Whether it’s arranging late-night pizza deliveries or elaborate wedding proposals, no request is too mundane or eccentric for a hotel concierge. But meeting each guest’s every whim isn’t easy. We sat down with Tegan Wilson, a member of the prestigious Les Clefs d’Or organization of professional concierges. As the Chief Concierge at the Hotel Healdsburg in California’s Sonoma wine country, Wilson shared what it’s like working in a profession where “can’t” is a dirty word.
When did you first become interested in being a concierge?
Bizarrely, when I was a teenager, my parents suggested a concierge career to me. I thought they were silly! It made sense, though. Even at a very young age, I loved creating memorable experiences for others. I was all about presentation and outcome, and I had to bring a smile to people’s faces. I love a good challenge.
What was the path to becoming a concierge?
I have worked at hotels since I was 15, when I started cleaning rooms at a local inn. Housekeeping is the hardest working group in the hotel industry and I do not take what they do for granted!
Following that, my parents opened a five-room beachfront inn in my home town. So inn-keeping became a big part of my daily life. I enjoyed working with our guests and making reservations and local recommendations.
I started working as a hotel front desk agent in Healdsburg while attending college. I pretty much played concierge as a front desk agent, so it wasn’t a hard transition.
How important are concierges to a hotel?
The right concierge is priceless! Concierges can make or break a stay. Really, all levels of hotel service combine to make an impression -- the valet, housekeeping, room service and front desk. But it’s the concierge who’s in the unique position to spend time getting to know guests on a personal level.
Our new guests learn to see us as an old friend, and to our long-time guests, we are like family. “Cousin Tegan” has become one of my favorite nicknames by a couple who have been visiting Hotel Healdsburg for years. Concierges are always on the clock and constantly increasing their Rolodex. When we are out and about, we are ambassadors of our hotels and our community.
What is expected of a hotel concierge?
Everything! Nothing is off the table unless it is immoral or illegal.
What are typical questions you receive from guests?
Everyday questions might include: Which way is the coffee shop? Where can we get in a four-mile run? Where should I go for dinner? Which winery is your favorite? These might seem like easy answers, and most of them are. But I learned early on in my career that in order to make the right recommendation, I need to ask guests the right questions and then listen carefully to their answers.
How do you decide which places to recommend?
I ask a number of questions. What kind of cuisine are you craving? Where have you eaten already? And where do you plan to eat? I like to mix up our guests’ dining itinerary to include a style they haven’t enjoyed yet: Italian, Latin, seafood, et cetera. What kind of ambiance do you prefer? Fun and lively, or quiet and quaint? The answers to all these questions lead to what I hope will be a memorable and perfect dining experience.
Do you receive any kickbacks or incentives to recommend certain places?
Sadly, from time to time, one hears that the concierges are paid to recommend certain vendors. I’ve even heard people say that it makes more sense to talk to the front desk or the bellman, because you’ll get an unbiased opinion. Wrong! I’d encourage travelers to look for the Clefs d’Or “keys” first [a gold key emblem on the concierge’s lapel], which ensures they are dealing with an ethical and seasoned professional.
Second, just ask the concierge one key question: Are they hired by the hotel or is their desk outsourced? This will tell you a lot. Concierge desks that are outsourced are more likely to pressure you toward a specific location based on a referral fee.
What are some examples of more difficult requests?
There are occasionally questions that you have to stop and ask yourself “How on earth will I ever make this happen?” For example, a couple walks in. They’ve decided for their elopement (two hours from now) that they need to have live music, and can I get someone to come and play? Or a birthday girl decides it would be fun to have a palm reader come to her room to tell fortunes at her party an hour from now.
In San Francisco or New York, this might seem like a fun and different challenge. But in our small farming town of Healdsburg, we do not have violin-playing winemakers and crystal-ball-reading enologists on call. This is where your contacts come in handy and where creativity comes into play. I am your best shot at making these types of things happen, and I truly love to try and, even more so, succeed. Bring on the challenge!
What’s a memorable request you were able to pull off?
I once received a call from a guest on his way to the hotel. There was a Rugby World Cup match that only happens once every 12 years – Australia v. Great Britain – and it was “life or death” that he watch it. The catch? The game took place at 3 a.m. PST.
Right away, I thought, “Who has televisions with an extra sports package?” The local bars wouldn’t be open that late. Then I thought of a friend who had just moved to the area. I called him, and in an instant, we had it all figured out: I would escort the guest to my friend’s house for the 3 a.m. game. Both the guest and I were stunned!
Unfortunately, the friend backed out because of an issue with his new cat. So at 9 p.m., I was scrambling to find an alternate location. Luckily another friend agreed to help. I drove right over to set up the channel then arranged for a taxi to bring the guest at 3 a.m. I needed sleep, so I curled up on the couch and set an alarm.
Around 1:30 am, my guest texted that he’d met up with some staff from a winery and they offered to let him watch it there. All’s well that ends well. The guest let me know how much he appreciated what I had done for him, he got to watch the match, and I went to sleep happy. Best of all, his team won!
What about celebrity guests requests – are they more outrageous than those of ordinary folks?
No, in fact, just the opposite. Celebrities are just like any other visitor. They just want to eat good food, drink good wine, and relax at the spa and pool. They are never more demanding. All of my experiences have been pleasant.
Are there new trends regarding what people are asking for these days?
Stand-up paddleboarding, and pet- and child-friendly locations. I see people are getting more wine savvy, so they are looking for the next big thing in the wine world. Who is the next Williams Selyem, Kosta Browne or Rafanelli?
Should guests tip the concierge?
Tips are always appreciated, but never expected. Think of the concierge as you would any other working hotel professional, such as the restaurant server, bellman, chauffer and door valet. Tipping aside, it is my job to serve the guest, and I always strive to do the most I can for each one. I appreciate the sincere and heartfelt praise I receive from them.