Legendary Concierges: Unlocking The History Of Les Clefs d'Or
Article / Culture

Legendary Concierges: Unlocking The History Of Les Clefs d'Or

According to Les Clefs d’Or International’s official website, the organization is “an international network of men and women with common interests and goals. They have their own mystique, a combination of their expertise sources of inside information, intelligence and communication.” The description continues and not until the last few words of the paragraph do we see the words “travelers” and “tourist”, whom, in fact, members of the Clefs d’Or are united in service to assist. That’s right, in case you didn’t know, Les Clefs d’Or is a society made up of professional hotel concierges, started in Paris in 1929 and known officially today as Les Clefs d’Or—Union Internationale des Concierges d’Hôtels, an organization that represents 44 countries around the world.

So where does this so-called mystique come from? Well, first of all, it hides behind those gleaming golden keys, crossed prominently on the lapels of any member concierge’s uniform or suit. According to the organization, the keys (les clefs in French) symbolize more than just the organization, they symbolize “guaranteed, quality service.” The mystique also lies in the society’s discerning entrance standards, somewhat complicated and differing from country to country, but highly selective nonetheless. Generally speaking, those wishing to become a member must: have five years of experience working in the front desk department of a hotel, including at least two consecutive years working as a concierge; have an active sponsor within Les Clefs d’Or (ideally two in some countries); hold several letters of recommendation written on their behalf, from past employers to sources within the service industry; be in possession of a hotel business card stating they are a concierge; speak, ideally, more than two languages. If that’s not enough to dissuade the meek from declaring their candidacy, some regions, including the US, require those wishing to “get their keys” to take both written and oral exams.

Verne Thomas, Concierge at Sofitel Chicago Water Tower and Les Clefs d’Or member

Verne Thomas, Concierge at Sofitel Chicago Water Tower and Les Clefs d’Or member

Verne Thomas, a former U.S. Central Region Membership Chairman for the Les Clefs d’Or and currently a Concierge at Sofitel Chicago Water Tower, says that in addition to the application, reference letters, sponsors and interviews, an applicant in the U.S. will receive a “test call” from someone within the Les Clefs d’Or organization. The caller rates the applicant based on overall knowledge, the manner in which he or she answers questions (tone of voice, assuredness, speed of response) and the completeness of the answers and leg work. The applicant might be asked by the test caller to make reservations, give directions, or perform any number of concierge-related tasks. Thomas adds, “While this is going on, the applicant has also received a lengthy written exam that they have two weeks to complete. Many questions concern Les Clefs d’Or itself, geography, time zones, shipping items, getting a guest from point A to point B, and even questions about food terminology.” He stresses the fact that there are no right or wrong (“well, terribly wrong”) answers on the test: “It’s more about teaching you how to find out different things and network with other LCD concierges.” Thomas says that the process to become a Les Clefs d’Or member in the United States used to take between six and nine months, but has now been streamlined and takes about four months.

Concierge

To grasp the organization’s exclusivity, consider the numbers: In the U.S. in 2010, out of some 20,000 hotel concierges, only 560 were active Les Clefs d’Or members (to be an active member a concierge must be working in a hotel lobby). In all of Europe today there are around 1500 active LCD members, and around 4,400 worldwide. The society is organized into seven official geographic zones with directors, those further divided into country sections with heads, and local chapters with presidents as well. The entire organization is presided over by an international executive team of nine members. Since 1952, a worldwide congress is held each year in a different international city and the head office is located in Paris.

The Les Clefs d’Or International’s official website provides a “most interesting and detailed history…split into three sections,” written by former French Section Secretary Victor Ducarton. It’s very long and possibly as complex as the society’s organizational structure, so we have read it for you and offer the following bold points:

  • On October 26, 1929, Pierre Quentin, concierge at Hôtel Ambassador in Paris, along with ten other concierges from the grands hotels of Paris joined forces, realizing that as a team they would make their services more useful. A Swedish chapter, or section of members, followed.
  • A Dutch chapter was founded in 1937, and other countries soon followed suit, many the result of the depression—members allied to help each other through unemployment, illness and other challenges of the time. However, cooperation between chapters was not visible until after the Second World War
  • On April 25, 1952, delegates from nine countries met in Cannes to hold the first congress and created the Union Européene des Portiers des Grands Hotels “Les Clefs d’Or.” It was organized by Ferdinand Gillet, then head concierge at Hôtel Scribe in Paris and recognized among members as the “father” of Les Clefs d’Or. The nine countries present were: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Great Britain.
  • As the years progressed more countries joined, including Morocco in 1964 and Israel in 1970. During the 1972 congress in Mallorca, Spain, UEPGH “Les Clefs d’Or” changed its name to Union Internationale des Portiers des Grandes Hôtels “Les Clefs d’Or” in order to recognize its non-European members.
  • Canada joined in 1976 and the United States in 1978. In 1995 yet another name change was effected and the society became the Union International des Clefs d’Or.
  • In 1998 the official ‘universal’ uniform crossed keys were created in partnership with Swiss jeweler Bucherer.
  • Today the society’s official name is Les Clefs d’Or—Union International des Concierges d’Hôtels in order to highlight the word “concierge”.
Jonathan Schmitt, Concierge at Geneva, Switzerland’s Hôtel de la Paix and Les Clefs d’Or member

