I will be the first to admit I never really knew what a concierge actually did. I understood they catered to a guest’s requests, but mostly they just lived in my revolving periphery, someone to kindly point me straight to the bar or look at me shamefully at 5am as I walked past with my shoes in my hand and my dignity in my pocket.
Wes Anderson’s acclaimed film, Grand Budapest Hotel set the pace and imagination for what a concierge might be like for me and maybe all of us. It looks a lot like people addressing me as ‘Madame’ while I sip from a never ending Champagne saucer and live in a 5 star hotel in Zubrowka. Of all the places I’ve been to, I never thought I could actually use the concierge, ‘he’ was a person reserved for people like Kanye West who performed such tasks as shaping mashed potato into the figure of a swan or dry cleaning their suits in diamond distilled water. But then I met Colin Toomey, Head Concierge of 21 years for Shangri-La Hotel, Sydney.
Shangri-La Hotel, Sydney is one of this city’s most iconic hotels. Situated in the Rocks it hugs the neck of the Harbour Bridge and at 36 levels, casts a naked eye across all that Sydney has to offer. On entering, its lobby is vast with furnishings so neat I second guess sitting down. Guests move in and out of its polished doors, probably going to fancy lunches and doing very important business things I don’t really care about. I see Colin behind the concierge desk in a three piece suit and a warm smile that softens the stark surrounds immediately. He opens with a bad dad joke and I like him already.
The handler of happiness
Colin Toomey lives to make other people happy. And I say that genuinely, not like a time-share tagline or anything, because if you examine his life closely, you’ll see that his role as a concierge, as a provider of access, facilitator of experience, doting father of three children, is all about creating joy for others.
“Some people don’t necessarily know what a concierge does and they don’t always feel comfortable going up and asking them, which is sad because there’s so much we can offer,” he says as we ride the elevator to the top of the building.
“We won’t cost you anything either which is a huge misconception, but the information and opportunities we can present to a guest can be far more experiential than if you were travelling alone and just picking something randomly. We’re not just for celebrities or foreign businessmen or politicians, we can create an entire experience for anyone, something that you wouldn’t have otherwise imagined. And I get a real buzz out of that, seeing others happy.”
Colin is the backbone of the Shangri-La Hotel, Sydney and a true stoic of the concierge profession. He has been working at the hotel since 1995 and before that left his mark at Hotel Nikko, Intercontinental Sydney and the Sheraton in Brisbane where he started, where most concierge start, as a lobby boy.
Top of his game
Not only is he the face of Shangri-La Sydney, but he is also the Global President of Les Clefs d’Or also known as the ‘Golden Keys Society’ and the most respected concierge organisation in the world, one that completely transcends brands and borders. There is literally no better concierge in the world right now than Colin Toomey, he is Ralph Fiennes in Grand Budapest Hotel and more, though his own humility will force him to debate that.
“Ralph Fiennes actually stayed in this hotel right as the Grand Budapest Hotel came out. He was a lovely man, very self-sufficient. I noticed him watching me, probably looking at my keys, I wondered what he was thinking and if he realised the association.”
Not surprisingly the Shangri-La accommodates many celebrities and they all get the benefit of Col’s service, from his dry sense of humour to his connections at the best restaurants with the best tables. So, with all this experience and 30 staff in his team, why do I still have no idea of what a concierge does.
“The whole nature of a concierge is getting to know the customer and developing relationships,” says Colin as he holds the door for me and stops mid conversation to ask if I’ll be having tea or coffee.
“The very best concierge will almost develop an instant rapport with people. Then our job is to problem solve. You have to read that person and figure out what it is that they want and then sometimes you may have to stretch them a little too, get them outside their comfort zone. But at the end of it, we want people to have a spectacular stay above all.”
Keys to the world
Making sure other people are happy day in day out takes a special type of person and it requires more than just a smile and a healthy attitude, it takes personality, something ‘Col’ isn’t short of. It wouldn’t be hard to see him down at the pub kicking back with a pint and talking rubbish just like the rest of us, maybe sans three-piece suit. In fact, Col says he loves to wander down to the Glenmore for a Little Creatures Pale Ale or a glass of Clare Valley Riesling when he’s off the job, a bit of cricket doesn’t go astray either.
As the Global President and member of Les Clefs d’Or, the association responsible for the term concierge, Colin wears a set of keys on his collar to mark his membership.
“Most of the hotels these days are quite similar in terms of the bricks and mortar so it’s the character of the people that make the experience. The gold keys give you a certain cache in getting those things done for guests. It’s a favour bank that we hold with one another and then the relationships we build with people around the city. We provide things to guests that they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to get themselves.”
And sure, we can let our imaginations run off with us about the types of requests he’s had, who the most famous person is that’s ever stayed there and what horrible things they have done, but that’s why we have magazines like New Idea. I’m more interested in finding out how one single person can be so vital to the entire livelihood of a hotel as big as Shangri-La Sydney.
“You wouldn’t believe it, but some people visit particular hotels more than their homes and they will go to one specific hotel because they feel welcome there. As the hotel industry develops, everything is becoming more boutique, more personalised. Everyone wants small bespoke customised experiences. Guest travel independently and they either want a place that is familiar to them or they want experiences that are really authentic. That’s what we do.”
Word to the wise
I can definitely see that in Colin, that staying at his hotel where he cracks inappropriate jokes, is warm and inviting, makes you feel like you’re hanging out with an old friend. He is truly at the top of his game, having accomplished everything someone in his field could accomplish, which makes me wonder, where to now?
“You have to give up a lot if you want to be a career concierge, and I’ve given up several opportunities on the way, but what you give up you get back times over. At the end of this term I will have achieved everything I could in my chosen role. Once Les Clefs d’Or is over I will probably sit back and think where to now?”
And his advice for a young concierge looking to follow in his footsteps.
“If you start as a concierge you have to go out and develop relationships and build your own network because your success relies on you knowing people, otherwise you will not make it. That and don’t make assumptions of people. The one thing I have learnt is that different things motivate different people. You can’t pigeonhole people. You have to think outside the square.”
So now we know what a concierge is and does, the next time you find yourself in a hotel, don’t be shy of chatting to him or her, they may just have something extraordinary for you you wouldn’t have otherwise imagined.