Got sheep? Hotel concierges fill wacky requests


In my column this week on – Got Sheep? Concierges fulfill bizarre requests – I share just a few of the stories hotel and airplane (yes, airplane) concierges recently shared with me about the lengths they go to please customers.

In an age when some hotels are moving to self check-in and toying with the idea of removing the front desk, it seems surprising that hotels would still offer this concierge service. But many still do – and the people who staff the concierge desk have some wild stories.

Here’s what I found out:

If you need to deposit a check at the bank, get a boarding pass at the airport or fill up your gas tank at the service station, a self-service kiosk can be a real time-saver.

The same goes for checking in at a hotel.

“Some guests prefer the convenience and the anonymity that a self-service check-in kiosk offers. Other are just shy and don’t want to talk to anyone,” said Carl Winston, director of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at San Diego State University.

But what if you’re in Southern California and the Australian sheep dogs you’re traveling with need a flock of sheep to herd? And where would you turn if you only spoke Russian and had a dental emergency while staying in a New York City hotel on a holiday weekend?

There are no buttons on the self-service kiosks for those situations.

That’s when a hotel concierge can come in handy.

“We were able to locate some sheep for those Australian sheep dogs to herd and arranged for a car to bring the dogs to the sheep,” said Jessica Foster, a concierge at the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara.

And when a Russian-speaking guest at the Pod Hotel in New York City had a dental emergency during Christmas, head concierge Bryan Raughton called the Russian consulate, who found a translator in Brooklyn whose neighbor just happened to be a Russian dentist. “He set up the guest with an extraction and a night in Brooklyn, numbed with vodka,” reports Raughton.

Concierges at hotels large and small can recount similar “we aim to please” stories.

In Los Angeles, the concierge service at the Peninsula Beverly Hills Hotel begins at LAX airport. There “airport concierge” Jimmy Bardolf is on duty to smooth the journey to the hotel.  “Our job is to set the tone for their hotel experience when a guest arrives and to leave them with a fond memory of the hotel when they leave,” says Bardolf, whose desk is a briefcase that includes emergency supplies such as Visine, Band-Aids and Krazy glue to fix broken nails.

At the Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee, Chef Concierge Peter Mortensen has done everything “from running out to purchase socks and underwear for special guests to tracking down a sugar maple seedling for an ambassador to take home.”

In Tokyo, a foreign guest at the Ritz-Carlton wanted to take home about $6,000 worth of the unusually-flavored Kit-Kat bars (green Tea, wasabi, strawberry, etc.) that are popular in Japan. “It was two hours before the guest’s departure,” said chief concierge Mayako Sumiyoshi, “And the [Kit Kat] warehouse is on the outskirts of Tokyo. So the concierge team visited all the local shops, convenience stores, etc., to purchase as many candy bars as possible.”

At The Stafford London, Executive Head Concierge Frank Laino arranged to ship a red double-decker bus from London to Texas.

At XV Beacon, an upscale boutique hotel in Boston, a concierge visited a series of museums and amusement parks to reconstruct the flat penny collection a guest’s son lost during his stay.

And at the Four Seasons Hotel Boston, members of Chef Concierge Maggie O’Rourke’s team have flown to New York and back to retrieve a holiday dress left behind, assisted in marriage proposals in the hotel and in the nearby Public Garden and even placed eye drops in a guest’s eyes.

“We are here to fill in the blanks and make memories,” says O’Rourke, “And as long as it is not illegal or immoral, we will do all we can to make requests happen!”

“Guests don’t really need a concierge to give directions or a list of the ten best restaurants in town. The Internet and GPS navigation systems do that now,” says Jessica Foster of the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara. “Our job is to weed through all the information and help with specialized requests. If you can dream it up, we can make it happen.”

But given the economic doldrums the hotel industry is in, can making memories and figuring out how to grant wishes be enough of a payoff for a hotel and its concierge staff?

“Some hotels are trying to cut corners by offering outsourcing their concierge desk services to companies such as Expedia,” says Carl Winston of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at San Diego State University. Others are supplementing limited service with a branded on-line app.

