Updated: Dec 7, 2020
"CONCIERGE ARE HOSPITALITY ANGELS" Ron Stoevelaar
"WITHOUT MY TEAM I AM NOBODY" Mario Picozzi
If you have read one of my latest posts "Will hospitality get its talent back when the pandemic is over?" you should remember the discussion about how hotels are restructuring and temporarily eliminating some positions, as with the current situation some roles are not essential, and that’s where companies are aiming to save cost.
Non essential roles are considered the ones which are meant to enhance the guest experience, however don’t represent a basic necessity to the guest, and therefore can be suspended for the time being.
One of these roles is that of the concierge. If you recall, I mentioned this with a heavy heart in the article, and I do so again now, because as much as I understand it is a necessary move right now and I know things will change back eventually, it’s disheartening to talk to my concierge friends and hear how little - or non existent - work they have right now, and how many of them have been made redundant.
Good concierges, however, are people who like me love to stay connected and relevant, and who thrive to maintain their knowledge and network alive at all times.
So I think now more than ever is a good time to feature this fascinating world, and keep it top of mind in a moment when it’s particularly suffering.
Bouncing around a few cities obviously I’ve worked with a pretty big number of concierges; despite the fact that with the newest technology available to us more guests tend to skip this service, it’s still a very popular profession that attracts a lot of people of different ages and backgrounds, so with such high interest in this department, I have been thinking a lot about what makes the difference between a good concierge and an outstanding one.
A metaphor I always use when trying to describe this function, is that of the sommelier. Neither of these roles is fundamentally essential: your hotel can run without a concierge and your restaurant can run without a sommelier just fine, but the service they offer creates that luxury state of mind we talked about in the beginning, and makes a great difference in what we consider traditional luxury hospitality. These people are there to give you insights on how you can make your experience even more enjoyable, to show you all the possibilities you did not know about, to educate you and to offer that service you didn't know you wanted.
What is the greatest quality of an exceptional Concierge or Somm? It’s the passion. The passion the Somm displays for wine is the same passion the concierge displays for their own city.
I have been fortunate enough in my career to work with some incredible leaders in the concierge world, who have showed me all of the fascinating qualities that make them some of the most interesting professionals I have had the pleasure of encountering during my career.
In this article I want to celebrate their success by letting them teach us what it takes to really make it in their field.
Please welcome my amazing former colleagues who have agreed to share some exciting observations!
Ron Stoevelaar is the current Chef Concierge at Pulitzer Amsterdam where he has been working for the past 10 years; he is also the President of Le Clefs D’Or association for the Netherlands. Ron is a very well known personality in his city and country, with 25+ years of experience in the industry and 25 years membership with Le Clefs D’Or. Before Pulitzer made the switch from Starwood to independent, Ron was also the Face of Starwood Luxury Collection.
Mario Picozzi is the current Chef Concierge at Mandarin Oriental Milan. Mario has 30 years of experience within luxury hospitality, of which 24 as concierge. After his deeply significant experiences at the Savoy Hotel London, at the Hilton Hotel Munich Park and at the Rafael Hotel Munich, he became Head Concierge at the Royal Hotel Sanremo (Italy). Mario has worked in Milan for 18 years, at Park Hyatt, and at Mandarin Oriental, which he proudly opened and where he has worked for the last 6 years. He has been a member of Le Clefs d’Or for 22 years, of which 4 as former National Secretary.
The first point I want to discuss with both of you is the love and power a truly fantastic concierge manifests for and in his town. When we chat with someone who is a great advocate for their city, who talks about it with such excitement - just like you - we are automatically drawn to you and we trust you to create the best experience for us. The sentiment for the location you are promoting could be even more important than the knowledge itself. Your charm is what gives us the same enthusiasm you have and keeps us involved. The power - as I like to say concierge have the keys to their town - that makes you so connected, and gives you a crucial role in the community, is what makes us trust you. In my humble opinion this is the secret to a successful career as a concierge. Let’s talk about what is so unique and thrilling about your hometown.
Ron - Amsterdam is an open air museum with a unique heritage, I guarantee you in any of your travels you will not find a city like it. When you hear the name “Amsterdam” you think big, but it’s actually a small town - the name is bigger than the city itself. It’s really within reach and you definitely feel comfortable in it. The mentality is very liberal, people are accepted and not criticized in any way, so when you come here you can truly be yourself. We adopt the same mindset in our hotel: it doesn't matter if you are a big shot, when you stay with us you don’t have to be that person, you can just be the man who is here to explore and enjoy what Amsterdam has to offer, without being judged. In that sense the city gives you the chance to re-exist, and the feeling that you are a human being again, you are who you are, no matter what you do. This is what is so exceptional about it.
