Hotel Confidential

With apologies to the Hotel Confidential blog; I think it’s high time that the topic of confidentiality was discussed. I really only know how to discuss it as it relates to the hotel industry but it really can apply in any industry and of course in everyday life.

My entire working career has been spent in five star hotels. It’s all I’ve ever known. And, possibly the most important thing I have learnt is how important confidentiality and discretion are. It should be a given that when you work in a job that requires these qualities that you would have the decency to adhere to the guidelines. But as we see over and over again how easily people sell their souls out for a few dollars or a few minutes of glory.

Confidentiality in hotels is something very different though. It ranges from not discussing the personal idiosyncrasies of a guest, which have no professional merit, amongst staff members to the far end of the scale which is revealing company statistics, occupancy’s and revenue figures. Any decent hotel will include a confidentiality clause which requires you do not disclose any guest related or financially sensitive information to anyone not authorised to possess this information. In recent time this has evolved to include non-disclosure of celebrities which probably attracts the biggest reaction from myself. I read up to 30 news, sport, financial and celebrity websites a day so that I can feel up to date with the current ‘affairs’ of the world and every time I read something along the lines of ‘sources close to … tell us’ or ‘in an exclusive interview… reveals’ it really irritates me. Obviously people are always going to look after ‘Number 1’ and screw who ever gets in the way. But when you are entrusted with a confidence be it between a friend, colleague or whatever, and you can’t keep your mouth shut; to me that shows a complete lack of decency and morality.

Mouth Sewn ShutIf anyone has been in a position to ‘dish the dirt’ on celebrities it would be me. In my 13 years of working in 5 star hotels I have met musicians, film stars, politicians, presidents, actors and actresses and supermodels; among the highlights, and in no particular order of personal interest or preference; Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jackson, Arsene Wenger, Sep Blatter, Bono from U2, Britney Spears, Ana Beatriz Barros, Anne Vyalitsyna both of Victoria Secret fame, to former US Presidents Bill Clinton and both George W. Bush Jnr and Snr. My current favourite, just for being an absolute ANGEL when she stayed with us, and not being a diva and taking the time to actually talk to the staff, is the lovely Neve Campbell. I had to assist her with a whole bunch of personal tasks and I fell in love with her sweet nature and beautiful smile. Top of the list though, is not just a statesman, but perhaps one of the greatest and most humble people to have ever lived: Nelson Mandela.

The man who shocked me into silence

The man who shocked me into silence

There is actually a funny/embarrassing/cute story to my first meeting with Madiba, I was working at Reception at that time and he walked up to the desk while I was was typing away on my computer with my focus on the screen, and he says in his typical Madiba voice ‘ Err, excuse me young man’ at which point I froze. Time stood still, like I was in the Matrix; as I obviously recognised the signature voice. I slowly looked up at him and when he asked me to direct him to the bathroom you would have thought he had asked me to explain the Da Vinci code, or to solve a Rubix cube! I was completely star struck; which had never happened before and hasn’t happened since. I was still catching flies in my wide open mouth when my colleague walked over and escorted him on his way. I felt like such a fool, but later that evening I realised this is probably the most famous and sought after personality in the entire world that I had just met, so perhaps my reaction wasn’t so cringe worthy.

But back to the point I was trying to make. Throughout all of my years of working in 5 star hotels, hearing sensitive information at meetings, seeing highly confidential reports and meeting these celebrities; never once was I tempted to share it with anyone. I certainly don’t think of myself as a saint or that I have always been as honest and morally perfect as I should have been; but where I draw the line is anything that would adversely impact on my professional reputation. I have written another blog post here which explains my feelings on that, but suffice it to say that I would never do anything to jeopardise this. My professional integrity is the most important thing to me, besides family course; and you would think that everyone would have the same values. But I’ve seen, and even worked with people who have broken this ‘code’ for money and in every single case it may pay off initially in monetary terms, but it never lasts and the ‘rat’ label lingers a lot lingers than the money does!