Jonathan Schmitt, Concierge at Geneva, Switzerland’s Hôtel de la Paix and Les Clefs d’Or member

hosco sat down recently with Jonathan Schmitt, a Les Clefs d’Or concierge at the 5-star Hôtel de la Paix in Geneva and the society’s local chapter president. He has been a concierge for 13 years, and a member of Les Clefs d’Or for eight years. According to Schmitt, what sets a Les Clefs d’Or concierge apart from a non-LCD concierge is simple: access and service. “As a Les Clefs d’Or member, we have an international network of contacts, and we know how to be at the service of a guest” he says, mentioning that the impartial sourcing of valuable information for travelers is the primary mission of any concierge. Schmitt offered an example of a guest who called him from Thailand, wanting to arrange a flower delivery the next day in Moscow. Although the guest could have called Moscow directly, he preferred to work through Schmitt, who had no difficultly arranging the distant delivery with the help of his Les Clefs d’Or network in Russia.

Has he had other interesting requests? But of course. There was the time a guest asked him to arrange check-in by parachute landing on Lake Geneva, directly in front of the hotel. Schmitt researched a plan, which involved securing permits from the City of Geneva. When the guest was informed of the 100,000 CHF price tag for his grand entry, he promptly changed his mind. “We never say no,” says Schmitt. “We find out a way, and we inform the guest.” Schmitt attended the organization’s international congress in London in 2011, where he had been nominated by the Swiss section of LCD for the prestigious Andy Pongco award, given out each year to recognize and encourage young members to become active participants in the LCD global network.

A set of authentic golden keys

A set of authentic golden keys

Schmitt also walked us through the “rules” for wearing the keys. Each member receives two pairs of keys—one large, one small—upon confirmation. The large keys are worn only when the member is working in the hotel lobby; the smaller keys are used for representation when the member is attending a social or industry event. Is it true there are counterfeit keys circulating in hotel lobbies around the world? Schmitt says yes, unfortunately, but that the true golden keys of a Les Clefs d’Or member are easily recognizable: they are quite large with an LCD insignia on the back. Many hotel lobby employees now wear imitation keys, as they have become a universal symbol of service, but they are smaller and more “generic” looking. Travelers will typically find LCD members working in 4- and 5-star hotels only, although concierges working in 3-star hotels are not excluded from membership.

In Geneva, all 107 active LCD members currently work at 5-star properties. Schmitt comments that while gaining entry to Les Clefs d’Or can be very helpful to a concierge’s career, it does not automatically constitute a pay raise. However, he says, “In Geneva, most of the 5-star hotels who are offering concierge positions mention in the job description that the concierge should be a member of Les Clefs d’Or.”

Les Clefs d’Or has even made a recent foray into pop culture in Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” The 2014 film portrays a rather old-fashioned version of hospitality in a 1930s, ultra-campy setting, and pays homage to the world of hotel hospitality by featuring the adventures of “master concierge” Gustave H. and his “lobby boy,” Zero Moustafa. The duo relies heavily throughout the movie on the services of the mythical “Society of the Crossed Keys,” an obvious spoof on Les Clefs d’Or. Schmitt says he enjoyed the movie and was even invited to a special screening in Geneva for concierges. “It presents an old-fashion version of hospitality, but in theory we follow this style of service—anything for the guest.”

The 63rd UICH Congress of Les Clefs d’Or will be held in Dubai in 2016.

10 Facts About Les Clefs d’Or and Concierges

  1. Not sure how to pronounce Les Clefs d’Or? It’s “Lay Clay Door” and translates to “the keys of gold” in English.
  2. The conciergerie, is still a largely male-dominated field in Europe, where the profession has its origins. However, this is not in the case in the U.S., where Clefs d’Or concierges are 60% female, 40% male.
  3. Concierges were called “keepers of the keys” in the Middle Ages, where they worked at important government buildings and castles. There is a prison in Paris named La Conciergerie in honor of the warden who kept the keys and assigned cells to the inmates.
  4. Where does the word concierge really come from? There are a couple of possibilities. The Latin root is conservus, or fellow slave. According to the LCD website, however, Les Clefs d’Or members prefer the Old French derivation: the comte des cierges, or keeper of the candles, was the person in charge of catering to every whim and desire of a palace’s visiting nobility.
  5. In the early 1900s, the international tourism industry experienced unprecedented growth, due to the increasing popularity of rail and steamship travel. In order to meet the needs of this new type of wealthy international traveler, Switzerland’s “grand hotels” created the position of “hall porter” to assist guests with every detail of their stay— essentially a concierge position before the word concierge was used.
  6. Les Clefs d’Or concierges may need to know the best addresses around town, but, just as importantly, they need to know how to speak to guests. The Les Clefs d’Or USA website’s code of ethics lists “always use proper grammar” as one of its personal demeanor musts!
  7. Also on that code of ethics: “Tactfully decline illegal or unethical requests from guests.” The LCD of Australia site is a bit more explicit, noting, “Clefs d’Or concierges will accommodate every guest request so long as it is morally, legally, and humanly possible.”
  8. In 1998, the official uniform crossed golden keys were created in partnership with Swiss jeweler Bucherer.
  9. In Paris, only 25 percent of Les Clefs d’Or applicants are successful!
  10. The most recent national “sections” of Les Clefs d’Or to be officially recognized by the organization are Macau and Qatar, in 2014.

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