Mario - When you think of Milan you automatically think of business, but in the last 10 years the city has evolved significantly. The percentage of visitors is now 60% leisure and 40% business, so the table has clearly turned in recent times.
Milan is a city of hidden treasures, a discreet beauty to be discovered. What makes it unique is the fact that it is a huge cluster that offers many different opportunities. When we talk about economy and business the city is obviously the engine of the country, but not only: you can find art, you can explore culture and heritage, you have opera and music, you have a cutting edge food & beverage scene, tourism is strong, so is fashion, design, and entertainment.
Its central location makes it a great hub, from which in just an hour or two you can reach Genova, Verona, Venice, Bologna, the lakes, and the mountains. In the past tourists traveling through Italy used to visit the big 3 (Rome, Venice, Florence), now Milan has become a must for visitors because it allows them to explore so much in just one spot. The agglomerate of all these aspects is what makes it the reference point for the country and the reason why it’s recognized as such at a European level.
Let’s look at the role of someone in your position in the journey of a guest, what different duties and qualities do you portray, compared to the other concierges?
Ron - I like to think about concierges as hospitality angels, there is someone above us who called me to spread the world of hospitality on earth. One of my main talent is to be able to read people, I see who they are from the moment they walk in, this is what puts me one step ahead.
My philosophy is to approach the guest as a human being, and to work with human values. When you work with me it’s all about trust, as a guest you want to listen to locals and to what they have to say, so my special and tailored tips are what builds the trust and the connection. As a guest, no matter your age or background or interests, you always relate to your human values… trust… comfort… safety... When you are away from your home and from your safe environment, I am that person you can rely on and who can guide you throughout your journey. I am your guardian angel in a foreign land.
Mario - I am proud of the fact that in my team everybody is extremely professional and dedicated, they are all very strong, and I always take their advice and listen to what they have to say. We are all different and balance each other very well. This is important to mention because I am very aware that without my team Mario Picozzi does not exist, without them I am nobody.
With that being said, perhaps what I do differently is that, thanks to my established experience, I have developed a strong intuition and I am able to anticipate the guest's desires and needs.
Most importantly, I always think forward. Fixating on the “now” is easy, if you focus on the “now” it might be too late. What’s harder is looking forward, being proactive, planning ahead, anticipating what could happen tomorrow and thinking about a solution before a situation presents itself. That’s what my team and I are able to achieve together. I am there to offer a long term vision, a forward thinking, and to provide structure and guidance to my team.
I look at the passion you have for mentoring young pupils and I see this as another key quality for anyone who is interested in contributing positively to this world. Teaching new concierges and younger professionals how to be passionate, trustworthy, connected and charming, in order to keep the profession alive and relevant in future generations, is something I have seen you both caring for deeply.
What are your words of wisdom for younger people interested in this profession?
Ron - Being a good concierge is like having any other talent: it has to be in your DNA. It takes a very special person to be able to touch someone’s heart.
When I teach classes in hotel schools I see a lot of young professionals with the same passion that comes directly from their heart. If you have this quality, if you are genuinely interested in people and you enjoy making the difference in their journey, you have a social heart, and this job will not be hard for you.
I also see people who are looking at this profession for the benefits that are in it, if that’s your goal, you are approaching the job in the wrong way.
I personally enjoy letting new professionals into my world so they can grow their connections and understand what the job is all about. I have to make myself not indispensable. I want to feel like one day I can leave my position knowing the people I mentored are capable of and ready to continue the legacy.
To be successful in this profession you have to be humble, you need to give your guests the feeling that you will do anything in your power for them, don’t make them think that YOU are important - for example: do not start sentences with “I have been there, I also did that” - “I” is not important in the exchange. Focus on the guest. If making someone else feel important is what gives you positive energy, you are in the right environment.
Mario - The concierge world, but also hospitality in general, has gone through some changes in terms of workforce and structure due to the current progress and innovations. However the qualities a great concierge should display to be successful are still the same. My key words are sociability, diplomacy and curiosity.
We are sociable: we enjoy people and appreciate genuine relationships.
We are patient and diplomatic, we don’t let ourselves get dragged by the moods of the day, if anything we are the ones who can turn things around.
We are adaptable, we have an understanding for different cultures and habits and we flex our style based on who is in front of us.