I feel proud of being entrusted by my hotel to honestly adhere to the confidentiality rules and policies we have in place. I’m certainly not in possession of nuclear launch codes or the bedroom webcam address of Adriana Lima, unfortunately; but when you realise that people depend on you to withhold certain facts and knowledge that should be enough to shut you up. I feel very strongly about this point. I’m certain that most people won’t; but then again the amount of people buying tabloid newspapers and magazines, reading celebrity gossip websites and openly discussing said people in public openly are the majority.

Celebrity news sells, and sells well. But the main reason that it does is due to hotel staff tipping off the press when they have famous guests in or waiters in restaurants who have retainer deals with photographers to get pictures of celebrities trying to have some alone time in public or paparazzi who hound celebrities on foot, by car or on motorcycles often causing injuries to themselves or others. The most famous example being Princess Di and Dodi Al Fayed in 1997. Need a reminder? Here you go. This behaviour even happens in the technology industry, and is becoming worse all the time. Some of you may have heard the story about an oddly disguised iPhone that was left in a beer garden in California by a field tester. This turned out to be the has yet, unreleased iPhone 4. The issue that I have with the whole saga is the fact that the person who found it; while admittedly he did try make a fair attempt to contact the owner of the phone, managed to get the phone ‘discovered’ by one of the largest and most popular technology websites Gizmodo. Anything for a buck, right?

In a world where there is so much poverty, natural disasters, pain, suffering and trauma shouldn’t we living our lives honourably and justly? Do we need more reasons for bad thing to happen?

Something to think about.

I know I will.

I am Concierge.


Passion breeds excellence

As you’ll know, if you’ve taken the 2 minutes it takes to read my ‘About Me’ page; I grew up in Zimbabwe.

Now let’s just be clear, this was the ‘proper’ Zimbabwe before it was lead down the tubes by a person ‘whose name we do not mention.’ So when I decided upon a career in the hotel industry there was really only one option for me to do my hotel management course. The Meikles Hotel, in the capital city Harare.

The Meikles was built in 1915 by Thomas Meikle, who had emigrated to South Africa in 1890. Along with his brother, he opened a trading post in Southern Rhodesia in 1892 and with a keen sense of forethought soon realised that a small settlement already established to the north would be a suitable location for a colony.

The original Meikles Hotel

The original Meikles Hotel

This led to the building of the countries first luxury hotel which opened in 1915. I’ll not bore you with 95 years of history lessons and memories of those times; suffice it to say that The Meikles has always been Zimbabwe’s most luxurious and popular hotel, and remains so to this day.

When I began my 3 year hotel management internship I had already been staying at the hotel on and off since I was 6 years old. My father has been a regular guest at the hotel for over 30 years. Not hard to see why it was a given that I would learn my trade in this illustrious hotel. It has the same long-standing reputation that the Mount Nelson Hotel does in Cape Town. The countries oldest and grandest hotel, which has endured recessions, economic dips and all manner of historical factors and still remains at the pinnacle of its industry.

With 370 rooms and suites, 6 restaurants, 4 bars and a roof top pool deck with gym, spa and sauna it exceeds the standard facilities required for a five-star hotel. It has one of the largest basement sections of any building I’ve seen with golf carts required to get between far ends of it; includes a full laundry with dry cleaning facility, this incidentally was also the very first dry cleaner to be established in the country. It has a dry stores department as big, if not bigger, than most modern supermarkets, a bakery where all the hotels bread and pastry’s are prepared , a butchery where whole carcasses are cut into portions as the chef requires and a waste management system which, for that time, was extremely sophisticated and environmentally sensitive.

So with such a complete back of house system in place, and an extensive range of facilities available to guests you would imagine that similar care and attention had been paid to the selection of staff. This assumption is correct.

The hotel employed at that time over 1500 staff members, a staff : guest ratio of nearly 3 to 1 which is impressive in any country. It also differed from hotels in South Africa in that it employed an almost entirely male housekeeping compliment. I never found out why this was, but it seemed to work well. A little less gossiping and a little more productivity perhaps…I’ll never admit to having an opinion on this so you’ll not need to track me down and bash me!

