They are the supermen (and women) of the hotel industry. Whether averting disaster or diluting disappointment, concierges will do whatever they can to accommodate the wishes and whims, needs and notions of guests. To some they are like a personal genie in a bottle.
"Since we are not in a position to say, 'No, we can't,' you have to have the drive, resourcefulness and intelligence to make any request happen as long as it is moral, ethical, kind and legal," explains Mark Chambers, chef concierge at the Fairmont Pittsburgh. Chef is the official industry title used for the chief concierge.
Mr. Chambers is the first concierge in Pittsburgh to be inducted into Les Clefs d'Or (The Keys of Gold). It is the only national association of professional hotel concierges and is part of the international organization Union International des Concierges d'Hotels. You can recognize Les Clefs d'Or (pronounced ley clay door) members by the crossed gold keys they wear on their lapels.
The 49-year-old has come a long way since his early days as dining room manager at Cafe Allegro. He helped set up the first concierge desk at what was then the Westin William Penn Hotel, now an Omni property. He then became chef concierge at the Doubletree, which became the Westin Convention Center. But he is most proud of using his experience and knowledge to create the concierge department
at the Fairmont, which showcases his professionalism.
The upstate New York native has called Pittsburgh home for 30 years and in that time has amassed the greatest treasure any concierge can have -- contacts.
"I have the proverbial black book at home. It is about 4 inches thick and jammed. I can't even close it."
The book, filled with names and cryptic notes and scribblings only Mr. Chambers can read, is a relic from an earlier era. "I never use it anymore because I have the Internet, but it is kind of neat to open it up and see notes from 1998.
"It is that thing you wouldn't want to leave on top of your car at the gas station," he adds with a laugh.
At the Fairmont there are usually four people under Mr. Chambers, manning the concierge desk from 7 a.m. to about 10 p.m. depending on the day of the week and the occupancy of the hotel.
"Very often we have two people on the desk because we do a lot of running around," he says. While his day always begins the same, by checking emails, it never ends routinely.
"Every day is a brand new adventure, and every day I learn something new about Pittsburgh."
It can be as simple as where, exactly, do the Segway tours go. The concierge learns very quickly people can be unforgiving, and the concierge should know everything and do everything. "It's a very intuitive job," he notes.
"So if someone needs a private jet in 15 minutes, I will do whatever it takes to make that happen."
Something else that is vital to running a remarkable concierge department is communication. Guests often will call the hotel weeks in advance and speak to "the concierge" so when they get to the hotel, they expect to see that person. To ensure guests' needs are met, the team copies each other on all emails so that whoever is at the desk at the time of the guests' arrival, their specific requests are fulfilled.
"I have to say that I have a great team. Part of the skill is open communication with your team. Everybody has to be on the same page," Mr. Chambers says.
Working closely with the front desk, they do the little things, too, like getting FedEx packages to the guest's room before arrival so they don't have to ask for them.
The staff handles VIPs as well, making sure room type, special transportation and privacy concerns are taken care of. VIPs can be the obvious, such as celebrities, politicians and sports stars, but also the head contact for a group coming in or a CEO. That said, he notes they treat all their guests with deference.
"There are people who need special care. There is one guest whose son goes to Carnegie Mellon University so she comes in frequently to see him. She ... will email me: 'Mark, coming in next Tuesday private jet, tail number ... will need to be picked up.' So I will make those arrangements, dinner arrangements. You know, CMU graduation is fresh in my mind because it wasn't too too long ago. There were a lot of dinner parties and people wanting private dining rooms, so there was a lot of arranging," he recalls.
"Service through friendship" is the motto of the Les Clefs d'Or, but it is something Mr. Chambers practiced long before getting his gold keys.
With guests traveling from Asia, Europe, South America, Australia and beyond, Mr. Chambers and his team are particularly sensitive to the time differences.
"Someone may be coming from the Southern Hemisphere and not bring a winter coat because it is hot down there. So give me your size, tell me what you are looking for, I will go find it for you."
He has had to buy women's shoes for a woman who had a specific type in mind. "It was something I didn't know much about but suddenly became very familiar with," he remembers.
So what was the strangest request he's ever had in his 14 years of being a concierge?
"That is the hardest question to answer. I can tell you one of the most challenging -- getting a cab to the airport during a rainy Steelers Sunday is almost impossible."
The strangest request he has had was from a gentleman who wanted to rent a gun. "I called some gun shops and shooting ranges, and they all sort of laughed at me. So I had to call him back and let him know it was not possible. I am not sure what he ultimately did or what he wanted it for. It was certainly a memorable request."
Mr. Chambers will not say who in the VIP category has stayed at the Fairmont Pittsburgh.
"I can't because they often return," he explains. "You know, Pittsburgh is making a lot of movies these days and the summer music crowd returns to hotels where they have had a positive experience. It's all about discretion." So it is important to know who the VIPs are and what aliases they are booked under because of their special needs.
"We want them to feel comfortable and taken care of. That is what the concierge desk does."
Thanks to Mr. Chambers and his team, last year Fairmont Pittsburgh was named best concierge department in North America by JD Power & Associates.