He's a Hotel Catey winner and has just become the latest recipient of the Andy Pongco Award as the International Concierge of the Year 2010. Ben Malpass is a conciergeat the top of his game. Janet Harmer reports
Like all the very best concierges, Ben Malpass simply does not have the word "no" in his vocabulary.
There is no doubt that Malpass, head concierge at the four-star, 230-bedroom Cavendish London, is one of the very best in his profession: he has just been named as the first British winner of the Andy Pongco Award as the International Concierge of the Year 2010. Representing The Society of the Golden Keys of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, he beat competition from 11 other finalists from around the world at the event held at the Clef d'Or International Congress in Lisbon.
Two months before, he had carried off the Front of House Manager of the Year title at the 2009 Hotel Cateys.
"We might be faced with a very challenging request by a guest, but we never say ‘no we can't do that'," Malpass says. "There is always a means of solving a problem or providing an alternative option."
His recent successes have brought to the attention of a wider audience something that his employers at the Cavendish hotel have known for some time - that Malpass is a totally dedicated concierge who is capable of achieving the very best at all times in a job that he loves.
"Since he joined the Cavendish, the front-of-house team has achieved guest satisfaction scores of over 95%," says the hotel's managing director, Ciaran Fahy. "Ben leads from the front and ensures that guests receive the highest standards of service at all times."
Taking a rare opportunity to sit down in one of the lounges at the Cavendish to talk about his role as one of London's leading concierges, Malpass comes across as totally unassuming. While he is delighted about his success, he seems a little surprised at the publicity that has surrounded it.
However, once behind his desk, Malpass assumes his character of head concierge and is flamboyant when he needs to be and totally charming and charismatic at all other times.
"As concierges we are on stage and we have to be very good actors, giving a performance which we adapt depending on the customer or guest," he explains.
Playing the role of concierge is one he fell into by chance. Born and brought up in Sydney, Australia, at the age of 18 Malpass looked for a job to fund his planned worldwide travels.
Through his father's uncle, who was a concierge at the five-star, 577-bedroom Hilton Sydney, Malpass landed a job at the hotel as a page boy, in 1994.
After a year spent distributing mail between departments and running errands around the city, the opportunity arose to become a concierge clerk. "As a page boy I had watched all the weird and wonderful things the concierges were asked to arrange and was intrigued by the level of wealth they came across," he says. "So I decided to abandon my plans of travelling to focus on a career as a concierge."
Working as part of a team of 34, which included doormen, valets and luggage porters, as well as concierges, in a large and busy hotel was, Malpass believes, the perfect way to learn the basics of the profession.
However, in 1997 he won a scholarship to the Montreal branch of the International Concierge Institute (ICI), providing him with the opportunity to back up his practical skills with more formal studies. Unfortunately, the ICI, which also had schools in Paris and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has now closed - and with it has gone the world's only formal training programme for concierges.
"It is a great shame," Malpass says. "On-the-job training is essential, but studying in Montreal was very inspirational as I was lucky enough to attend lectures by some of the finest concierges in the world - including Michael Romei of the Waldorf Towers in New York and Holly Steil, the first female president of the US branch of Clef d'Or and author of Ultimate Service: The Complete Handbook to the World of the Concierge, which has become something of a bible for concierges around the world."
On leaving Montreal, Malpass spent three months in London on an internship at the Langham hotel which was, at the time, a Hilton property. "I was given the opportunity to come to England as I have a British passport - both my parents are English," he says. "I immediately fell in love with the city, but I had to go back to my job at the Hilton Sydney."
Success quickly followed on his return to Australia, with Malpass being promoted in 1999 to head concierge of the Hilton Sydney at the age of 23. "It was definitely one of the proudest moments of my career as all my peers at the same level in the city were at least 10 years older than me."
However, the lure of England eventually resulted in Malpass making a permanent move in March 2000 to London, where he landed a job as assistant head concierge at the 405-bedroom Holiday Inn King's Cross, where he stayed for a year before moving to the 463-bedroom Thistle City Barbican as first head concierge.
In January 2005, Malpass was appointed head concierge at the Cavendish, a property he describes as "divine".
"It is by far the smallest hotel I have worked in, which enables me to have a more personal interaction with the guests," he says. "We have a very high return rate of guests - 60% - and as a result it is wonderful that I know so many of them as they come through the door."
Malpass works 12-hour shifts, during which he is supported by two assistant concierges and two luggage porters. He arrives at the Cavendish at 7.30am and spends the first 15 minutes of each day liaising with the night concierge.
Following the daily "morning prayers" meeting with Fahy and the hotel's other heads of department, Malpass's day gets into full swing with the opening of the theatre agents at 10.30am. "By then I will probably already have four or five requests for tickets," he says.
Malpass has never been unsuccessful at acquiring tickets. "There is no question that tickets can be pricey for a popular show, but if the guest is prepared to pay I will be able to get the tickets," he says. "At the moment, it is reasonably easy to get seats for most West End shows, although Enron can be a bit tricky."
There are also frequent requests for major sporting evenings such as Premiership football games and, in the summer, for cricket matches and the tennis at Wimbledon.
