The Keepers of the Keys
The exclusive network of Les Clefs d’Or concierges have seen it all — and if you think you haven’t seen them, think again
The request came from a guest visiting London after a long absence: Could the hotel concierge, Toru Machida, from his modest workstation in the front hall, help this elderly foreign visitor find a friend he had not seen in decades? A man whose last name he had, regrettably, somehow forgotten, but with whom he once worked at a nearby shipping company in London. The only thing he knew for sure: The first name of his long-lost friend was Roy.
It was the kind of inquiry that explains why Machida, the chief concierge at the Savoy Hotel in London, has a set of crossed golden keys pinned to each lapel. Machida is a member of the exclusive international society named Les Clefs d’Or, a professional organization of the world’s top concierges whose skills go far beyond simply knowing how to book a table at that permanently overbooked restaurant.
“We need to know what our guests are looking for even before they know it,” Machida says, looking out over the bustling lobby at the Savoy.
“It is all about creating a bit of magic,” adds Michael Romei, chef concierge at the Waldorf Astoria and the Towers of the Waldorf Astoria in New York, and another member of Les Clefs d’Or — or The Golden Key Society, as it is known in certain parts of the world (though, in fact, the United States uses the French title).
The job of concierge has been around for centuries. The term, derived from comte des cierges, or “keeper of the candles,” dates back to medieval France, designated to those who served visiting nobles in castles. The society was founded in Paris by French concierges in 1929 and expanded in the early 1950s to nine countries in Europe before growing into the modern-day global network that today boasts 4,000 concierges in 65 countries, from Finland to French Polynesia. There are 575 members in the United States alone. The network continues to expand, even in this era of hyperconnected guests armed with smartphones.
In fact, the number of Les Clefs d’Or members — who are admitted only after five years of hotel-lobby experience as well as sponsorship from two society members and passing grades on a written exam — has jumped globally over the last decade by 32 percent, in part a reflection of the worldwide spread of luxury hotels.
And then there’s the Wes Anderson effect. Anderson’s 2014 hit film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, was built around a main character (played by Ralph Fiennes) who served as the hotel’s concierge and who at a critical moment turned to the network of concierges in hotels around Europe to get out of a predicament. (No spoilers here.)
Like all of Anderson’s films, The Grand Budapest Hotel was created from the wacky imagination of the director and his team. Even the set for the fictional hotel — built inside a defunct department store in Germany — was an illusion, and he named his fictionalized network of concierges the “Society of the Crossed Keys.”
But at its core, the film was truly paying homage to this old-school profession, where personal relationships, service and loyalty really matter, explains Hugo Guinness, a New York City artist and illustrator who co-wrote the script with Anderson.
“They are your local Mr. Fix It on the ground,” Guinness says, adding that the film was inspired in part by a mutual friend of Anderson and Guinness — a still-living, part-time art dealer/opera lover and gourmand who has befriended concierges at grand hotels across Europe, like the Savoy.
The film’s notion that a lobby boy turns to the concierge as his mentor is grounded in reality: Many Les Clefs d’Or members, including Machida from the Savoy, started out as lobby boys or luggage porters.
A typical day for the concierge team at the Savoy: tickets to Wimbledon; flowers and a bottle of Champagne for a jittery guest preparing to propose; tickets for a tour of Buckingham Palace; a reservation at the Fabergé egg-themed nightclub Bonbonniere; or a table at Kitty Fisher’s, the nearly-impossible-for-noncelebrity/mortals-to-book restaurant in Mayfair.
The global Les Clefs d’Or network is activated most frequently when departing guests request help in lining up dinner reservations for the next city on the itinerary. It also often serves — like it did in The Grand Budapest Hotel — as a backstop to help concierges work through some of the most complicated inquiries they receive.
A concierge from the Mandarin Oriental in London, for example, recently reached out to Sarah Dandashy, a fellow Les Clefs d’Or society member in Los Angeles, to ask her for help in securing two extremely hard-to-get tickets to a taping of The Big Bang Theory in Burbank, California.
These two VIP guests were not even headed to Dandashy’s hotel, The London West Hollywood; she knew before she took on the request that they were going to be staying at a private residence in Los Angeles. But Dandashy still invested more than a week of effort — totaling about 30 phone calls and emails — to get the tickets, reaching out to various producers, production assistants and ticket brokers, as no seats were available through normal means.
“Our motto is ‘In Service Through Friendship,’ ” Dandashy says, while working at her concierge desk in Los Angeles. “These are more than just colleagues who are asking for help — these are friends. If I help my friend get something done, it makes all of us look better.”
Les Clefs d’Or also serves as a venue for concierges from around the world to get to know each other: Hundreds of them assemble each year for the organization’s International Annual Congress, the most recent of which was in Mendoza, Argentina. (There are smaller conferences among the different national sections, like one in New Orleans this year.) It was in Mendoza that Dandashy, 33, was named the society’s top up-and-coming concierge of the year — the first time a concierge in the United States has won this international award — a recognition she won after undergoing over 40 hours of written tests and interviews.
Among the test topics: Set up a four-day itinerary of the best Los Angeles venues for a fictional family of five; identify the names of 16 global airlines based just on the designs on the tails of their jets; identify eight luxury watches from images with the labels blurred out; and identify various individuals featured in a series of head-shots, including the prime minister of Greece and soccer superstar Lionel Messi of Argentina.
“It is not about knowing all the answers off the bat but how to find them quickly,” Dandashy says of the open-book-style test. In fact, she turned to a bellman at her hotel for help in identifying Messi.
It is the most intricate, real-life tests that these veteran concierges like to compare like war stories. Romei of the Waldorf Astoria recalls the guest from Australia who asked him if the hotel could somehow create near life-size sculpted chocolate statues that resembled him and his fiancée.
“I don’t know if they ever ate the chocolate,” Romei says. “But we delivered it, and they did pack it up and send it back home.”
At times, these requests are so indulgent they become tasteless: Simon Thomas, 1st International Vice President of Les Clefs d’Or and the head concierge at The Lanesborough Hotel in London, was asked for help in finding out how to ship 21 live deer to the Middle East as a surprise for the 21-year-old wife of a guest, who was a member of the royal family from a Middle Eastern nation he would not name.
But many of them are about creating meaningful, life-defining moments, like helping reunite two long-lost friends. So how did Machida manage to solve that riddle? At first he hit a dead end, after calling the shipping company where “Roy” had once worked. He then began asking some veteran shipping-industry executives from London for leads, and one of them referred him to The Baltic Exchange, an international community of more than 600 member shipping companies. From here, he inquired about former colleagues named “Roy” who were about the right age. This generated the names and telephone numbers of three prospects.
“Of course,” Machida says, “it was the third one I called: a gentleman from Deal, England, near the coast in Kent. It only took me a few minutes to confirm this was the Roy I was looking for. It was a connection I was lucky enough to help rebuild.”
A bit of Clefs d’Or magic, for sure, and a gesture that will forever be remembered by a hotel guest who’s long since left the hotel.