Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 August 2020

Sharing the keys to good service: the concierges of Les Clefs d'Or in the UAE

Concierges are a significant part of the service at luxury hotels in the Emirates. Selina Denman visits the local chapter of Les Clefs d'Or, where the best in the field pool their vast knowledge.
Oscar van der Veen (centre), concierge manager at the Burj Al Arab. Pawan Singh / The National
Oscar van der Veen (centre), concierge manager at the Burj Al Arab. Pawan Singh / The National

Concierges are a significant part of the service at luxury hotels in the Emirates. Selina Denman visits the local chapter of Les Clefs d'Or, where the best in the field pool their vast knowledge

The sea of dark suits in front of me is a gold mine of information; the answers to a thousand questions lie within easy reach. What's the best Japanese restaurant in Dubai? When is Louis Vuitton's next collection hitting our shores? Where can I go to pet a camel? Or get a facial, or rent a supercar, or buy a tailored suit? The ladies and gentlemen gathered around me in the ballroom of the Crowne Plaza on Yas Island would be able to provide all this information - and much more besides - in the blink of an eye.

I am at the third annual general meeting of the UAE chapter of Les Clefs d'Or, an international network of hotel concierges that is committed to promoting professionalism and solidarity in the industry. The association was founded in France in 1929, when a group of 11 concierges from Paris's "grand hotels" realised that they would operate more effectively if they joined forces and shared information. The same principles of openness, professionalism and friendship were at play in this Crowne Plaza ballroom last month, where more than 200 hotel concierges from around the country converged to network with their peers, discuss industry issues and ensure that they know exactly what's hot and what's not across the UAE.

"In other countries, concierges compete. Here, we gather in one room; we are friends, we network, we share thoughts, and we establish relationships and rapport," says Charles Ferrer, the chief concierge of Dubai's H Hotel and the president of Les Clefs d'Or UAE.

The Golden Keys pin that is placed on a concierge's lapel, once he or she becomes a Clefs d'Or member, is a guarantee of professionalism. It is a visual sign that a concierge has a certain level of experience and credibility, and has passed through the association's stringent qualification process. "It is not placed on your lapel simply so you can display it in your lobby - there is a responsibility behind it," says Ferrer.

"We want to create an environment where our guest will not be compromised as far as service is concerned; we want to act with integrity and professionalism at all times. And we want to show people that a concierge is not just about carrying bags or opening doors."

Being a concierge is actually about "making things happen, regardless of what 'it' is", says Avnish Masih, chief concierge at Dubai's Mövenpick Hotel Ibn Battuta Gate. Requests can range from the mundane - sourcing a specific type of organic baby food - to the outlandish. It's apparently not unusual for guests to request that they are picked up from the airport on a camel, for example.

"Once a guest wanted to ride Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum's Godolphin horse after seeing a painting of the horse outside the Jumeirah Emirates Towers' Godolphin Ballroom," recalls Alaa El Noamany, chief concierge at Jumeirah Emirates Towers.

The oddest request that Sandra Newman, chief concierge at Emirates Palace, has ever received was from a couple who wanted to celebrate the marriage of two of the bears in their 25-strong teddy bear collection. No joke. "There was pizza laid out on a table with every teddy at their respective place with a side plate and slices of pizza for the celebration. This was a serious affair," she says.

At the Burj Al Arab, concierge manager Oscar van der Veen is used to getting calls from guests requesting that he hunt down a certain pair of designer shoes in a specific size. "If they are looking for a pair of shoes, let's say a Jimmy Choo or a Christian Louboutin in a certain size, and it has already sold out in Paris or Amsterdam or London, guests will call me and ask me to check if it is available in the UAE and ask that I purchase it in advance. So when they arrive in two weeks' time, voilà, their [size] 38 slingbacks are here waiting for them."

Going beyond the call of duty is part and parcel of the concierge's remit, says van der Veen, particularly when you work at one of the world's most iconic hotels. "Your guest has a higher expectation, full stop. They are staying at Burj Al Arab, they are arriving by helicopter or a fleet of Rolls-Royces, and so they will generally start off with a higher benchmark in terms of expectations. They are asking for that impossible table at Le Petite Maison or how to get a Birkin bag at Hermès, or they want you to chase around for a reservation in Paris or release an upgrade or redemption at Emirates. It is assumed that you will become a personal lifestyle assistant, not just someone who works at the hotel, and that you will have a contact, whether that's in Botswana or Brisbane, and come up with tangible solutions. You are there to pave the way."