But at the Hotel Galvez in Galveston, TX, the payoff of having an in-house concierge is “return visits and referrals to friends,” says Jackie Hasan, a concierge who flew to Panama to deliver the luggage a couple left behind when they set out on a cruise.

For other hotels, it can be that much sought-after, glowing on-line review.

After Chef Concierge Anthony Baliola of Seattle’s Hotel Vintage Park brought soup to a guest who’d fallen ill, the guest posted a rave TripAdvisor review that reads, in part, “…Other reviews talks about the beautiful rooms, wonderful beds, great location… All true, but the Chef Concierge was a godsend. Recommend the hotel to friends? No. I would insist!”

The return on maintaining concierge service can also take place up in the air.

In 2008, Air New Zealand began adding a concierge to the crew of many long haul flights; the first airline to do so.  The team now includes almost 50 in-flight concierges. “They are empowered to solve problems by dealing with issues as they happen, in the air or on the ground,” said Roger Poulton, Vice President, Air New Zealand – The Americas.

“That can mean offering a bottle of wine, a six-month cinema pass or some other sort of compensation to a passenger whose entertainment systems is broken,” explained London-based in-flight concierge Stephen Wareham, who makes a point to visit passengers in all cabins of the airplane. “My job is to make sure problems don’t fester away during a flight.”

While costly, the in-flight concierge program appears to be paying off. Air New Zealand’s Roger Poulton said, “Whether it’s delivering a sick passenger’s luggage to the hospital …or simply being helpful and making a fuss of our customers, we’ve seen our unsolicited compliments this past year increase …and our complaints drop.”

Have you had a concierge help you out of a jam? Share you story here.

Airports discover courtesy can help the bottom line.

Noticed some extra nice lately?

For airport employees around the country, courtesy and empathy are becoming part of the basic job description.  Not just because those are nice traits in workers, but because in these belt-tightening times, airports are hoping better customer service can help shore up the bottom line.   In my Well Mannered Traveler column this week on, I take a look at some of the ambitious customer service programs underway at airports around the country. Here’s a preview.

Polite in Portland

Oregon’s Portland International Airport (PDX) regularly wins awards for its services and maneuverability.  But customer relations manager Donna Prigmore says that’s just not enough anymore. “The economy being what it is, we can’t afford to lose passengers.”  So this month the airport rolled out a “roadway to runway” initiative that challenges everyone who works at the airport, including taxi drivers, TSA staff, and shop employees, to be nicer.  Those who do, can win prizes.

Mindful in Minneapolis

The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) also regularly wins award for its services and amenities.  Volunteers staff eight information booths but, as you know, not everyone will stop to ask for directions.  So the airport is training a team of roving ambassadors whose job it will be to approach passengers who seem like they could use a bit of assistance.

Lessons at LAX, Plans in Pittsburgh

Around the country, many other airports have signed up for the Tom Murphy’s Resiliency Edge program, which is based at New York’s Fordham University. Scores of workers at the New York City-area airports (Newark Liberty, JFK, and LaGuardia) have already taken the course, which teaches employees strategies that can help them deal – calmly and effectively – with passengers who are apt to be stressed out, clueless, irate, confused or, often, all of the above.  I had the opportunity to sit in on one of the classes at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), and watched a role-playing exercise that pitted a gaggle of needy and insistent passengers against a customer service employee.  Murphy’s advice to the class: you can’t solve every problem but try to be empathetic, a good listener, adaptable, and a creative problem solver.  “If you can do that well,” says Murphy, “You’ll be more resilient, less stressed yourself, and better able to neutralize the irritations in a customer’s experience. We call that N.I.C.E.”

During the recent winter storms, nice-training benefited some arriving passengers at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT). Late on a snowy Friday night, planes were still landing and passengers were still arriving, but taxis and hotel shuttle buses had stopped running.  Instead of allowing about 125 people to spend the night stuck at the terminal, several airport workers arranged for one of PIT’s employee buses to drive those travelers to area hotels. “It will cost the airport a couple of hundred bucks to cover that,” airport executive director Brad Penrod to me, “But they saw a problem, solved it, provided a needed customer service, and created a great deal of good will.”


Have you noticed airport employees going out of their way to be nice? Please share you story.