Where the hotel excelled though was in the strength of its Management team. From the early days until my time there over 80 years later the hotel was run by ‘hotel people’ Don’t misunderstand, I do see the value that qualifications in different industries may bring to a hotel, however without a good understanding of ‘the ways things are done’ hotels cannot be run successfully by people who do not have the required knowledge and experience. When I was employed as a trainee, our Executive Management team of 10 people had a combined hotel industry experience of over 120 years! 120 years for goodness sake! Can you see why the hotel has won the best hotel in the country award every year since the award has been given? And why the hotel was regularly on the list of the world’s best hotels, with the highest being a ranking of 13th. Only the Mount Nelson and the Cape Grace, in this country, have ever been placed higher.

The Management was almost entirely made up of people who had followed the hospitality industry straight from school. People who lived and breathed hotels with such passion that there was no choice but for them to be successful and at the top of their industry. The Chief Executive at that time had first been employed at the hotel right out of school at 17 years old; had vowed that one day he would run the hotel and when he returned just over 10 years later he did. Two of the doormen had worked at the hotel for over 40 years, with most of that time spent in that position. The Rooms Division Manager had trained there and worked her way around each department over the hotel, and after 35 years later she is still there. A ‘lay person’ will not understand this life long dedication to service.

It’s a sad truth that the world is full of people who do just enough to keep their jobs safe. They will work in a job just to pay the rent and support themselves but rarely will they LOVE what they are doing. These people are the majority and they really should really be a minority or not exist at all. Why do something if you are not putting into it all that you can? Some people may be forced into a job that they have to do to make ends meet, but I am really talking about the majority of people who go after the big salary or the glamorous lifestyle. These people live shallow and empty lives and it shows in the work that they do and the results speak for themselves.

We all need to have drive, determination, love and ambition for the work we do. It’s not exactly breaking news that many people spend more time at work that at home or at leisure; so why compromise on the most important part of your life? You wouldn’t marry someone just so you didn’t end up alone, so why ‘settle’ in your professional capacity?

I have even been accused of having a lack of ambition for wanting to be a Concierge for the rest of my life. Nothing could be further from reality. The reality is, that yes, I do want to be a Concierge for the rest of my life; but don’t ever accuse or suspect me of having no or little ambition. I have always put in more hours than necessary, I’ve sacrificed money, sweat, tears and relationships for my career as a Concierge. I’ve worked damn hard to get as good as I am, to know what I know and to have the connections and contacts I have had. I actually find it offensive when people think that I am ‘settling’ by doing this job forever.

Concierge is not just a job for me.

Concierge is a career.

Concierge is a lifestyle.

Concierge is my life.

I am Concierge.

What makes a great five star hotel?

Let’s be clear. I am aware of the fact that there are ‘six’ and ‘seven’ star hotels in the world.

What you may, or may not be aware of is the fact that there is no universal international standard of grading hotels.
Most countries work on a grading up to a maximum of five stars, others have a diamond rating and others work on other types of grading.

What is universal though is that there is a limit to the scale; meaning that in essence there is no way to quantify more than a five star level.

The most famous is the Burj Al Arab in the emirate of Dubai. It claims to be the worlds first seven star hotel.

Burj Al Arab

Pretty isn’t it? The architect and engineering consultant for the project was Atkins, the UK’s largest multidisciplinary consultancy. The hotel was built by South African construction contractor Murray & Roberts. The hotel cost $650 million to build and opened it’s doors on the 1st December 1999. It billed itself as the world’s first seven star hotel despite there being no precedent for such a claim. HotelClub Travel Blog details more such examples of presumption.

A coincidence that each of these examples is in the Emirates or Asia listing countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Malaysia and Dubai? All are the result of ground breaking designs and world beating luxury I’m sure but when you try and ‘out do’ your competition by creating your own star or grading rating it seems like they are trying too hard.

The Burj Al Arab has attracted criticism as well as praise, these are some of the criticisms; “both the hotel and the city, after all, are monuments to the triumph of money over practicality. Both elevate style over substance.” Sam Wollaston writing in “The Guardian” described the hotel as “…fabulous, hideous, and the very pinnacle of tackiness – like Vegas after a serious, no-expense-spared, sheik-over”.

Yes, that was pretty much my impression also. More money than class or taste is a very common occurrence in the world of super luxury hotels.

My motivation for writing this article is more about creating an awareness rather than simply listing an exhaustive list of all of the requirements for five star level grading. If you’re interested in such a list you’ll find one here.

