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Breaking Travel News interview: Simon Thomas, president, Les Clefs d’Or

Breaking Travel News interview: Simon Thomas, president, Les Clefs d’Or

Unknown to all but a few of the most seasoned international travellers, Les Clefs d’Or is the global body for the hotel concierge profession.

Based on connections between its members, the organisation allows hotel concierges from the best properties in the world to smooth the journeys of guests.

While respecting the history, traditions, and etiquette of the occupation, Les Clefs d’Or is also an evolving union, poised to develop a much more visible role the hospitality sector.

For the first time in a quarter of a century it will also welcome a British leader later this month, with Simon Thomas, head concierge at The Lanesborough in London, set to be appointed at the Union Internationale des Concierges d’Hôtels in Berlin.

Having served an apprenticeship as vice president, he will step into the role with a mandate to develop the Les Clefs d’Or brand, shining the spotlight on this most retiring of professions.

Speaking to Breaking Travel News in London, he explains how he hopes to make the Golden Keys - the internationally recognised symbol of the organisation - an emblem of veneration for travellers.

He explains: “We have worked very hard for the Golden Keys, for those keys people wear on their lapels, to actually mean something.

“Les Clefs d’Or started off as an organisation to allow a concierge to speak to another concierge in another country, to allow us to have those links and connections around the world.

“Now we have moved toward what the organisation means to our guests and to other people.

“If you go back 20 years, if you spoke to the man on the street, they would not have a clue what a concierge was.

“Even in Britain they were still called hall porters.

“But as we have progressed, you now see concierge everywhere; in shopping centres, on cruise ships, even in your car – which has been great.

“For Les Clefs d’Or, though, we now have to be the epitome; an icon for people to look up to and emulate.”

But with a world of information now available at a travellers’ finger tips, is the role of hotel concierge under threat from obsolescence?

No, argues Thomas, perhaps unsurprisingly.

“I think it is very much the case that social media, the internet, and the increased accessibility to information have changed our role.

“Les Clefs d’Or dates back decades, while our chapter in Sweden dates back to the 1890s.

“Even then it was obvious there was a necessity for hotels to speak to each other about their clients, to make journeys smooth and trouble free.

“That has become, today, more and more of a necessity.

“The way we operate though has changed 180 degrees in recent years.

“If you look at the way we were before, travellers had a very limited knowledge, what their friends told them and what they had in guidebooks.

“Now people can really delve in and really get so much information.

“Whereas before we were really the recommender, now we are confirmer.

“We used to suggest where to go, but now people ask us what we think about their own ideas.

“This has made the role of concierge a necessity.

“Guests are now overloaded with information.

“Some people argue we no longer need concierge, we have all the information at our fingertips.

“But we are here to curate this information, to tailor it to our guests.”

So, with the future of the role assured, how does Thomas hope to change Les Clefs d’Or during his two year tenure?

“We are keen to protect the values of Les Clefs d’Or, but I do want to move away from some of the protocol-based elements and examine some of the more positive aspects of the organisation worldwide.

“Concierge are quite modest in that they do, it comes with the territory, not shouting your own successes.

“I want to cement where we are and I want to build the brand – I want it to be synonymous with quality, a guarantee to the traveller of somebody of good standing.”

Thomas is head concierge at The Lanesborough, one of the most prestigious properties in London

With so much specialist expertise, there might be a case for taking Les Clefs d’Or out of the hotels and making it a standalone entity.

But Thomas does not see the organisation heading in that direction.

He adds: “We can open up a little, but I do not want to make it too commercial.

“Where we are at now is just about perfect.

“There are companies out there, Quintessentially, Ten UK, and others that do a fantastic job, but they are commercial.

“The beauty of our role is that you can book the most affordable room in this hotel a year in advance, and call the concierge every day to ask what the weather is like.

“Ask them what the best show in town is and they will talk you without a penny changing hands.

“In this very expensive world of hotels this is still something we are able to give away for nothing and I am passionate about that!”

With such high standards expected of its members, joining Les Clefs d’Or is far from easy.

While there are minimum standards on an international level, each national chapter also sets its own criteria.

Thomas continues: “If we look at the British chapter, which is perhaps one of the stricter ones, you need to be a concierge for five years before you can go forward, and you then need to be proposed and seconded by members who have themselves been part of the organisation for five years.

“If you are then accepted you are invited to a panel interview where we look for certain qualities.

“It is a behavioural interview, so there are no wrong answers, but we look for empathy and ambassadorial qualities for example.

“If you pass this stage, and there is a 50 per cent chance you will, then your name will be read out at the next meeting of the Les Clefs d’Or and you are welcomed and presented your keys.

“We are quite strict on conduct also – if there is conduct unbecoming you can be expelled.

“If you name is put forward, just a single member can reject the application if they do not think you are of good character.

“It is a very tough process.”

Why then, if the career is so precarious, especially at the top, does one become a concierge?

Thomas explains: “I came down to London from Wales – and I moved from the engineering world, where I had been working, and I found a temporary job at Grosvenor House.

“Well, I thought it was a temporary job!

“My first night working at Grosvenor House was the BPI Awards, which are now the Brit Awards, and I never looked back.

“I just fell in love with hotels.

“There is a genuine like of people and of good manners - that’s all there is too it.”

The role, it must be remembered, also brings a concierge into the most unusual of situations.

Thomas recalls: “I remember once I was writing with my fountain pen at the desk and all of a sudden it gets stolen over my shoulder out of my hand.

“Now a fountain pen is a personal item, so I looked around, a little aggrieved, and it is Nelson Mandela who has taken it!

“And it is not just Nelson Mandela; he is signing a book for Mikhail Gorbachev.

“And you think – how does a boy from Wales get into this situation, where Nelson Mandela has just stolen your pen!

“It’s a great world and that’s why I love this job.”

Of course, so much of the work of a concierge must remain secret.

Thomas jokes: “I’ll write a book one day – but I might be five minutes from my deathbed before it is released.”

Dedicated to the end.

More Information

Find out more about the Les Clefs d’Or on the organisation’s website or discover more about the Lanesborough here.

Chris O’Toole