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Most swank hotels have a desk in the lobby marked "concierge." The person behind that desk? The hotel's ambassador of service. The concierge manages the rest of the unifromed staff, finds you a rental car or theater tickets, sets up sightseeing trips, or whatever else your heart desires. Who are these saints of service? Where do they come from? Reporter Judith Ritter is off to Montreal to find out.

Concierge School
By Judith Ritter

Listen with RealAudio: Concierge School

Some would say grace and refinement are things of the past, but they are alive and well in this classroom. Twenty-one men and women sit posture- perfect, pens in hand, attentively, even obsessively attuned to Dr. Michel Langlois, hospitality expert and chairman of the International School of Tourism.

The students come from three continents but share one dream, the right to wear on their lapels the crossed golden keys. The symbol of the exclusive Order of International Concierges. The pin and diploma earned here will bestow on these students the opportunity to fulfill every legal desire of the upscale hotel guest.

"Serving people is not a second class job; it is an honor to serve, a privilege, and the challenge is not to be good -- it is to be exceptional. To be good is not enough!"

Some of these students already have good hotel jobs, but as you heard...good is not enough, so they've paid $6000 and come from as far as Brazil, Australia and France to perfect the art of service.

Andrea Monteiro: "I came from Sydney, Australia to the school to hone my skills that I learned at the Sydney Hilton -- to learn the psychology, to see how the concierges in Northern Hemisphere do their job."

Ben Malpass: "I came from Brazil, it is so far away from here. I came to see how the concierge does his work here."

You don't need hotel experience to be chosen. Students have included a nurse, chocolate maker...factory worker, an insurance broker. But each applicant is carefully screened to make sure she or he has the right stuff.

Dr. Michel Langlois: The candidate we are looking for has good sense of empathy...the grooming is important...we are looking for creative people. A sense of humor, willing to help, to serve. We are looking for people who believe in serving people. Service with a big "S."

But above all, all these students biting the ends of their pens and furrowing their brows on the first day of school, have a certain je ne sais quoi...an innate desire to make people happy, almost a prescience that tells them what people want before they ask for it. These men and women have a calling. So says Quebec native, Jocelyn Chevrier.

Jocelyn Chevrier: "I wanted to be a concierge since I was about six years old, a boyhood dream. My father brought me to the Ritz-Carlton in Montreal. I saw all those lights, the chefs, the costumes....It was so beautiful. I just fell in love with it."

Heather Crosby from Calgary, Alberta goes one better.

Heather Crosby: "I think I've been a concierge all my life. I've always done the small tasks for people who don't expect it. I thrive on it. I'll pick up a newspaper on the way home, if someone hasn't time to get it. I'll drop off their mail, if I am passing a mailbox...I just love it. It makes me happy. Sounds crazy, I know, but I was born to be a concierge."

But that birthright must be honed into absolute discretion, perfect etiquette, eternal patience and devotion to duty. This means a nine week internship after nine demanding weeks of wall-to-wall lectures on first aid, computer skills, hotel law, sightseeing, accounting, cross cultural differences, customs, immigration...all in service to one goal -- guest satisfaction.

"This morning, we will discuss the guest management topic. Guest management is a big challenge. If your guest goes through a bad experience, not only witll he not come back, he will tell everybody."

Tell everybody? It's only the second day now, but the students look worried about their futures. Hours on the details of airline reservations, theatre tickets, limo service...and next month there will be visits to smart Montreal hotels. But first, each of these, what look like to be already superbly groomed candidates, must master the fine art of protocol... Shaking hands, table manners, thank-you notes -- and grooming -- cause, buster, you ain't going nowhere with lint on your jacket!

Grooming means the way you act, the way you wear, the way you put your make up, the way you put your hair. Let's see exactly what we are looking for someone. Who wants to be the volunteer?

Jocelyn Chevrier volunteers.

"Now look at your tie. Oh my God. It's better to put your tie really straight. Now your jacket. You shouldn't button your jacket like this. You have two buttons with a double breasted jacket."

Some students don't react as well to tidying up their images. Anik Laplante, a former student, now on the staff, remembers some occasional unpleasant moments.

Anik Laplante: "One student was giving a presentation with his beeper on one side, two earrings in one ear, jacket off, first two buttons untied, tie a little loose as well. I had to deduct all his points. He became angry and threw his report in the garbage."

Such behavior is rare. Generally grateful to have their appearance and manners under control, the students will go on to learn the skills needed to satisfy even the most exotic guest requests:

  • Tickets to the theatre? No problem.
  • Ship a turtle to Germany? A snap sir.
  • Need someone in a gorilla suit to sing happy birthday to your spouse? Coming up.
  • Bullet-proof vest for your dog? Just one moment.

Professor Anik Laplante: "I remember a time when I had to look for four leather dog boots for this very rich person from New York who would carry her dog everywhere she went...even in the hair salon. She was in shock that her dog has lost two of the four dog boots. Before going out she needed the boots. I had to phone ten places to find the leather -- not cotton -- dog boots."

Service like that is what helps make a luxurious hotel luxurious. And the world's deluxe hotels are eager to hire graduates of the International Concierge Institute. In fact the placement rate for new graduates is 87% and salaries start in the mid -twenties. A good concierge can make forty or fifty thousand a year, plus tips. Not that money is the primary reward for these future members of the prestigious association of golden keys. A job as a concierge satisfies that unfathomable desire, a desire perhaps deeply rooted in the DNA of a very few, to simply make someone happy.

For the International Concierge Institute in Montreal, I'm Judith Ritter for the Savvy Traveler.

For More Information:

Where's a school near you? Check out the International School of Tourism.

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