I am more interested in sharing my views on what it takes to maintain those standards, how the staff need to be trained and directed and what sets some five star hotels apart from the thousands of others.

Anyway, coming back to my point about what makes a great five star hotel. There are standard requirements to qualify as a five star hotel. These are some of them:

For a five-star rating a hotel needs a concierge, valet parking, a fitness centre/gym and a beauty spa. Many of these hotels also offer other services such as a casino, lounge or nightclub
  1. The staff at a five-star hotel is expected to be the best they can. The hotel should have a high ratio of staff to guests.
  2. Service in a five-star hotel is above average. The hotel should offer Reception, Concierge, Housekeeping and Room Service 24 hours a day.
  3. For a hotel to be rated with five stars, it must have expensive and quality furnishing and decorations such as 400-count sheets. The rating also requires that in-room video, a CD/DVD player and a bath and shower in the bathroom.
  4. The hotel itself should have more than one restaurant at the location and the restaurants are expected to offer a variety of gourmet dining options.
A five star grading/rating is not presented without consistent service over a long period. Rarely is a facility granted this accolade on opening day. The industry knows that a certain standard is expected, customers know what to expect. A rare few boutique hotels will even serve a limited clientèle and remain unconcerned with rating competition since they trust in their establishment and the fact that consistent high levels will ensure guests return regularly.
In a nutshell quality, service and consistency are all that matter in five star hotels. It really is that simple.
What is it that will make a guest return to the same hotel year after year? Why do people who have a huge choice of hotels from five star to ungraded choose what they choose? When you have hotels that charge a wide range of prices, albeit all fairly high, why do people show loyalty to a particular brand or hotel? Again; as with what matters in five star hotels, the answer is very simple; quality, service and consistency.
Let’s break it down:
  • Quality – Relates to furnishings, fittings, amenities, décor, food and beverage, staffing, vehicles and logistical system
  • Service – I consider this to be the most important of the three. Without excellent, experienced and well trained staff you will never maintain five star standards. I have seen it at every stage of my career and there has never been a single statement with more truth. With the right staff in the correct roles you WILL achieve excellence. Unlike physical attributes great service costs nothing. Training a staff member costs nothing. Motivating a staff member costs nothing. Ensuring that your guests receive the very best attention and service costs nothing.
  • Consistency – Obviously this means getting it right every single time. Every single napkin is folded the same way, each bed made and turned down the same way. Every meal prepared, plated and served in same way. Repetitiveness can be painful for the untrained and inexperienced staff member, but for those of us who have lived it for years and years it becomes second nature. Achieving great service consistency WILL make your hotel great; not maybe or could; this is guaranteed.
Think about what ruins your experience in a five star hotel:
  • Is it arrogant, unfriendly or badly trained staff?
  • Less than impeccable room cleanliness or facilities?
  • Bad service in the bar, restaurants or other public areas?
I think that these three choices cover 99% of what people complain about when staying a hotel. Do you think it is a coincidence that 2 out of 3 are directly related to service and training? Trust me it is not a coincidence at all. Human error, lack of training and lack of effort accounts for the vast majority of complaints.
What five star hotels do differently is minimise the risk of failure within the many aspects of a guests experience within the hotel. By training new staff to the expected levels and reinforcing these to existing staff, these levels excellence can be achieved and maintained over and over again. I’ve often said that the hotel industry is not rocket science. Anyone can do it. With the right attitude, motivation, training and management structures all is possible.
So, the main reason people complain is directly related to lack of attention to detail and training? You’d probably be surprised to learn that any service issue that you’ve experienced can be resolved by training and increased knowledge.
From my own personal perspective I know that while I may not be the perfect individual; I have flaws and issues like everyone else; however my training and experience sets me apart from the masses. Why do you think a prospective employer is so keen to view your previous work record when considering employing you? It’s because at each stage of your employment history you make and learn from mistakes and become a more complete employee.
This is the difference within five star hotels. They do not; or at least should not, hire staff without relevant five star experience. As an employer you want the most intelligent, educated and experienced staff that you can afford. At this, the pinnacle of hospitality, it would be negligent for them to hire staff who do not have the required knowledge and experience.
This is what I think it takes to make a great five star hotel:
  • Great location
  • Beautiful building and façade
  • Luxurious and extravagant décor, amenities and equipment
  • A variety of restaurants that are trendy, but most importantly good value for money and resistant to changing trends
  • An excellent, preferably Les Clefs d’Or, Concierge member or team
  • Experienced, knowledgeable and regularly re-trained management and staff

It’s so simple, but you’ll be surprised how many five star hotels cannot get it right.

