Your Wish is My Command: A Concierge’s Story

15 March, 2022
The $18,000 Pent­house Suite at the Bev­er­ly Wilshire Hotel, Bev­er­ly Hills.

 

 

Noreen Moustafa

 

“Wel­come to the show!”

That is how one of the front office man­agers would greet me at the start of my shift when I worked at the Bev­er­ly Wilshire Hotel, in Los Ange­les. Like a direc­tor on a film set yelling “action,” he snapped me into char­ac­ter. As a concierge at one of the most icon­ic hotels in the world, I knew I was there to play a role in someone’s fan­ta­sy. With the swing of a door, I’d pass from the ster­ile white employ­ees area, into a gold adorned ele­va­tor bank, what they call the “front of the house.” Lit by a 720-pound crys­tal chan­de­lier, the hal­lowed and his­tor­i­cal mar­ble lob­by was the stage, and I was on set. I even had a cos­tume. A dark gray blaz­er with a match­ing skirt, sheer black panty­hose with a slight shim­mer, and heels that walked the line between tor­ture and com­fort. Sen­si­ble yet sexy. Approach­able yet pro­fes­sion­al. Rich but not too rich to serve you.

Lob­by of the Bev­er­ly Wilshire.

My col­leagues and I all wore the same uni­form, though we were each allowed a bit of self-expres­sion — our silk scarves (which we were allowed to knot in three sanc­tioned ways). Pur­chased down the road on Rodeo Dr., our bright­ly col­ored scarves were either Her­mes or Fer­rag­amo, and were hotel prop­er­ty. Just like the suit. Just like me for eight hours a day. I was an exten­sion of the expe­ri­ence being bought and sold at quite a hefty price tag. And though just an acces­so­ry, the scarf helped ele­vate the prod­uct (me) to the lev­el of the con­sumer (the guests). I sup­pose it made me relat­able to them. A bit of luxe around my neck to let them know that we were in the same club and that they needn’t be shy about their friv­o­lous requests. They didn’t know I was being paid $13 an hour or lived in a small apart­ment. I spoke their lan­guage and was well-versed in the LA Philharmonic’s pro­gram, high-end fash­ion, and had the most sought-after restau­rants on speed dial. I could sum­mon a Rolls Royce at a momen­t’s notice and had access to a fleet of heli­copters and pri­vate jets while still mak­ing month­ly pay­ments on my Volk­swa­gen. I could get last minute tick­ets to any sold-out show or sport­ing event — at a price of course. And the words “impos­si­ble” and “no” had been scrubbed from my vocab­u­lary. It was there that I learned an impor­tant skill that would be invalu­able in every job I’ve had since — to just make it hap­pen. At this desk of dreams, a guest could ask me for any­thing and it was my man­date. Their wish was in fact, my desire.

I am often asked what were some of the more mem­o­rable requests I received as a concierge. Well, there was Mari­ah Carey who want­ed to be mas­saged “till she fell asleep,” which meant call­ing three dif­fer­ent masseuses to trade off until four in the morn­ing. Or the lady who want­ed her bath­room car­pet­ed because she was always in heels but didn’t like the sound they made on the tile. (Actu­al­ly, that was also Mari­ah Carey). And though I am not one to be starstruck, I must admit I found it thrilling when I helped choose new sun­glass­es for the musi­cian, Prince. But there was one instance in par­tic­u­lar where I felt I had been asked some­thing so absurd that I didn’t even know where to start.

Sara, a Sau­di princess who like most of her cohort spent her sum­mers trav­el­ing to avoid the desert heat, had already been stay­ing with us for over a month.  She was ethe­re­al, ele­gant, kind and del­i­cate. She typ­i­cal­ly wore white and her long black hair was divine. When she approached the front desk, she seemed to float. And when she spoke, I always had to lean in a bit to hear her which made every­thing she said feel like a secret. Typ­i­cal­ly, she just need­ed help orga­niz­ing trans­port or book­ing beau­ty appoint­ments, but one morn­ing, she had a more wist­ful look in her eye than usu­al. Per­haps because she knew her time with us was com­ing to an end.

“Sabah al khair, Sara. Did they send you your mint tea this morn­ing?” I asked.

“Yes, habibti, every­thing is fine. But I was think­ing, I stayed in this hotel in Madrid before com­ing here…it was the J.W. Marriott.”

“Yes, okay…” I said, reach­ing for my notepad while try­ing not to break eye con­tact, ready to jot down her request.

