21 NOV 2017: I come from the hotel industry. I waited tables, ran the banqueting bar, worked in cost control (and caught a pastry chef selling the hotel’s butter on the side). I eventually graduated from hotel management school.  

But it was working the concierge’s desk that set me on the course to the kind of travel-agenting I do today.

Few requests are too small, too big, too strange or too unreasonable for a good concierge.

I was trained by a gentleman who, prior to finding his niche as a concierge, had been a tailor in Morocco. How Mr Barzelli (not his real name, but it will do) managed to make the switch from sewing to being one of the leaders of the International Clefs d’Or I never did find out. Indeed there was more than one occasion when I found him sitting cross-legged on a desk, mending a torn sleeve or sewing a button back in place. “For the lady in 1017”, he might say. “It’s all about providing the service”

A good concierge will be able to come up with solutions to almost any guest’s problems – getting the elusive concert tickets, arranging dinners at hard-to-get-into restaurants, finding translators, dog-walkers, and arranging tours of places that aren’t really on the open-to-tours circuit. Arranging a limo to the opera is a piece of cake, but I have known concierges to obtain box-seats at sold-out performances, done through the “alternative market” (what you and I know as scalping).

Good concierges expect to be rewarded for their efforts – I tell my clients that the concierge can be their most important ally in an unfamiliar destination – make friends with the concierge and tip in advance.

Mr Barzelli had a line of additional “revenue-enhancing operations”. When a guest needed a doctor Mr Barzelli received be a kickback. I once walked across the road to a pharmacy to pick up some medications for a guest, and Mr Barzelli added a hefty charge for a taxi fare to the pharmacy to the guest’s bill. And the pharmacist discretely dropped off an envelope for Mr Barzelli that evening.

I sometimes think that the most considerate service that Mr Barzelli provided to the guests of the establishment was the string of hookers that he ran. The ladies nursed drinks in the bar, waiting for that discreet signal, and on their way out they would hand him an envelope from the desk in the guest’s room. It was all about guest-service, as far as he was concerned.

It was an education.

Mr Barzelli did eventually get caught, and he was advised to retire gracefully, which he did - on the proceeds of his schemes.

But there’s one aspect of a concierge’s service that has always been contradictory for me.

Let’s say you (or your client) are staying at a hotel in – for instance – Paris. You want somewhere nice for dinner. You ask the concierge for a recommendation. “No problem” – and he calls up and makes a reservation for you at one of a list of restaurants that are in keeping with the quality of the hotel. There might even be something in it for him in the recommendation.

My own tastes, however, tend more to the local. If I am in a new city, trying to get a sense of where I am, I want to dine in restaurants where the locals go, eat the food that they eat, and not something created to keep tourists happy.

That’s why I formulated my “bypass-the-concierge” strategy.

In Istanbul, for instance, my wife and I once stayed at the Four Seasons on The Bosphorus. I went to the bell-boy and said “if you were taking your girlfriend somewhere for a meal, where would you go?”

He initially mentioned the name of what I knew to be a high-end tourist establishment, but I repeated “no, where would you go?”

He smiled and directed me to a local market, where there were tables set out along the sidewalk. No one spoke English. I wiggled my hand to imitate a fish.

“Ah. Balik” The waiter smiled and followed up with a stream of incomprehensible Turkish.

“Balik” I said.

e rushed off, and came back with three whole fresh fish on a platter. I pointed to one. He nodded.

I said “Bira” and held up two fingers

He nodded again and disappeared into the back of the restaurant.

He emerged bearing a platter of simply seasoned charcoal-grilled fish, a salad, fresh bread, and two beers. One of the best meals I have ever had – and the least expensive.

We used the strategy in Playa del Carmen, and ended up at el Pirata (Calle 40 Norte) – make the pilgrimage thence for amazing ceviche if you’re ever in the area.

I used the strategy in Barbados and was introduced to souse – pickled pigs ears and snouts.

In Barcelona we found la Perla. It’s a paella restaurant in a working-class neighbourhood on the slopes of Montejuic. (Note down the name – if you’re in Barelona, go there)

We’ve used the strategy in cities around the world, and we’ve always ended up with wonderful meals and wonderful memories.

I once read somewhere that if you want to eat fish ask the concierge, but if you want to go fishing, ask the bell-boy.

That’s almost right, I say.

My version: if you want to eat fish prepared for visitors, ask the concierge. But if you want the real thing ask the bellboy.

 

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Derrick Bloch

A regular contributer to Travel Industry Today, Derrick has been recognized by National Geographic Traveler as one of the top 80 travel agents in North America. 

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