The mark of a good concierge is adaptability, van der Veen adds. "There's a lot of political correctness and diplomacy involved. A good concierge is up to date, whether that's being tech savvy or just knowing what's hot and what's not. You have to do your research, rather than leaving your guests disappointed, or waiting outside a club that's not going to open until 1am."

Nowhere is the need to stay up to date more important than in the UAE, where everything from legislation to landscape is constantly shifting and evolving. That restaurant that everybody was raving about a few short months ago may no longer even exist, and that shop on Jumeirah Beach Road may have relocated to one of the big malls. "Culture and tradition may be fixed but there is always something new coming up and you must always be on top of your game. You need to be proactive, rather than reactive. That's the mark of a good service professional," says Ferrer.

The transient nature of the UAE also means that you are constantly having to rebuild your business network. "Your contacts change very quickly," says van der Veen. "Operations change, legislation changes, you have seasonality and you have Ramadan. We at Burj Al Arab have to be sure that we are providing the right information. A lot of things aren't documented, it's not on the website, it's what he says or what she says, but we need to validate it ourselves. That can sometimes be as simple as the kids policy in a Michelin-starred restaurant, or 'do I need a jacket?' or 'what's the minimum charge?'"

All this makes an association such as Les Clefs D'Or all the more important, offering an opportunity for concierges across the country to interact and benefit from each other's areas of expertise. "I obviously deal a lot with high-end luxury and lifestyle, so another concierge will know that Oscar may have a contact at Gucci for a private event," says van der Veen. "But I may not deal a lot with the camel markets. Yes, I can look through my amazing collection of contacts and find 24-carat-gold camels or a camel mohair twinset by Coco Chanel, but if I just need a camel farm, I may go to a concierge manager who's located near to a camel farm, maybe in Al Ain or Abu Dhabi, and speak to someone there that I respect."

But with technology becoming ubiquitous and an ever-growing number of apps, travel websites and ratings sites at the disposal of the modern-day traveller, is the concierge not becoming defunct, I wonder? Absolutely not, says Ferrer. "Yes, before a guest travels they have already researched a country, so technology does play a role. They may have seen the ratings of a certain restaurant but they will still go to a concierge to find out how to get there. A guest comes to you with an imaginary sign, 'Make me feel important'. And a concierge steps in and does just that. The bottom line is that human touch, that emotional connection and how you made them feel. They may not remember your name, but how you made them feel, that makes a difference."

So look out for those Golden Keys - and then ask away. Camel ride to the airport, anyone?

 

EXPERT TIPS

Looking for advice on the best views, Emirati culture, buying souvenirs, fine dining recommendations, or even finding the right jewellery with which to pop the question? This is where the expert concierges of Les Clefs d’Or come in. Selina Denman tested six of its knowledgeable members on the sort of demands that they regularly receive from their hotel guests.

 

Alaa El Noamany, Jumeirah Emirates Towers – Egyptian

What’s the one experience that I shouldn’t miss out on during my time in the UAE?

An aerial Tour of Dubai with Seawings.

Where is the best place to watch the sunset?

Club Executive, which is located on the 42nd floor, or Vu’s Restaurant, which is located on the 50th floor of Jumeirah Emirates Towers.

What’s the ultimate souvenir from Dubai?

A seven sands frame, which can be found at many souvenir shops including Souk Madinat Jumeirah.

Where do I go for authentic Indian food?

Amala at Jumeirah Zabeel Saray on the Palm offers traditional Northern Indian cuisine, known as Mughlai.

I need to buy an engagement ring – any suggestions?

If you really want to impress, visit Harry Winston or Cartier, or alternatively Ferini, Damas Les Exclusives, Dhamani Jewellery or Bvlgari, which are all located in the Boulevard at Jumeirah Emirates Towers.

 

Avnish Masih, Mövenpick Hotel Ibn Battuta Gate – Indian

Where can I go to get a better understanding of Emirati culture?

Those who wish to immerse themselves and learn about Emirati culture should visit the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU), a non-profit organisation aiming to increase awareness and familiarise visitors with local culture.

What’s the one experience that I shouldn’t miss out on during my time in the UAE?

A desert safari is a must-do excursion. Dune bashing, sand surfing, camel rides, henna stalls, delicious food, belly-dancing performances and the pristine beauty of the desert make for a truly unforgettable Arabian experience.

Where is the best place to watch the sunset?