I am Concierge.

Why use a Golden Key Concierge?

Why use a Golden Keys Concierge?

A Concierge is the Mr. Fix-It in hotels, he or she is the person that makes things happens for the guest. We will never say no, even if something seems impossible, we will find a solution.

I personally tell my guest as long as it is legal, it is within your budget and you give me realistic time to achieve it; I will do anything for you.

We are a wealth of information with a network of Concierge’s spanning over 37 countries. Therefore, if I do not know the answer I will know someone who does. We are your very own guidebook and personal assistant all rolled into one.

All members of the Golden Keys work with integrity and are full time Concierges in hotels. They will have a minimum of five years experience as a Concierge, with a wealth of knowledge of their local area.

You can tell you are speaking to a Golden Keys Concierge as he or she will wear a pair of crossed Golden Keys on each lapel of their uniform.

Your Concierge can arrange anything from flights, transportation to and from the airport, hire cars, chauffeur cars, tours of the city. They can arrange private shopping, flowers, courier services and mobile phone hire. They will be happy to give you their personal recommendations of restaurants, what is currently happening in their town, and what to see and do, including tickets to all the major attractions. We can even produce tickets to sold out theatre and sporting events.

When you are dealing with a Golden Key Concierge you know you are dealing with a professional, who has real insight to your needs and requests.

Tips out of getting the best use out of your Concierge.

  • You don’t need to wait until you have checked in, email the Concierge desk before you arrive
  • When you arrive introduce yourself to the Concierge face to face
  • We have two rush hours at the Concierge desk, just after breakfast and before dinner. Try to avoid these times and we will be able to give you more personal time, or you could leave some written questions for us to answer while you are out
  • Be specific with your request, inform the concierge of exactly what you would like, rather than telling your Concierge “I am looking for somewhere for dinner” tell them the type of restaurant, cuisine location, and your Concierge will then be able to recommend something that is specific for you.

I am Concierge.

Good Concierge, Great Concierge

There is something just a little bit special about when you find a great Concierge. And like when you fall in love, you’ll know exactly when it happens.

Firstly, let me clarify the difference between a ‘good’ and a ‘great’ Concierge.

A good Concierge will be able to deal with the run of the mill transport bookings and restaurant recommendations and will have decent interpersonal and guest relations skills. This type of Concierge you will forget almost immediately once you’ve left the hotel.

A great Concierge will tailor make your holiday just for you. From asking direct intelligent questions we will make sure that you are provided with the very best information and expert tips to ensure that you see, eat, drink and experience all that you wish to. A great Concierge will become your best friend; from always being able to answer any question no matter how obscure, to anticipating your requests this Concierge will seem like a magician. Nothing will be too much trouble. ‘No’ or ‘I can’t’ are not words I use in my professional capacity. A great Concierge will make you feel like you belong in the hotel, and when you leave it will be like leaving behind a member of your family.

This differentiation is no surprise to me. I’ve seen good, bad and then great Concierges in action and it’s like watching a professional footballer running a training camp for kids.

These are some of the things a good Concierge can do for you:

  • Make a restaurant reservation at a well-known trendy restaurant.
  • Book a tour for you based on what he thinks you would enjoy or prefer.
  • Try his/her best to assist with a challenging request.
  • Respond to messages, calls and/or e-mails when time allows.

Compare this to what a great Concierge can do for you:

  • Discuss what type of food, ambience and location you prefer when recommending a restaurant
  • Will show you maps and brochures to explain the routes and tour options available while giving you the initiative to decide what suits you best.
  • Will leave no stone unturned, will not take ‘no’ for an answer, will use every contact, friend and random acquaintance at their disposal to get the job done. We take it very personally if, for any reason, our guest/s are not completely satisfied.
  • Make himself/herself available at all times and respond to any request or enquiry as soon as possible. The job of being a great Concierge is to always appear available even when this may not in fact be the case.

