Know Your City Inside & Out: The Concierge Edition
Miriam Edwards, Lead Concierge for the Pan Pacific Hotel Vancouver, talks to a lot of people every week. Like, a lot of people.
And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Working in this industry, you learn to think quickly and go back into the archives, so to speak, to retrieve quick answers,” Deborah Sleno says about her career as a concierge, which currently sees her assisting guests at the Fairmont Empress in Victoria.
Dillon Carfoot, the Regional Director of the Les Clefs d'Or group and Lead Concierge at the Oak Bay Beach Hotel in Victoria agrees, “It’s almost more than just memory,” says Dillon. “You need to possess first-hand knowledge of different things that might be of interest to the guest.”
Life as a concierge is busy, as you can imagine, but we were able to get in touch with three of our favourite local concierge to learn more about the lives and careers of such vital tourism industry partners.
A Passion for People with Deborah Sleno
Kelvin: Is it safe to say you interact with a lot of different people every week?
Deborah: It’s very safe to say that, absolutely. Being the concierge I have interactions with all of my guests. At any given time when I'm on shift a guest can call, email or see me directly. They have all kinds of questions regarding Victoria, dining, things to do, travel arrangements for their trip. I assist with some couriers as well, I have third parties call who arrange for flowers or other amenities for the room.
So it’s difficult to have one strict line of focus, you need an answer for everything, right?
I try to have an answer for everything, but you never know what's going to come at you. The key is to be able to quickly find answers. A lot of it comes down to networking. For instance, tonight I'm going to a Tourism Victoria mixer. I spend a lot of time in Victoria experiencing all the city has to offer. With my lifestyle, it’s easy to discover what stores are open and closed. I dine in a lot of the restaurants, when new ones open I’m there in a heartbeat.
Tell me about the relationships you have with other people in the hotel industry.
Formally, I’m a part of the Victoria guest services network. I was one of the founding members 19 years ago. It was based on the Les Clefs d'Or concierge; we didn't really have it in Victoria at the time. I've been a full member for 11 years. A former member who moved to Victoria from Vancouver thought it would be important to start an association for front line staff, porters, door men, even some residential sales managers. It’s a resource for people on the front line who assist guests in Victoria. So we started this not-for-profit association. We do a trade show every year. We invite businesses from around the city, primarily transportation or tour businesses to come and exhibit. We invite hotel staff from all over to come to the showcase and learn about these businesses and what's available to these guests. It's great for the businesses, but more importantly the money raised goes to a bursary at Camosun College for their hospitality program. We've raised over $55,000.
Why is the Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria so famous?
The Fairmont Empress was built in 1908; it's 108 years old. It was built by Canadian Pacific Railways, part of the CP rail group. Of course we're on an island and we didn't have a railway, but they had steam ships. The idea was they'd build these grand hotels, like the Banff Springs and the Chateau Lake Louise to entice people with wealth to come to the west. The Empress was named after Queen Victoria, the Empress of India. Francis Rattenbury was a young architect from England who moved to Victoria, he was the architect for the parliament buildings next to our hotel. Once he got the contract to build the parliament he got the contract to build the Fairmont Empress. Our hotel commands the harbour; we're right across the street. The hotel was built on water on 3000 wood pylons that were driven into the ground to support the hotel. So the hotel is famous because of the rich history, plus it’s simply an exquisite stay for our guests. Even if one of those guests is rumoured to be Francis Rattenbury himself from time to time.
How May I Help You? With Miriam Edwards
It’s a rare quiet moment for Miriam Edwards as she picks up the phone to speak with us. It’s a slow Tuesday afternoon; so probably perfect timing on my part. She was only interrupted once during our short conversation and it was a great example hearing the memory of a concierge at work.
From the Pan Pacific in downtown Vancouver, here’s Miriam.
Kelvin: What’s a typical day in the life like of a concierge in Vancouver?
Miriam: Right now it’s cruise ship season down here so once the people come off the ship, you get a line up until noon. People are asking “what am I going to do, my room is not ready, what should I do, it’s my first time in the city”. And then of course regular check-in time is 4 o’clock so you have a wave in the morning and then by the time the planes come in in the afternoon, you get another wave of people arriving and wanting to do something. That’s right now, but in any day you get everything from making tour reservations to dining reservations to somebody is sick so they need a doctor or a dentist or they forgot to buy something on the way. They want to know where can they go shopping too so it can be the whole gamut. No day is the same.
What are some of the challenges that were more difficult earlier on in your career that you have an easier time dealing with these days?
Miriam: I think it’s just possessing the information. When you are a seasoned concierge, you don’t have to look anything up, it’s in the back of your head. We have to be on top of things and be one step ahead of our guests all the time.The longer you’ve been in the profession the better. I have people that I train and they look at me with their jaw hanging and I just flip out one answer after the other. You have a gamut of guests with different personalities and different needs, and it’s much easier with more experience. You have to read a guest to make sure that you meet and exceed their expectations. What people ask for and what they actually mean is usually totally different.
For example, if people say “I want to go to Victoria” and then they’re confused when they discover the trip from Vancouver to Victoria is much more than an hour and 40 minutes because they only asked how long the ferry ride is. Which is correct, but that’s not your travelling time each way to go to Victoria, it’s 4 hours. That’s when we suggest Harbour Air Seaplanes! More and more people are doing research nowadays so we can help them save time.
