Social media and 24/7 Wi-Fi connectivity have not lessened the role of the hotel concierge. It is quite the opposite, according to Madeleine Calon, newly elected as the first woman to run the United Kingdom affiliate of esteemed concierge association The Golden Keys.
LONDON—Madeleine Calon, head concierge at London’s 60-room St. James’s Hotel & Club, has been elected president of the Society of the Golden Keys of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, the first time a woman has run the association of top concierges.
Also referred to as Les Clefs d’Or, Union Internationale des Concierges d’Hôtels, the association initially was founded in 1929 with 11 Parisian concierges.
The U.K. group also includes concierges from smaller markets—such as the Turks and Caicos Islands, Cayman Islands, Bermuda, and South Africa—that do not have sufficient numbers yet to form their own affiliates.
Calon, a concierge for almost three decades, still enjoys the role that she said remains the “focal point of a hotel.”
Being accepted to The Golden Keys, she said, underlines the experience, knowledge and ability of those incoming members, as well as that of the existing members who have to nominate, sponsor and elect them.
“We have 386 members, mainly in 4- and 5-star hotels,” Calon said. “The caliber of the concierge is what is most important. The knowledge (of) our members has to be second to none. Being a member shows guests of their quality and the quality of their information, discretion and integrity.”
Prospective concierge candidates who wish to join the association must already have five years of experience and be nominated by two Golden Keys members, each with three years’ membership. Members receive a gold pin of crossed keys designed by jeweler Bucherer.
Calon is not elitist about the services concierges provide. But early in her career she had been nervous about bothering other members.
“Usually the more senior you get in a hotel career, the less time you spend with the guest, and that was not for me,” Calon said.
Calon has learned since joining The Golden Keys that the association is a useful resource.
“As I progressed through the Golden Keys, I wished previously I had picked up the phone more to talk to other member concierges, but I was scared of being thought of as stupid. I realized the association is here to help its members,” Calon said. “Concierges know our cities, and we share information and personalized recommendations at meetings.”
In the last four years as VP of the Golden Keys, she was responsible for the selection of U.K. concierges to be nominated for the entire association’s awards.
Calon said that female concierges remain a small percentage of the total.
“That is changing,” she said. “In the U.K. section we have 15, but that will soon be 18. It is not that women are not accepted, I am a perfect example of that acceptance. More women are applying as the rewards are exceptional.”
Calon said that the concierge role suffers in the U.K. compared to other hotel roles because many do not see it as a career path in the hotel industry.
“The vast majority of members are from overseas,” she said. “I am still asked ‘What do you really want to do?’”
More necessary that ever
Calon said in this world of endless amounts of information, the top-notch skills and services of a concierge are needed and appreciated more than ever.
“You have to know how to research, and the internet has lessened that skill in many people,” Calon said. “The fear was that the Internet would make us obsolete. If you went with what the internet tells you, you might think that the top restaurant in any city is a kebab shop, which is not true obviously.”
Calon added that one instinct a concierge has is to suggest alternatives to original queries that turn out to be far more suitable and enjoyable for the guest.
“Tech is good as long as you make use of it, and not let it use you,” Calon said.
She said that guests still book things online and then come to her to get things printed, which also can be a mistake and add time to the overall process.
“It is sometimes cheaper to come through the concierge,” she said. “Sometimes the independent traveler thinks they are doing us a favor, but we have built relationships with vendors over many years.”
A concierge still can provide jackets and ties, although Calon said there is less and less call for that.
“We did have a bow-tie tying session at a recent meeting,” Calon added.
Other perhaps more unusual requests have included arranging chemotherapy for a dog, but Calon said sometimes the most important role of a concierge is an emotional one.
“For example, a long-term guest who perhaps has lost a spouse, and as the most visible staff member on-property you have perhaps known these people for many years,” Calon said.
There also is a joyous side to such relationship-building, Calon said.
“Guests arrive year after year with their children, who become adult guests, who then bring their children,” she said. “We see snapshots of their lives, see them become brides, experience their precious moments. It is the human encounters that always stick in my mind.”
Calon said she came to hotels from an initial career as a theater stage manager.
In the hotel world, she started at London’s The Cumberland (soon to be the Hard Rock London) in 1987 as guest liaison officer before moving in 1990 to a similar role at The Waldorf London, now The Waldorf Hilton, London.
“Going from a 1,000-room hotel to a smaller one, I went to a property where you have to find the guests. I was hooked,” Calon said.
Calon said she started not only listening and learning but also covering breaks when the concierge disappeared.
“I went from being guest relations manager to being assistant concierge,” she said. “Most thought I had lost my marbles to take a step back and at less pay, but I was lucky to have a GM who had the foresight to develop me.”
She later joined the independent St. James’s in London’s Mayfair district when it opened 10 years ago.
“It is the happiest hotel I’ve ever worked in, and I have not inherited guests. Everyone here started together,” Calon said.
She was accepted into the Golden Keys in 1995.
“It has been great to have shared some of the Golden Keys’ history, to be part of it when some of the originators of the society were still around and attending meetings, to move from the age of the Telex and the fax to emails,” Calon said. “Today, the society is opening up new countries, in Eastern Europe, Middle East, Africa. There continues to be markets who want their concierges to be the very best and have that recognized by international travelers.”
And a new generation is in place, too.
“We had a 14-year-old on work experience who took to it like a duck in water,” she said. “After three years at The Ritz, he has a career plan, and it is lovely to see the development of a young concierge and how they, too, got hooked.”