“It smelled so good. It was amaz­ing — cit­rus, jas­mine? I don’t know. I want my palace in Jed­dah to smell like that.”

“Yes. Okay, of course. You want the smell? So, was this a soap or sham­poo in the room?” I couldn’t let her leave with­out clarifying. 

“No, no — the hotel. I want the smell of the hotel. Find me that scent.” She was already halfway to the front door when she turned back and said, “I’ll be back in a cou­ple of hours.”

Relax­ing by the pool at the Bev­er­ly Wilshire.

I looked down on my notepad for a clue on where to begin and saw only the words: Madrid, smell, and Mar­riott. One of the best parts of the job was the cama­raderie between us col­leagues and in stress­ful times, it felt like it was us against them. I turned to my fel­low concierge who was just hang­ing up the phone and told her what the princess had asked for. She was a vet­er­an. Dead­pan, she said, “You know why they call this the hos­pi­tal­i­ty indus­try, right?”

“No, why?” I impa­tient­ly asked, just wish­ing she would help me.

“Because it’s like work­ing in a men­tal hos­pi­tal. Some­times you have to treat guests like con­fused patients who have wan­dered out of their rooms. She just needs to be del­i­cate­ly redi­rect­ed back with a smile. ‘Yes, Sara, tell me more about what you smelled?’” she giggled. 

We both laughed but she knew as well as I did that no wish could go unat­tend­ed to and that I’d have to fig­ure this out. Or at least real­ly try to. But what was she talk­ing about? How could I deliv­er the smell of a hotel? I fig­ured the best place to start was to call my coun­ter­part in Madrid — the JW Marriott’s concierge. To my sur­prise, he knew exact­ly what I was talk­ing about and passed me on to their mar­ket­ing depart­ment. And from there, I began to pull at a thread that even­tu­al­ly led me to exact­ly what I was look­ing for.

Turns out J.W. Mar­riott had a con­tract with a scent mar­ket­ing com­pa­ny — an indus­try of which I was whol­ly unaware. I learned that many retail stores, restau­rants and hotels pump curat­ed fra­grances into the air to manip­u­late and trig­ger cus­tomers using the sense most tied to mem­o­ry — olfac­to­ry. For exam­ple, a swim­suit store that smells like coconut tan­ning oil will sub­con­scious­ly remind you of your last beach hol­i­day, in order to inspire a pur­chase. And a gas sta­tion may pump the smell of fresh roast­ed java beans to push their not-so-fresh cof­fee. The com­pa­ny rep also said yes, Princess Sara’s home could smell like that hotel in Madrid for a few thou­sand dol­lars. He overnight­ed a pop­si­cle stick dipped in the cus­tom per­fume for me to share with her. I couldn’t believe it — I had done it. She was delight­ed and ordered five com­mer­cial grade dif­fusers and a month­ly sub­scrip­tion to the scent to out­fit her palace. Although the mon­ey and the influ­ence was not mine, I loved hav­ing the pow­er to grant wish­es and exceed people’s expec­ta­tions. And that is what the lux­u­ry hotel busi­ness is actu­al­ly about —sell­ing an expe­ri­ence, not a bed.

The room rates at the Bev­er­ly Wilshire then start­ed at $700 per night going all the way up to $18,000 per night for the almost per­pet­u­al­ly booked Pent­house Suite. But at a cer­tain point, no mat­ter how beau­ti­ful­ly dec­o­rat­ed the rooms are or what zip code they are in, one had to ask them­selves, what exact­ly is that cus­tomer pay­ing for? What is it that they desire? And the answer to that ques­tion is the rai­son d’être of each of the over 600 employ­ees work­ing there, behind the scenes. Across sev­er­al depart­ments, each of them play­ing their part in the the­ater that is hos­pi­tal­i­ty. This elab­o­rate con­struct runs 24-hours a day, held up by each encounter a guest may have with staff. All of whom seem to mag­i­cal­ly know their name and answer their calls by ask­ing “How can I help you?” And even after you’ve made your request, they’ll ask you to delve deep­er with a com­pul­so­ry end­ing, “Is there any­thing else I can assist you with?”