Jebel Hafeet Mountain in Al Ain, which is 4,000 feet above sea level, is the perfect destination from which to watch the sunset. It is a two-hour drive from Dubai.

I need to buy an engagement ring – any suggestions?

I would advise the gentleman to pay a visit to Dubai Gold Souq in Deira, with its wide variety of shops and reasonable prices.

 

Nader El Kari, InterContinental Abu Dhabi

– Lebanese

Where can I go to get a better understanding of Emirati culture?

Aspects of UAE culture can be found by visiting places still favoured by Emirati people, such as the fishing harbours or fish souqs, boatbuilding yards, falconry centres, gold souqs, spice souqs and other venues.

Where is the best place to watch the sunset?

In my opinion the best place to watch the sunset is from Abu Dhabi’s beautiful Corniche. It’s an unforgettable experience.

Where do I go for authentic Indian food?

India Palace’s daal makhani is one of the most authentic, basic, simple (and usually cheapest) dishes.

I need to buy an engagement ring – any suggestions?

Abu Dhabi’s Gold Souq is a great place to visit, whether you’re looking to buy or just want to get a cultural insight into Abu Dhabi. You can also sell gold or jewellery.

 

Charles Ferrer, H Hotel – Filipino

Where is the best place to watch the sunset?

The best place to watch the sunset is Jumeirah Beach. Hotels located along this stretch of Jumeirah take advantage of the twilight by offering afternoon tea.

What’s the ultimate souvenir from Dubai?

I’d suggest a gold necklace or bracelet with your name spelt out in Arabic (or someone else’s if it’s a gift) as this is both authentic and valuable.

Where can I get a suit tailored?

Cosmos Lane or Textile Souq in Bur Dubai serve as hubs for a wide range of fabric selections. Here they can tailor-make any suit or dress for any occasion at a very reasonable price. They even deliver the items right to your doorstep.

Where do I go for authentic Indian food?

There are a few good Indian restaurants in UAE. However, I would highly suggest Ananta at the newly opened Oberoi Hotel in Business Bay.

I need to buy an engagement ring – any suggestions?

Dhamani Jewels is the place to go. The only store that is authorised to sell Dubai Cut diamonds is a venue for a wide range of precious stones – particularly diamonds. I have had my guests obtain engagement rings from them and all have expressed great satisfaction with their purchases.

 

Sandra Newman, Emirates Palace – South African

Where can I go to get a better understanding of Emirati culture?

To get a better understanding of Emirati culture you should visit the National Museum in Al Ain which enriches you with all the information required to understand the culture and its people.

What’s the one experience that I shouldn’t miss out on during my time in the UAE?

One experience you should not miss out on is the pure-white Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which is one of the capital’s most iconic buildings. The experience takes you through a historical encounter of the Islamic religion accompanied by statistical information pertaining to all the details of the mosque. Another special and unique experience will be to expose yourself to a session of falconry, which is unique to the UAE.

Where can I get a suit tailored?

Recommended tailors in Abu Dhabi would by Levante Tailoring for ladies and Abdullah Hussain Khunji Trading Stores for gents.

Where is the best place to watch the sunset?

Round off your stay in the UAE by watching the sun set over the Rub Al Khali Liwa red sand desert or Empty Quarter, where the desert meets the sea.

 

Oscar van der Veen, Burj Al Arab – Australian

Where is the best place to watch the sunset?

Cruising on-board a luxurious yacht overlooking the Arabian Gulf with the shadow of The Burj Al Arab in the background. You will see the sun setting over the Palm Jumeirah.

What’s the ultimate souvenir from Dubai?

One of the top items to take back home would be the exclusive Burj Al Arab 24k gold iPad (Dh37,500), iPad mini (Dh24,000) or iPhone 5 (Dh30,000) with our logo engraved on the cover. These items exude luxury and exclusivity.

Where can I get a suit tailored?

For the ultimate in style, you should visit Tom Ford in The Dubai Mall for a bespoke suit made in Milan but fitted and styled in Dubai. For traditional elegance, head to Brioni, which is also located in The Dubai Mall or Mall of the Emirates.

Where do I go for authentic Indian food?

For Michelin-star status, you should try Indego by Vineet at Grosvenor House Dubai, which offers traditional Indian flavours with European techniques, or Amala at Jumeirah Zabeel Saray, which is also a unique dining experience, with authentic flavours and a unique setting.

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Updated: July 18, 2013 04:00 AM

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