Korean concierges look for their golden keys

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Korean concierges look for their golden keys

On the front lines of the hotel business stands the concierge, who is expected to be a Mr. Fixit for anything that a hotel guest needs. It’s a profession that is still relatively new to Koreans but highly appreciated by travelers who find themselves in need of something either simple or horribly complex.
On one snowy winter night, Jeannie Choi, the concierge supervisor at the Westin Chosun Seoul, found herself face to face with a young woman in a miniskirt who was shedding tears. The roads were icy and taxis were unwilling to take her up the hill to the Grand Hyatt Seoul, where she was staying. Ms. Choi tried to find her a ride but was unsuccessful. The Westin Chosun was fully booked, so Ms. Choi tried calling the concierges at nearby hotels. Again, she was unsuccessful in finding an open room. So Ms. Choi pleaded with her front desk manager to find a room, “even if it’s the presidential suite.” They found a suite, and the woman to this day uses the Chosun, Ms. Choi said.
The incident happened in Korea, but in this day of international travel and as Korea tries to establish itself as a hub ― financial, logistics, cargo transportation, renewable energy, what have you ― these guest requests are increasingly international.
Ryan Lee, a concierge at the JW Marriott Hotel Seoul, told of a guest who was about to depart for Hong Kong. The guest had not made a reservation there and came to Mr. Lee, saying, “I have 30 minutes before I have to leave for my flight. Can you find me a hotel in Hong Kong?”
The guest had a price range and an area in mind. Mr. Lee called the Hong Kong Marriott first, but that hotel was not in the right area. He called several other hotels before finding the right one. “And of course, I only call the concierge,” Mr. Lee said.
In order to meet these international demands and to make the concierge profession in Korea better known, the Korean Concierge Association has been lobbying and preparing itself for membership in Les Clefs d’Or, an international association of concierges that means “the Society of the Golden Keys” in English.
Andy Pongco explained. He is an international vice president of the society and president of Les Clef d’Or in the Philippines. “More than 50 years ago, 10 concierges in France thought they would be better able to serve their guests if they worked together.”
And the association is unique, he said, in the friendships that flourish between members in hotels that compete fiercely. “If you are in sales, you will not give someone else your guest. But this association thrives on friendship.” Sometimes it has to, when reservations are mishandled, rooms are not available or any number of things go wrong.
Those friendships are growing, with 36 national chapters of Les Clef d’Or. The association hosts an international conference annually, attended by as many as 600 concierges. The next one is slated for Manilla in 2005; concierges from Europe, Asia and the Americas are expected to attend. “You never know when you’ll need the help of an Asian concierge,” Mr. Pongco said.
The standard for a country to become a full member of Les Clefs d’Or is rather high, requiring the backing of hotel general managers, thank you letters from guests to prove the quality of service and sufficient numbers of English-speaking concierges (despite the French origins of the association).
In deciding to face that challenge, the 10-year-old Korean association called only its second general meeting Wednesday at the Grand Intercontinental Hotel. The Korean association has only 20 members here in Seoul, but it was able to attract 85 people, and is trying to expand its network to Busan and Jeju. International guests included Mr. Pongco and Sam Osman, president of Les Clefs d’Or Singapore and the society’s director for Asia. The general managers of the Grand Intercontinental Hotel, COEX Intercontinental Hotel, Sheraton Grande Walkerhill and the Mayfield Hotel also attended.
The job, Peter Charmichael of the Grand Intercontinental said, “is steeped in tradition.” That may be true in other countries, but most hotels in Korea employed concierges only recently. The Shilla and the Hyatt were the first, about 10 years ago, Ms. Choi says. When she first applied for a job at her hotel, she didn’t even know what a concierge was. The hotel looked at her, thought her personality suited the job and gave it to her. Five years later, she said, she realized that management had been right.
“In Europe, the concierge is virtually always a man, with some families of grandfathers, fathers and sons. In Asia, there are a lot of young people and many more women,” she added.
Ms. Choi and her comrades like Mr. Pongco and Mr. Osman see the younger generation as having a lot of potential. “Customer demands are changing, and sometimes the older generation cannot keep up,” Mr. Osman said. “The older generation has a lot to learn from their juniors, even though they have a lot to teach them as well.”
Mr. Ponco noted some differences between Asian and other concierges. “With no offense to Europeans and Americans, they expect a gratuity,” he said. “We are happy with a thank-you and a note to the general manager.” But he added with a perfect concierge’s smile, “Of course, we are happy with a gratuity too.”
Korean hotels tend to rotate their employees through different divisions within the hotel. Mr. Lee, who has been a concierge for two and a half years, hopes that will change, and brings up Mr. Pongco as an example. “Andy Pongco has been a concierge for more than 20 years. If he were in Korea, he would be a front office manager or director of rooms by now. But a concierge is what he wants to be. It’s about pride. We can provide almost unlimited service to guests.”

by Joe Yonghee
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