Our mis­sion there was to cater to the whims, wants and needs of every guest, ide­al­ly before they were even artic­u­lat­ed. Gra­cious­ly and with plea­sure, antic­i­pat­ing desires before they were even per­ceived. As a concierge, if I heard you cough or snif­fle on the phone when request­ing a din­ner reser­va­tion, I would send up a cup of chamomile tea and some lozenges to your room before you left. I’d also ask the valet to pull your car up so that it was ready for you in the dri­ve­way when you came down. They would have cleaned your wind­shield overnight and set the tem­per­a­ture in the car just right as it idled in the porte-cochère.  Maybe you would smile when you noticed that direc­tions to the restau­rant were already print­ed on the back of the con­fir­ma­tion let­ter placed on your front seat. But what would real­ly baf­fle you is how the som­me­li­er there knew you were cel­e­brat­ing your wed­ding anniver­sary and brought you the same bot­tle of wine you cel­e­brat­ed with last year…at a dif­fer­ent restau­rant, in anoth­er city com­plete­ly. Cour­tesy of myself, the concierge who has been duti­ful­ly study­ing your guest pro­file since your arrival. “What’s her name again, the one in the orange scarf?” you’d wonder.

Each hotel guest has a pro­file in the sys­tem attached to their reser­va­tion that is updat­ed by employ­ees across the Four Sea­sons’ dif­fer­ent prop­er­ties. Beyond con­tact infor­ma­tion, it con­tains details about an individual’s var­i­ous pref­er­ences and dis­likes. Some­thing as banal as “Mrs. Smith is aller­gic to peanuts, likes her sheets untucked and prefers a room close to the ele­va­tor” to as sala­cious as “Don’t ask Mr. Bark­er why he is check­ing out after only one hour espe­cial­ly if he is stay­ing with some­one oth­er than Mrs. Bark­er.” These per­son­al pro­files are what I believe make all the dif­fer­ence in cre­at­ing this alter­nate real­i­ty that peo­ple are seek­ing when they choose to stay at a lux­u­ry prop­er­ty. A real­i­ty where their fan­cies are fawned over through man­u­fac­tured familiarity.

Façade of the Bev­er­ly Wilshire seen from Rodeo Dri­ve, Bev­er­ly Hills.

In the morn­ing meet­ing, a pho­to­copied pack­et of head­shots would be cir­cu­lat­ed amongst the dif­fer­ent man­agers with the title, “Show Me You Know Me.” Pic­tured in these pages were all the VIPs and return­ing guests arriv­ing that day and their names in all cap­i­tal let­ters. They were then post­ed in all the back offices for the line staff to study. This plus the guest pro­file library fos­tered an atmos­phere of recog­ni­tion and friend­li­ness in all the pub­lic areas of the hotel. Beyond the typ­i­cal name usage one expects to receive at a hotel thanks to caller ID, a guest at the Bev­er­ly Wilshire could be greet­ed by name in an ele­va­tor, the hall­way, or even lay­ing out by the pool. The way peo­ple light up when called by their name with a smile is some­thing that has stayed with me for a long time. It stands in stark con­trast how­ev­er, to the invis­i­bil­i­ty of the many employ­ees who work in the “back of the house” at hotels, whose jobs are to remain unseen. I would think about what hap­pened when these employ­ees would cross paths with a guest.

Did it punc­ture the illu­sion to come back to your room and find a mid­dle-aged, immi­grant kneel­ing to fold the edge of your toi­let paper into a crisp tri­an­gle? Even if she did it with great sat­is­fac­tion and plea­sure, I still found the con­stant pros­tra­tion to the monied, dis­turb­ing. And even­tu­al­ly in myself, dam­ag­ing. But this is a com­pli­cat­ed feel­ing because I do believe that so many of the peo­ple who work in hos­pi­tal­i­ty are gen­uine­ly kind, innate­ly gen­er­ous, and enjoy their jobs. As I did for a long time. And that even when oper­at­ing from a script and care­ful train­ing, their spir­it of help­ful­ness and warmth is gen­uine. But the iso­la­tion of work­ing in ser­vice posi­tions where one is rou­tine­ly not rec­og­nized, let alone called by name can­not be denied. Some exam­ples of these jobs are a dri­ver, a cus­to­di­an, a house­keep­er — any posi­tion where it is the soci­etal norm to be ignored while work­ing. Have you ever noticed how pas­sen­gers can have a very per­son­al con­ver­sa­tion in the back of an Uber or taxi as if the dri­ver isn’t even there? Or how throngs of stu­dents can pass a cus­to­di­an in their school’s hall­way for years with­out ever real­ly see­ing them?

