One day a regular guest at the Park Hyatt in Washington, D.C.
approached concierge Elaine Oksner, and said, "Elaine, I need an
elephant." He wanted it for a photo shoot for his wife, who was running
for political office. "I'll check in with you after lunch to see how
you're doing," he added.
Using her ingenuity, Oksner first called the National Zoo to
see if they rented out elephants. While they didn't, a local petting zoo in Virginia did. Oksner had
her elephant even before the guest had finished lunch.
It was all in a day's work for a professional working in one
of the most prestigious service careers in the hospitality industry - concierge.
The term "concierge" first appeared in France
in the Middle Ages and came to refer to the officers of the royal palace guard
whose job it was to protect the king in his palace. The concierge was the
holder of the keys in the royal households, with access to all the important
rooms. The concierge's responsibilities were diverse, including overseeing the
administration of domestic services and performing special tasks at the request
of the royal court. The definition broadened with the rise of the grand
European hotels in the 16th and 17th centuries, though it was not until the
mid-20th century that the concierge became a must-have feature of North
So prestigious is the concierge that there is an
association, from France,
dedicated specifically to hotel concierges, Les Clefs d'Or, whose motto is
"service through friendship". Today their membership numbers more
than 3,500 concierges representing 37 countries. Members are distinguished by
the gold keys they display on their lapels.
Though it's not every day Elaine Oksner, a former president
of Les Clefs d'Or USA and
now concierge at the Four Seasons Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida,
has to find an elephant for a guest, one day is never like another in her busy
Yes, the concierge is often the person guests call on to
make reservations, organize car rentals, give directions, share local
knowledge, make activity suggestions. But his or her work rarely ends there.
"You often get called to help out with
emergencies," says Oksner. "At The Breakers (where she used to work),
a man got a call that his son had had a terrible accident, and all commercial
flights had left for the day. We had to do whatever we could do to get him a
flight." On a happier occasion, Oksner was called to organize a
"faux" wedding for a couple who gave her very little time to create
their special day. Once a customer had his high end luggage damaged. Oksner had
to go online and locate which stores carried it. "You never know what
you'll get in a day," she says in understatement.
Roberta K. Nedry, president of Hospitality Excellence, Inc.,
which promotes service excellence through guest experience management and
develops specific programs to enhance guest and customer service, offers these
criteria for becoming a successful concierge:
"A successful concierge is absolutely a personality
type," says Nedry. "You must remain calm in a hectic environment and
always display integrity. You need to have an extensive network of contacts and
a knowledge of how to develop these contacts." The concierge can become a
hotel guest's social adviser, personal confidante, and all-around information
provider, with a knowledge of everything from antiques to zoos.
Since being a concierge is not your average 9-to-5 job, it's
no surprise the path to becoming one is not a straight line. Elaine Oksner, for
instance, was originally a dancer, who likes to say she's "fast on her
feet." Others have been teachers, nurses, public servants, flight
attendants and travel agents - anyone with enthusiasm and a commitment to
Concierges earn on average $20,000-$50,000, but a successful
concierge can earn much more, since this career relies heavily on gratuities.
Many concierges make the leap from the hospitality industry to the corporate
environment, says Sara-ann Kasner, president of the National Concierge
Association. "There's a huge crossover from hotel concierge to corporate
concierge." She herself came from a background in sales and marketing,
public service and public relations before becoming a corporate concierge.
For all concierges, the greatest reward seems to be what
Kasner calls "a psychic salary we all get paid - the mental satisfaction.
This happens over and over. Someone says, 'I don't know what I would have done