People will now go online and try to book a table for a restaurant reservation and then they realize that they cannot get it so they still need us. Or they book whale watching but they don’t realize they booked the whale watching on Vancouver Island and not Vancouver City. And now they have a problem and we jump in.
You’re kind of like a celebrity without any of the fame and luxuries.
Well yes and no. It’s funny how we can go to a restaurant and people all know me.
Tell me a little bit about the Pan Pacific and the main reasons why people stay there.
The Pan Pacific is centrally located. We have a great view of Coal Harbour and the North Shore mountains. We’ve got a fantastic pool deck on the 8th floor with a great view. Right now all the rooms except for a couple floors are renovated.
But really, there are two main reasons. One, because we are right above the cruise ship terminal. And two, we’re right above the Convention Centre. We get a lot of convention delegates that stay here because they can just take the elevator down to the meetings, same thing with the cruise ships. We’re also right next door to the seaplane terminal which makes it an easy tour recommendation to provide.
From My Home Base In Victoria with Dillon Carfoot
Kelvin: You’re the regional director of the Les Clefs d'Or group. That sounds like a lot of work, how many people do you connect with during a typical day or week?
Dillon: BC has 35 members and we also have aspiring members, so our typical attendance at a monthly meeting is about 50 concierges. We have 25 members in Vancouver, 5 in Victoria and 6 in Whistler. We have monthly meetings, 10 in Vancouver, one in Victoria, one in Whistler, so I'm hopping on seaplanes at minimum once each month, and Harbour Air has been so great to partner with, they make sure I never miss a meeting. I organize the agendas, guest speakers and about anything else that's relevant for each of the three cities. We have great presenters; we recently had Harbour Air in to talk about their new terminal and the new flights being added. We’ve had Helijet recently. Bard on the Beach in Vanier Park in Vancouver is coming up, so we'll have a presentation about that. We had Judy Maxwell from the Chinatown Historical Society to talk about all the great things they're involved with.
Any vendor that would be relevant for guests in our hotels is relevant for our concierges. Our industry is not only about learning new things, but also about internalizing the information so you can call on it at a moment's notice.
It's important to keep our concierges sharp, but it's also just a good time. Our industry is about having fun and connecting with people, and the more relaxed you are, the easier and more enjoyable it is to speak with guests.
We also organize a tourism showcase at the Vancouver Convention Centre; this year's event was a huge success on May 5th with 850 hospitality experts walking through the door.
A big part of my position as well is the charities the Les Clefs d'Or is involved with. We focus on three national charities, Dreams Take Flight, which sends ill or disadvantaged children to Disneyland for a day. We raise money for the Terry Fox Foundation, and we raise money for the BCHF, the British Columbia Hospitality Foundation. Last year we organized a boat cruise at the end of September and we managed to raise $10,000, $5,000 of which went to Dreams Take Flight and $5,000 to BCHF.
Being as busy and involved as you are locally, are you able to get to see the world as well?
Yes, absolutely. Our industry has no boundaries, it's important to see what's happening all over the world. Every year we have congresses in different international locations, so I go as a director and present about what we're doing in BC as one part of Canada's seven regions.
So I do get to travel, most of it is within my role as director. I've been a member of Les Clefs d'Or for 12 years and on the board for four. It's the best thing, the most rewarding step in my career I've ever taken. It brings people together across borders, from different cities, different countries, different hotels, and basically we're just friends trying to help each other succeed. Next week is the international conference in Dubai, 750 delegates from 50 countries will be in attendance. To connect with people all over the world living the same life as us is just a thrill. Choose a city and we know someone there we can call up in an instant.
Tell me about your background a little bit How did you find yourself in this line of work?
I'm a bit of an ex pat, my parents are British and were working in Toronto when I was born. From there I moved to the UK when I was six months old and grew up there. I was a banker in London; I worked on the trading floor. I left England when I was 28 and worked in hotels in BC and then the Rockies, in Alberta and now in Victoria. I've been in Victoria permanently for the last 11 years, ten at the Fairmont Empress and now at the Oak Bay. Deborah Sleno and I have actually been longtime colleagues and friends, we've travelled all over the world together for Les Clefs d'Or.
Victoria is wonderful, but my position as regional director wouldn't be possible without Harbour Air. I'm the first director from Victoria, so they stepped up and made getting to meetings a breeze. I'm truly appreciative of that the Harbour Air sales team, Courtney and Stefani and Meredith have all become close friends, which is such an integral part of our industry. It's all about improving the experience, and when everyone buys into that then it's truly special what you can achieve.
What's the best part of staying at the Oak Bay Beach Hotel in Victoria?
The main thing it it's such a wonderful location. We're away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Victoria and our scenery is unbelievable. We have mineral pools and two hot tubs right down on the rocks by the ocean. The bar is open so you can soak in the tub and the rays and have a beverage. We have a beautiful spa down there; we also have the neighbourhood's oldest pub, the Snug Pub which has been operating since 1954. Our rooms are luxurious and spacious; there are only 100 rooms so it's a nice boutique style destination.