"In the past I have secured 20 tickets for the men's singles finals at Wimbledon, at £1,000 each. It is a matter of knowing the right people to call - always a key part of the concierge's job."
If this year's Wimbledon sees Andy Murray playing Roger Federer in the final, Malpass knows he will be able to secure seats on Centre Court for anyone who asks, "but they may well have to mortgage their house for them", he says.
With the London 2012 Olympics only two-and-a-half years away, Malpass intends to make sure that he will have the necessary contacts in place to ensure that he will be able to obtain tickets for any event.
Securing a reservation at top restaurants at peak times can be challenging. Malpass says he will achieve what to an ordinary mortal would be the impossible by walking a fine balancing act between asking a favour of a restaurant manager and not appearing to hassle him or her. "This is why it is so important to build up good relationships with all the key restaurant managers in town," he says.
In return for a much sought-after restaurant booking, Malpass may provide a favour in return, such as accommodation for diners at preferential rates or tickets for the restaurant manger at a key football game.
London restaurants currently most in demand, according to Malpass, include Nobu, Scotts of Mayfair, the Wolseley and the Ivy.
As well as securing restaurant reservations that guests want, Malpass says that a good concierge will also steer guests away from a restaurant if he thinks it is inappropriate for the people or the occasion.
"Just last week I was asked by a couple in their 60s to make a booking for their 30th wedding anniversary at a well-known modern European restaurant," he says. "However, I just knew it was not right for this particular celebration and very politely suggested that somewhere more romantic with good food and service would be more suitable for their special night.
"The next day, after the couple had dined at Le Gavroche, the gentleman came back, shook my hand and thanked me for the perfect choice of restaurant. It was lovely, as that is what I'm here for."
Ensuring Malpass and his team of staff are fully up-to-date with the best and latest entertainment and restaurants in town requires constant study. "We read Caterer every week and all the restaurant reviews and guides. Attending restaurant openings is an integral part of the job and if we are not invited then we visit the restaurants to read the menus."
The internet has helped immeasurably in Malpass's role as a concierge, but he insists that personal knowledge of a subject is more important than anything. "You have to be prepared to learn about the city you are in by exploring it on foot," is his key advice to any young concierge starting out in the job.
As well as juggling around eight or so restaurant and theatre bookings at any one time, there will also the occasional unusual request. Last year, for instance, Malpass was asked to find a dog bed made out of leather and lambs' wool. "I eventually tracked one down to a bespoke pet supplier off the King's Road."
Malpass does recall a time when he did not quite satisfy a guest's needs. He was asked by a wealthy American to arrange a helicopter to take him and his partner from Battersea to an Ascot race meeting which, that particular year, was being held in York.
"Unfortunately I couldn't get exactly the flying slot that he asked for as the Queen was booked in at that time."
Twelve hours standing on your feet may be a downside of life as a concierge, but this is more than made up for by the bonuses, which can include tickets to all the most popular shows of the moment and key sporting events. "I was lucky enough to be given tickets to the last two Ashes series held in this country - supporting Australia, of course.
"The job satisfaction is immense and I get to enjoy something of a Champagne lifestyle, although I may only be on a beer salary."
BEN MALPASS'S TIPS FOR TOP CONCIERGE SERVICE
â- Impeccable grooming at all times
â- Highest level of guest focus, no matter what else is on your mind
â- Ability to multi-task
â- Be prepared to lead from the front and engage with your staff
â- Strong determination and self-motivation
â- Be a good lateral thinker - so when one avenue closes, be prepared to explore another
â- Total integrity - "We are spending other people's money and have to be totally trustworthy"
THE SOCIETY OF THE GOLDEN KEYS OF GREAT BRITAIN AND THE COMMONWEALTH
Ben Malpass became a member of The Society of the Golden Keys of Great Britain and the Commonwealth (or The Keys as the society is more commonly called) in 2007, which was formed more than 50 years ago to develop friendships - and a network of contacts - among concierges.
Together with eight other similar associations worldwide, the society was a founder member of the international organisation, Les Clefs d'Or, which is officially known as the Union Internationale des Concierges d'Hotel (UICH).
Today, Les Clefs d'Or has 3,000 members in 40 countries, with the United Arab Emirates being the most recent recruit. An international congress is held by Les Clefs d'Or in a different country every year - the most recent being in Lisbon, where Ben Malpass carried off the Andy Pongco Award.
The congress provides an opportunity for concierges to meet up with their international counterparts and help establish vital contacts which can make a valuable difference when seeking to help guests, wherever their travels may take them.
Next year, the congress will be held in Toronto, with London being the host city in 2012, when around 700 concierges are expected to converge on the capital.
Nearly 300 concierges in Great Britain and Commonwealth countries currently belong to The Keys. New recruits have to have been a uniformed concierge for at least five years, as well as undergo a rigorous selection process.
After being proposed and seconded by two existing members of five years' standing, the applicant will be called before an interview panel to which they have to prove their abilities as a considerate and forward-thinking problem-solver.
He or she will be asked questions about restaurants, sporting events, tourist attractions and other events in the locality where they work, as well as show an ability to be empathetic with guests.
Ron Crowdy of the Royal National Hotel, London, is the newly elected national president of The Keys, having replaced Paul Still of the Hilton Park Lane, London.