7 Things You Didn't Know About Concierges — From America’s Very First One

7 Things You Didn't Know About Concierges — From America’s Very First One

It wasn't so long ago that this hotel staple didn't even exist stateside.

By Lindsay Tigar

You've probably gotten so used to swinging by the concierge desk for tips, tickets, or reservations that you can hardly imagine hotels not offering such an option. But, surprise: The hotel concierge concept is actually rather new in the U.S.

In fact, it was Thomas P. Wolfe who introduced the idea to this country in 1975, from his experiences in London and Paris decades ago. After working across the globe, he’s now the chef concierge (no, he doesn't work in the kitchen — chef means chief in French) at the luxe (and decidedly Instagram worthy) Fairmont San Francisco. Wolfe shared with Jet Set some insight on the job you probably never knew... nor even thought to wonder.

1. The concierge concept comes from Europe.

At the age of 23, Wolfe lived in London, working at the reception desk at The Monsieur Ritz. There, he quickly became friendly with the concierges, which was a stroke of luck, considering Wolfe says very few Americans worked at hotels in the U.K. at the time. “They took me under their wings. They revealed how they were able to perform miracles by the dozen, and I observed minutely their technique and style, which I still use today,” he said.

After a stint in London, Wolfe made his way to Paris, where he got a job at The Lancaster, a chic hotelry, just off of the Avenue des Champs-Elysees that was operated by The Savoy Group of London. This was a hotspot for many celebrities at the time, like Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Rex Harrison. While watching the concierges in action, everything clicked for Wolfe: This was what he wanted to do with his career, and he wanted to bring it the states. “I had decided that this was the profession I wanted to be a part of, but alas, the apprenticeship curve was very lengthy indeed, so I had to simply learn the skills and see what the future brought,” he shared.

2. Concierge services started The Fairmont San Francisco.

Around 1974, Wolfe crossed back over the Atlantic to work for The Fairmont San Francisco as assistant manager. This is when fate had its chance to work its magic: Owner Richard Swig, who was himself well traveled, expressed an interest in starting a concierge program. “He couldn’t find anyone who even knew what he was talking about when he said ‘concierge’. At that time there was no concierge service in the U.S.A.,” Wolfe said. “I jumped at the chance and told him that not only did I know what he wanted... but I'd be happy to do it.”

Within a year, he had a custom-made uniform from Italy and used his networking contacts to become the first American member of Les Clefs d’Or, which is the official national organization of hotel lobby concierges. His mentor who put in a good word for him, Jean Gillet, was the son of the founder of Les Clefs d’Or.

3. It was a tough sell at first.

Biting at the bit to get the program up in motion, Wolfe spent a lot of the earlier years of his concierge career educating guests, executives and local communities about what his role was and why it mattered for the tourism industry. “No one really understood what the position was, or what I did,” he shared. “I spent time educating the public, and the purveyors with whom I worked as to my role at The Fairmont. We even had tent cards in the room explaining my position, and encouraging guests to contact me for any of their needs.”

4. Yes, concierges really do know more than Google.

While travel has changed with an influx of online resources, Wolfe says concierges are still more valuable resources for travelers, thanks to their skill set. “A concierge is someone who is your local friend in the place where you are going. All the Yelping in the world will not give you the help you need from someone who is a person of great knowledge, and whose profession it is to know their city more deeply than anyone,” he said.

5. There’s no exact right way to tip a concierge.

Though Wolfe says there are pretty standard guidelines for tipping waiters, doormen, bellmen, and others, when it comes to concierges, it’s not so cut and dry. Naturally, a tip for a job well done is appreciated. He noted, “As Jean Gillet put it so well during a TV interview, with a Maurice Chevalier-like French accent, ‘A handshake is a good tip, and so is a $100 bill.’"

6. There are different levels of concierges.

Though in its earliest iteration hundreds of years ago, concierges were the keeper of the keys in a medieval castle, these days, there are ranks to climb within the industry. “Les Clefs d'Or is the pinnacle of professionalism for any serious concierge. Difficult to become a member, this organization is known globally for having the best and brightest concierges in the world, recognizable by their shiny crossed golden key pins worn, in most cases on their lapels,” he explained.

Wolfe helped the U.S.A. obtain its official recognition as a branch of Les Clefs d’Or in 1978 in Vienna, “It had been my dream to have our own section, and standing there in Vienna receiving the honor was a dream come true!"

7. Outlandish requests happen.

While Wolfe noted that no request is "crazy" if it’s important to a guest of a hotel, he has had some interesting experiences with clients. “I do recall a scion of a very wealthy Swiss family asking me to do a number of tasks, book a flight, have his wife's Louboutin repaired, reserve a table at an impossible restaurant, and find a place for Cuban cigars. However, as he was walking away, he stopped, turned back and said, 'Oh and i'd like to get a Ferrarri GTO,'" Wolfe said. “As an old car buff, I knew that such a vehicle was extremely rare, however I simply looked up from my notes and said ‘Do we have a color preference?’ to which he responded ‘red.’ By the end of the day, I had found his precious GTO."

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