Black marble desks flank the entrance to the Four Seasons in Georgetown. The one on the right, marked only by a small glass placard, is where the impossible happens: last minute reservations for six at Kinship, sparkly anniversary gifts from Cartier after hours, even the special permissions a person needs to pet the Smithsonian’s pandas.
Julie Saunders stands behind the desk, the first female chef concierge appointed to helm the AAA 5-diamond hotel’s fleet of wish fulfillers. Born and raised in Mississippi, Saunders has been satisfying the needs of the needless for 24 years. She wears a gold brooch on each lapel in the shape of crossed keys, the symbol for Les Clefs d’Or, an exclusive international consortium of concierges to which she belongs.
Of course, the game is always changing. Technology, that great disruptor, is invading even this last bastion of glamour. “The clientele now, they’ve got all their devices,” says Saunders. “They can make their own reservations. They can make their own decisions. Okay, that’s fine. But who you gonna trust?”
Saunders starts each morning reviewing the previous day’s glitches, industry-speak for any guest interaction a hotel employee rates as less than positive. Saunders’ job, in part, is to make it positive again, something Yelp and TripAdvisor can’t do.
10:00 a.m.: Saunders heads to the subterranean exec office suite for the daily ops meeting. Department heads go over the day’s new guests, a royal family in from the Middle East and a television personality, then comb through each glitch and its recovery, the word the hotel uses to describe the measures taken to keep the guest happy. A client complained about the lack of nail services at the spa, another that the room was too hot (it was discovered she didn’t know how to set the thermostat). A big glitch: a customer at Bourbon Steak sent his meal back. Twice.
10:44 a.m.: “Have you ever seen a Chinese plate spinner?” Saunders asks me. “This guy had like seven poles and he put these China plates on seven poles and he starts them all spinning. And then this one starts to get wobbly so he runs over here–and I turned to my husband and said, ‘Oh my God, this is what I do all day!’”
11:13 a.m.: A Brazilian travel agent calls to request a four-day itinerary for a client. He asks for everything to be confirmed before end of business Rio time, three hours from now.
11:27 a.m.: “I want to see if you can work out a miracle,” says a guest to Jeff Morgan, another concierge. The request: New Year’s Eve dinner reservations for 6 people around 8pm at either the Bombay Club or Joe’s Seafood. “For you, Jeff, I will,” says his guy at Joe’s.
11:43 a.m.: A guest calls. He wants to keep the slippers.
12:11 p.m.: A guest with no visible frown lines asks for a plastic surgeon rec. She needs a refill. Saunders provides a booklet they’ve prepared for this popular request, along with some warm words of reassurance: “They listen very closely.”
12:16 p.m.: “Thank you for making her day,” a guest in town with an NBA team says to Morgan. Morgan came to work at 6 a.m. to secure same-day passes to the National Museum of African American History and gave the extras to the guest’s wife.
12:39 p.m.: A harried guest asks Saunders to return a pair of shoes from Zappos. She does not have the return label or any other necessary information. She leaves the box there anyway.
12:40 p.m.: Flowers are delivered for a guest set to arrive in 20 minutes, but Saunders notices a smoky smell. She supervises as housekeeping sprays the room to clear the air. “I can have a bellman doing this, but I don’t know if the bellman would notice the smell,” says Saunders, staging the bouquet.
1:09 p.m.: A guest asks for dinner reservations that night at Le Diplomate for 5 people. Saunders snags them a 7 p.m. table.
1:30 p.m.: Over lunch, Saunders dishes on the demands even she’s surprised she satisfied: a guest who wanted her home in France decorated for Christmas while she vacationed in DC, an optimistic fiancé-to-be who found himself without an engagement ring just 90 minutes before he planned to propose. “An excellent concierge doesn’t know everything, doesn’t know everybody, but they’re willing to do their utmost to find out, leave no stone unturned,” Saunders says before adding: “We pray a lot.”