But this invis­i­bil­i­ty is nec­es­sary in main­tain­ing the mys­tery and mag­ic of an impec­ca­ble stay at a lux­u­ry hotel. And the very struc­ture of the prop­er­ty enforces this sep­a­rate­ness through ser­vice ele­va­tors, hid­den cor­ri­dors, and pantries. Just like with any spec­ta­cle, per­haps it is best to ignore the man behind the cur­tain or in this case, the employ­ees underground.

But “front of the house” employ­ees such as myself had to strad­dle these two worlds and I even­tu­al­ly found them hard to rec­on­cile. I sam­pled the finest restau­rants in town so that my din­ing rec­om­men­da­tions were informed by real expe­ri­ences. But I nev­er had to pay the bill. Instead, my meals were comped as the restau­rants vied to win my favor and even­tu­al­ly my guests’ patron­age. And time and time again, I found myself stand­ing shoul­der to shoul­der with peo­ple who actu­al­ly lived in a very dif­fer­ent real­i­ty from me, whether it was at night­clubs or coun­try clubs. I felt like an imposter because despite the illu­sion of equal­i­ty, the supe­ri­or­i­ty of the guest was always affirmed. I didn’t like the part of myself that became gid­dy when I was tipped big. Or how I became more dot­ing to the guests who I knew were like­ly to give me cash in return. Even more dis­tress­ing was the way my col­leagues and I would com­pete for these cer­tain guests’ attention.

After a large ban­quet or event in the ball­room, cater­ing would some­times send down the left­over food to the employ­ee cafe­te­ria. So instead of the usu­al (admit­ted­ly deli­cious) menu, some­times we would get filet mignon and lit­tle souf­flés topped with flakes of gold for dessert. At the begin­ning I saw this as an amaz­ing perk, but even­tu­al­ly I felt resent­ful being served someone’s left­overs. In the lock­er room, house­keep­ers com­plained about their hours-long bus com­mutes into Bev­er­ly Hills while mas­sag­ing their sore feet. One of the switch­board oper­a­tors asked me what it was like to be one of the “beau­ti­ful peo­ple” allowed to work in the lob­by. I’d nev­er thought of it that way before and felt embarrassed.

Work­ing in the lob­by wasn’t always glam­orous. It also meant being on the front­line of occa­sion­al aggres­sion and unwant­ed advances. Once after rec­om­mend­ing a bar to a guest, he asked if I would meet him there at the end of my shift. When I polite­ly declined, he hushed his voice and said, “What if I told you I was a part of the Pres­i­dents’ Club?” I felt ner­vous that he wasn’t back­ing down and also had no idea what he was talk­ing about. I knew about Amex’s Cen­tu­ri­on club but what the hell was the Pres­i­dents’ Club? He clar­i­fied by pulling out his wal­let and fan­ning cash out, show­ing off the pres­i­dents on the bills. I clum­si­ly declined again, all the while care­ful not to lose my trained smile. He played it off as a joke, called me a flirt and saun­tered away. You can imag­ine, I didn’t ask him if there was any­thing else I could assist him with like I was sup­posed to.

And so, over time, the prob­lems of income inequal­i­ty were brought into hyper-focus for me in this micro­cosm — this “show” as my man­ag­er called it. There is noth­ing wrong or immoral per say about seek­ing an alter­nate real­i­ty, a break, a hol­i­day, an extrav­a­gance that makes us feel spe­cial. But what I real­ized was that all of us — from the guests to both the “vis­i­ble” and “invis­i­ble” employ­ees — we all actu­al­ly want­ed the same thing. And how­ev­er this expressed itself, this uni­ver­sal desire for recog­ni­tion is not friv­o­lous at all. It is why a guest insist­ed I find a way for him to land his heli­copter on Hearst Cas­tle, not just next to it. It is why a cer­tain bell­man only deliv­ered bags to a room when he was sure some­one was there, so as not to miss a thank you. And why the dish­wash­er, soaked in suds and sweat, took great care to nev­er break a sin­gle glass, hop­ing his boss would notice.

We all want the same thing. To be seen and to be heard. But how often we get that acknowl­edge­ment can depend on our posi­tion in the hier­ar­chy. And only some of us can afford to buy that rap­port, that respect, on demand. That “show me you know me,” touch.

 

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Noreen Moustafa was born in Los Angeles to Egyptian parents. She is a writer and news/documentary producer who began her career at Current TV, working on the international documentary series, Vanguard and ‘the world’s biggest online news show,' The Young Turks. She later worked as a producer for both Al Jazeera America and Al Jazeera English. She lives with her husband and two children in Florence, Italy where she is working on a memoir.

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