Best Concierge in the World? She's One of Them Now
Last week, Jessica Gorman, the head concierge at The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead in Atlanta was awarded the prestigious Marjorie Silverman Young Leader Award from Les Clefs d’Or, the international association of elite concierges. We spoke to her by phone — she was vacationing in Prague after her big win — about her award, the state of the hotel industry and how getting a framed picture of your dog placed in your hotel room is worth more than the most difficult dinner reservation.
Congratulations on your big win! Tell us about the Les Clefs d’Or competition.
Thanks! Les Clefs d’Or is considered the most elite society of concierges in the world. There are 620 in the US and almost 4,000 around the world, and of that group, I was selected to represent the US in the competition for the Marjorie Silverman Young Leader Award, which is given to a concierge under 35 years old. We have 44 sections in Les Clefs d’Or — a section roughly corresponds to a country — and 13 of them participated this year, including France, the UK, Finland, Spain, Russia, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, with concierges representing brands like Fairmont, Hyatt, Waldorf Astoria, InterContinental and Capella Hotels and Resorts. I was the only female.
The only female and you won it. How does that feel?
It feels really good to win and feels really good competing against all men — I’m very competitive. To give you an idea, in Les Clefs d’Or USA, our membership is actually 60% female, but globally it’s more like 80/20 male. That’s a big difference.
Why is that?
The profession of concierge originated in Europe, where the career path traditionally begins with being a porter or doorman, both of which are traditionally male positions, then you become a concierge.
So in the US, concierges have the flexibility to arrive at the job by a more circuitous route?
Exactly. For example, I moved to Atlanta after attending the University of Florida and didn’t have a job. I was connected with someone who worked for The Ritz-Carlton and she hired me on the spot to be the coordinator for the hotel’s Director of Sales. I worked in several different positions in sales, did special events, became the executive assistant to the General Manager and went back to sales, working with high-end travel agents and traveling all the time, then got to a point where I was ready to move on. But my GM decided he wasn’t going to let me leave. He said, 'Tell me what you’d like to do here, because I’m not going to let you leave.' I told him concierge was my hotel dream job, and he said, 'Ok, I’ll make you concierge if you promise to get your keys.'
What does that mean?
You can recognize a Les Clefs d’Or concierge by the gold keys we wear pinned to our suits. Just to give you an idea, our 4,000 members represent about 7% of the world’s concierges. Becoming one is a stringent process. It took about six months for me and involved a lengthy take-home exam, a phone interview, a mystery shop, something called colleague checks — where the membership committee calls other Les Clefs d’Or members in your area — plus, calls to your manager and an HR background check. It’s quite intense.
So what happened when you got your keys?
My first call — after my parents — was to my manager. He totally freaked out. I was fulfilling that promise I made him, and eventually I became more involved in the organization. I’m on the Les Clefs d’Or USA committee, and they nominated me to compete for the Leadership Award.
What typically happens during the competition?
The first part is a written take-home exam with sections on Les Clefs d’Or history and identifying world figures and locations around the world by photo, like Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, for example. There’s also a sample email from an unhappy guest you have to respond to, which gauges how you conduct yourself with guests. The second part happened on Saturday in Berlin, at the International Congress, which is what we call our annual meeting of Les Clefs d’Or. There, each competitor had a 15-minute interview with a five-person panel.
What does the panel ask you?
The judges can really ask you anything. It may be how you answered a question on the exam, something you wrote about in the essay they might want more details about, or they’ll ask some situational questions or for a story of how something went wrong and how you recovered.
One time a guest told me he was going to Louis Vuitton to get a gift for his wife. He came back to the hotel empty-handed. The store didn’t have it, so I told him I’d find it. In case you didn’t know, you can’t talk to someone at a Louis Vuitton store — there’s only a call center — and the person will tell you what’s in stock at which store, but they will not hold it or take payment over the phone. So, I found out there were only two of these specific bags in the world, and one of them happens to be in San Francisco. I called a Les Clefs d’Or colleague there, who picked up the bag and overnighted it to me via FedEx. We wired the hotel the money, charged the guest and I had it to him the following day so he could take it to his wife at dinner.
I can’t beam myself to San Francisco, so it’s about thinking, how can I be resourceful, how can I use my network? One of the amazing things about Les Clefs d’Or is what I call being bigger than your brand. It doesn’t matter what hotel brand you work for. It really is service through friendship, which is our motto, because a lot of us — especially at luxury hotels — share guests all the time.
Can you tell us about another time when you’ve crossed brands to make someone happy?
Just a week and a half ago, I worked with Mandarin Oriental and Langham for a Les Clefs d’Or colleague of mine who was on his honeymoon in London. We were talking about restaurants, one of which he really wanted to eat at but couldn’t get a reservation for: Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin. He asked if I had any contacts there. I don’t, but I told him I'd see what I can do. I called the concierge and told her I had a huge miracle request: Can you get these guys into Dinner? She said hold on five minutes, then came back on the line and emailed me the confirmation. Then, I found out my colleague was staying at the Langham and contacted the concierge team there. I pulled a picture of his dog from Facebook, sent it to team and asked them to put it in a frame in his room and write a message from the dog: 'Dear Daddies, Welcome to London! I hope you had the most wonderful time at Dinner... Ruff you, Nigel. PS: Jess helped me write this note.' I tell my team all the time, the biggest wow costs the least amount of money. That cost zero dollars.
Personalization — that seems to be the new standard for hotels of a certain level, especially for status-holders: hand-written notes from the GM, a welcome amenity with your name spelled out in chocolate... That’s very valuable, especially in the age of the digital concierge, where recommendations for everything are always right there in your pocket.
I always refer to recognition. An app doesn’t recognize you. It might remember what you bought last time on Instacart, but that’s convenience, not high-touch, personalized service. An app is not going to put a photo of your dog in your hotel room at a different branded hotel halfway across the country.
So how can you tell the difference between a concierge who’s just a placeholder behind a desk and a concierge who can be a traveler’s true ally?
Look for that personalization. A great concierge asks lots of questions, really tries to find out what you’re interested in. A great concierge goes out all the time and should be an expert in his or her city. I want to be able to speak directly to each experience first-hand, so I’m all over the city checking out every new venue. When I make restaurant reservations for guests, I don’t just send them a confirmation; I include a list of some of my favorite dishes. Avoid concierges who recommend chain restaurants — I call that a cardinal sin.
Any other cardinal sins?
From the guest standpoint, don’t ask us to do anything illegal, unethical or immoral. Fortunately — maybe because I’m in Atlanta — I don’t get that many crazy requests. The most challenging was just 10 days into my job as a concierge: A new mother who was staying with us on business asked that we not just store her breast milk — which is no big deal — but FedEx it back home. It took some coordination with dry ice, but we made it happen.
How about tipping? What’s the proper way for a guest to thank a concierge?
Tipping is appreciated but not required. People ask me all the time, what’s appropriate? I put it back on the guest: What was that service worth to you? A hard-to-get dinner reservation on a Saturday night, that’s worth X. Setting up a rental car or transportation, a simple task that didn’t require my network of resources, that’s worth something else.
What’s your plan now that you’ve won the Leadership Award, and how will it affect your career?
Well, there’s never been a Ritz-Carlton winner before, so that’s really great. My hotel can now say, The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead has 2017's best concierge in the world. But as far as changing my career, it will open a lot of doors, both within Ritz-Carlton and Les Clefs d’Or. But I’m not going anywhere. I’m a Ritz-Carlton lifer. I’ll be back at work Monday morning.