge was impossible without a connection. But today, although competition is fierce and the job is demanding, there are increasing numbers of people who want to be that vital guest link.
Pugh joined the Savoy 18 months ago after starting his hospitality career in the kitchen as a chef and taking his first concierge job with Radisson Edwardian's Hampshire hotel in London in 1985. The desk he leads now includes the Savoy's first woman concierge, Jennifer Steain, who was recruited nine months ago. Pugh says that when there are vacancies he will look for potential recruits in-house and also put the word out to the global concierge society, the Clefs d'Or. "I look for someone with the right personality," he says. "You have to like to deal with people."
Like Pugh, Romei did not start his working career as a concierge - indeed, he didn't even start in hospitality. After being a child actor, he then went to work for petroleum giant Shell for seven years before moving to the hotel industry. "But all three careers were to do with presentation," he says. "Nowadays, you come across concierges who have trained in other things - and it is useful, as we have to know about all sorts of areas." For the past four years Romei has also been teaching at the International Concierge Institute in Montreal.
Romei says that in the USA there is a wider variety of people moving into the job. Not everyone has a background in the hotel industry, and those differences are bringing a new range of skills.
Earnings vary depending on location. For example, a concierge in New York earns an annual salary of about $30,000-$40,000 (£18,500-£24,667) not including tips and commissions. Salaries in Los Angeles are between $9 (£5.55) and $13 (£8) per hour plus tips. A starting salary at a five-star hotel in London is about £14,000 plus tips.
Romei agrees the world of the concierge has changed rapidly. "We have educated the public to use the concierge," he says. "People are willing to pay for more services and for quality." n