We are problem solvers, we are ready for the unexpected and we are capable of finding a solution in a fast and efficient way.
We are curious, we try things ourselves because we want to know first hand.
Finally we are relationship builders, we are the city ambassadors, the liaison that entertains the relationship between the town and the visitors.
Adopt this mindset and you will be a successful concierge.
As we all know, during the pandemic people want minimal face to face interaction, digital systems have replaced the human connection, and activities are closed. Therefore you and your teams are currently dealing with heavily reduced workload. This trend which already started before Covid, could unfortunately continue and establish roots now more than ever. Are you concerned about the future of your department or are you hopeful for a recovery?
Ron - All new computers and technology in the world cannot build a connection with a human being. When you research something online, you can certainly find answers, but the recommendation is no longer unique and personal: what’s online is for the mass, concierge tips are tailored to you. We as concierges have the knowledge and can exchange information, but we also have the ability to exchange feelings, we can read people. Even if people don't ask for help we know when they need it, technology cannot do that.
I think that the future is hopeful. People like to travel and I know they will start again when they can. They might opt for less trips of a longer duration, which could be an advantage for our department.
What I see happening at this point in time, is that companies who are focused on the revenue aspect more than on the human aspect are not going to survive.
In the last few years we’ve had the luxury of a consistently high occupancy, the issue was not how many guests we were attracting but what kind of guests we were attracting. That luxury is now gone, and we need to be more proactive in the way we approach our strategy.
Travel agents and luxury operators need to feel like they are part of us. Myself and my team can play a big role in that: we have to give them the certainty that we will be offering their guests a different touch, so they can trust us and send them our way. It will not be about the choice of location or destination, it will be about the personal relationship more than it’s ever been. In the same way we have to approach guests with a new mindset: standing behind our desks is no longer an option, we can’t sit there and wait, we have to go out there, we have to go in their world, create situations for people to enjoy. If we do that, we can bring the concierge world back also with the younger generations. When you work from the heart and you touch the human values you have the key to reach anybody, even younger people. When you approach them and you make them part of your society, you involve them in your world, and they feel like they exist.
All the things that we think belong to us were only lent, some of them are gone, and it’s the time for us to give back; if we do that, we will find the balance again.
Mario - First and foremost, regarding the current situation: needless to say the pandemic has created a crisis which is hard to cope with, hotels need to run at reduced staff levels and not everybody is back to work, and the commitment for safety and for contactless interaction is definitely a big must right now. The main issue at the moment is that we don't know how long it will be before we can be back to pre-covid staff levels, but the positive side is, we know the situation is only temporary. Nonetheless, I have been working for the past few weeks, and I can tell you our guests are still coming to the desk to work with us - with all the right safety measures - but they still are.
Despite the pandemic, we hear a lot of opinions regarding how - with the new technology and necessities - the future of concierge will inevitably change, but personally I have noticed the opposite trend. People of who are well travelled and choose traditional hotels, are in need of personal assistance, maybe now more than ever. An easy example? While the property was closed, one of my regular guests called me one day and said "I know the hotel is closed, I know you are not working, but I still need you to help me with a few things".
Our job is not limited to entertainment recommendations, but includes assisting people with logistics and bureaucratic tasks. Last week I worked with a guest who needed help in finding an apartment and with another one who needed a social security number. We are also booking last minute appointments for guests who need to get a Covid test on a daily basis. So here you go, our job is still very much needed.
I know things are obviously changing and will continue to change. Perhaps it's not the same in other environments, but I am convinced in the luxury world of traditional hospitality this role is still going strong. What's important is to have the right person behind the desk who understands when to intervene and how to help.
On the other end, human relationships are fundamental to the health of our society, so maintaining those trustworthy relations and personal interactions is an aspect of our lives that will not disappear any time soon.
I am hopeful for our future, this crisis has changed the way we operate, but it's only temporary, and I am confident we will recover.
As I have expressed several times, I am confident as well...
I sincerely thank Ron Stoevelaar and Mario Picozzi for being available for us, thank you for taking some of your precious time to enlighten us on the wonderful work you do for our guests, for your beautiful town and for the community. I admire your leadership and respect your vision deeply. I wish you, your teams and all the concierge out there all the best for a bright future!
These two are men and leaders who have achieved a level of customer service I can only hope to reach in my career, and who are capable of touching the human heart in a way very few of us can.
I don't know you you feel, but after talking to Ron and Mario I felt inspired, comforted and closer to everybody's heart more than I ever have.
"In service through friendship", Le Clefs D'Or association motto