Jim Cameron started his career in the hospitality sector almost 40 years ago. Now he is Head Concierge at one of London’s finest hotels Te Wellesley Knightsbridge. Here he gives us the inside track on what it’s like to be a concierge and talks everything from listening skills right through to elephants! Read on to find out more…….
Tell us more about your career and the journey to your current role.
In March 1980 directly after leaving school I started in the hotel industry washing pots in the kitchens of The George Hotel, George street, Edinburgh. After a few months in the kitchens I moved to front of house as a night porter, shortly afterwards moving on to day work as a porter/desk concierge. The head concierge at the time was a Mr. Jim Harley. He took me under his wing and started training me as a full-time desk concierge. Six years later I was offered the opportunity of an internal transfer to Dubai or London, I chose London as I thought Dubai was too far for my first adventure from my home town of Edinburgh.
After transferring to The Millennium Hotel, Grosvenor square, Mayfair I spent two years as night concierge before moving over to The Westbury Hotel, Conduit street, Mayfair. Here I met my mentor, Mr Frank Laino (The world’s leading concierge – three years in a row!) Frank took me under his wing at The Westbury and the rest is history as they say.
After spending many years at The Westbury I was approached and offered the task of doing my first Head Concierge hotel opening, however this hotel was not in London it was back in Edinburgh, my home town. After many conversations with Frank and much deliberation I decided to give it a go. The Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh here I come….January 1991 I found myself outside The Balmoral hotel as part of the opening team, this was a big challenge and a great learning platform for me. I gained great knowledge that has stayed with through until today. After six months at The Balmoral and assuring myself that all was well with the department and that the hotel was in good hands, “London was calling”. I made contact with Frank at The Westbury and was back in London working alongside Frank again. After a long stretch at The Westbury I felt like a change, a new challenge.
In May 2000 along came The Royal Gardens Hotel, Kensington High Street, Kensington. It was here I met Mr. Simon Thomas, Head concierge. Simon has been and still is a great influence on me, I stayed at The Royal Garden for around nine years before I was approached by one our industry’s greatest general managers “Mr Terry Holmes” via Frank Laino and was asked if i was up to the challenge of Head Concierge at one of London’s leading hotel groups “Red Carnation Hotels” The Milestone Hotel & Apartments. One of my main tasks was to bring The Milestone into the first top 10 positions on trip advisor from our current position of around 70 within three yrs, we got it to number three within two years.
The Milestone was a great challenge and I am still learning from it even now. After achieving my goals at The Milestone I decided after five years I needed a new challenge in my life and offered my services to The Wellesley, Knightsbridge as Head Concierge, this brought a whole new set of challenges as The Wellesley used to be a Pizza restaurant in previous years and the whole building had been renovated from the basement up.
Nearly seven years down the line I am still here with my original concierge team from the day the hotel opened. My team is extremely strong comprising of 3 x Head Concierges from other London 5star hotels. Richard Price, Assistant Head Concierge and David Morton, Assistant Concierge. We are the only hotel in London with 3 x head concierges in the Golden Keys, no other hotel in London can say the same.
London has many luxury hotels – how does The Wellesley set itself apart from the rest?
We have the largest walk in humidor in Europe with just under £2 million pounds worth of cigars permanently in stock, we have some of the rarest whiskies in stock ranging from £20 to £4.5 per shot.
Explain what an average day as head concierge at the Wellesley is like?
Leaving home around 05.45am each morning I arrive at work around 06.50am. My shift doesn’t start until 08.30am however I like to get in early and go through all the emails from the previous day just to make sure nothing has been missed or overlooked by mistake. We normally have quite a few emails to deal with from the Middle East and also the USA due to the time difference.
It’s normally myself with either Richard or David on shift until around 20.00hrs. We start with going through guests email requests and requests from our in-house guests that our night concierge are unable to book due to late requests coming in from our middle east guests. At 10am one of us will go to the morning meeting which takes place each morning, we go through any issues from the previous day and look at ALL the arrivals coming in on the day picking up on any VIP’s, special requests like birthdays, anniversaries, children in the party and many other requests.
After the morning meeting we will concentrate on theatre bookings and restaurant bookings, most restaurants open from 12 noon but with our contacts through the restaurant and theatres we call them early thus ensuring we get what our guests need ahead of all the others. The rest of the day is spent checking email and interacting with our guests. I encourage my team to interact with the guests as much as possible, even walking them around to the local restaurant or gastro-pub so the guest knows exactly how to get back to the hotel after having a lovely lunch.
What has been the most unusual request from a guest? That you can share!
I overheard a conversation with some hotel guests and they were talking about an up and coming wedding in Chelsea town hall and they were trying to think of something special for the wedding day that would impress the bride. I stepped in and said “How about an Elephant” to pick you up after your ceremony and transfer you to your wedding venue which was close by the Chelsea town hall, they were blown away with such a suggestion and asked if it could be done. I got to work on the request and duly put everything in place. Through my contacts within the royal borough of Chelsea and Westminster and also at London Zoo everything was arranged….this is as far as I can say as i cannot give away any contact information from here on in.
What are the key qualities that make a great Concierge and how do these translate into a guest experience?.
…Listen, listen, listen, always listen to you guest and never interrupt their conversation even if they are ranting and raving on about something that has nothing to do with you or your department…Empathy, empathise with them, let them know that you are on their side and that you understand what they are going through. Make light conversation and small suggestions to put them at ease and let them know you are there for them.
What are your favourite parts of your role and why?
Coming into work and not knowing what you are walking into on a daily basis, making a suggestion and having the guest come back to you to thank you for a great night out.
What’s your top tip for a first-time visitor to London?
Do as much as you possibly can, don’t waste time sitting in your room thinking of what to do. Go straight to the concierge and ask them to plan your itinerary for the day or the next few days whilst you are here. Make sure you visit all the major attractions, have an early breakfast and head out early. Most attractions open at 10am so you want to be at the attraction for around 09.45am. We always give our guests one of our business cards and ask them to contact us whilst they are out and about should they get parted from their company or if they need any restaurant suggestions or directions. We want them to feel that we are with them even if they are not in the hotel.
Luxury means different things to different people, what epitomises luxury travel for you?
Service. I’m a bit of a nightmare when I travel. I like to feel the same way as my guests do when they stay with us. No request too large, no detail too small.
You have a wealth of experience in the hospitality sector. What has been the most significant changes you’ve observed in the last 5 years and what do you predict for the next five years?
I see us moving closer and closer to becoming a cashless society, almost everything can be done on your mobile phone these days from restaurant bookings, theatre, sightseeing, airline and train tickets and not to forget you can also check-in with your phone and access your room without having any human contact at all. I do fear that our job may one day become obsolete as technology advances I feel we will no longer be required.
What is your life motto?
Work hard, play hard and enjoy yourself!
You can read our full review of the Wellesley Knightsbridge on TLE