The thing that differentiates one from the other is a complete willingness to satisfy the guest/s request. It may seem logical that you always receive the best attentions and service levels of those offering it i.e waiters, Reception or Concierge staff or even Management; however I am sure that we all realise that while it is admirable that you have such faith in society, it is often not the case.

I know Concierge inside, outside and back to front; I live and breathe Concierge so I suppose I’m as qualified and experienced as anyone to give an opinion.

The sad truth about the service industry is that it is full of too many people who don’t have the passion to make a success of it. Passion is a hugely important ingredient in making yourself successful in your job and indeed in all aspects of your life. I’ve felt this passion for what I do for more than half my life. I know the attitude and dedication it takes to be successful in the hospitality, and most important I feel very strongly about being the very best I can be and making those around me the best they can be.

I’ve made my personal motto ‘Impossible just takes a few extra phone calls.’ It’s based on a phrase that I heard many years ago and I’ve changed it ever so slightly and now it is my personal and professional code of conduct. I use it as a motivating tool for myself more than anything else in my job. I have supreme confidence in myself, my experience and my network of friends, colleagues etc. I cannot even remember the last occasion when I was unable to satisfy a guests’ request or need.

On the face of it it will seem presumptuous, even pompous of me to make such a claim and to have this attitude of omnipotence; but bearing in mind the fact that I wanted to work in hotels from the age of 12 and have worked exclusively in 5 star hotels since leaving school I believe that I’m more than driven to attain such levels of quality and success.

It takes drive, ambition and in some cases a little bit of luck to achieve success. I certainly don’t think I’m the best Concierge, or even the best person that I can be; but I do work extremely hard and always try to challenge myself to achieve bigger and better goals.

‘Impossible just takes a few extra phone calls’ – Sounds simple enough doesn’t it? It works because it is simple. I don’t follow some convoluted ideology or blueprint for success. I focus on the simple things and when you consistently get those right you’ll find the rest all falls into place.

My job is all about connections and contacts.

If I don’t personally know someone who can solve a problem or assist me with information I will be able to find someone who can.

I am Concierge.

Reuben Riffel for the One and Only, as Spill announced on August 1st.

How I became a Concierge

This could easily become a story with the length along the lines of a classic such as “War & Peace” but for the sake of efficiency I’ll try and keep this short.

I knew from a very young age that I wanted to work in hotels. This urge was stimulated by frequent internationals trips taken with my family staying in some of the best hotels in cities all around the world. By the age of 16 I had travelled extensively through the United States & Europe and had experienced more countries and hotels in those years than some people have in a lifetime.

What always struck me was the professionalism of the staff and the willingness to assist in every way no matter how large or small. That intrigued me.

I spent the latter part of school life at boarding school which instilled in me; amongst other attributes such as independence, the ability to serve and assist people without issue and without taking offence to bad manners or attitudes.

This would certainly stand me in good stead throughout my Hotel Management training and for the rest of my career in the hospitality industry. It takes a special (read odd, weird etc…) individual to be able to take verbal and the occasional physical abuse from irate guests when things don’t run as they expect.

The plain fact that some people are ‘made’ to work in the hospitality industry is, in this case, entirely true. I’ve worked with many people over the course of my career who have worked in hotels either because they ‘thought it was a good thing to try’ or simply due to a lack of qualifications to do anything else. When you come down to it working in hotels isn’t rocket science; but it does take a special type of individual to handle the stress, working hours, measly pay and intensive guest interaction that is inherent in the industry.

Since I was well aware of my own ability and what I liked and disliked about hotels from a customer aspect, with some research I stumbled upon the position of Concierge. I have provided the Wikipedia description of a Concierge earlier in this blog; however looking at the position from my perspective at that time filled me with all kinds of excitement and inspiration. Or at least more so than any other of the options that we were given when choosing our final year of specialisation.

However as I progressed through the first and then second year I realised that I had, intuitively, made the correct decision.

So bearing all of this in mind, as a fresh faced boy straight out of school I moved to a new city and began my hotel management internship.

This journey of discovery and learning shall be explored in another post.

I am Concierge.