Make the impossible, possible: look for the Golden Key hotel concierge

By Chris Chamberlin, July 9 2014

Hotels the world over like to boast about their concierge services, but if you look closely, you’ll be able to spot the best of the best wearing crossed golden keys on their lapel.

No, that’s not an international works-in-all-languages symbol for ‘concierge’, rather a badge of pride worn by the specially-selected members of Les Clefs d’Or (pronounced “lay clay door”).

Literally “the keys of gold” in English, the Parisian society has a proud tradition spanning 85 years and is incredibly selective when it comes to membership, awarding the golden keys to just 25% of all applicants.

We sat down with Jason Zhan – the Chief Representative: China of Les Clefs d’Or and the Chief Concierge at the Jing An Shangri-La Hotel in Shanghai – to find out more.

What makes a Les Clefs d’Or concierge?

“Once you’re a member of Les Clefs d’Or, you are committed to serving your customers and to supporting your team members,” Zhan shares with Australian Business Traveller.

To even be considered for membership, candidates must have at least five years’ experience in a hotel’s customer-facing roles, with at least three of those years spent behind the concierge desk.

After that period, applications are accepted only from team leaders – and even then, must come with the backing of two senior, established society members.

Next comes the big interview, where “several executive members of Les Clefs d’Or question everything – service, their work, their job performance, their relationships with clients and the knowledge that they possess, which is the biggest part,” explains Zhan.

Then, there’s the deliberation... only one fourth of interviewees progress and receive their Golden Keys, while unsuccessful applicants must wait a further year before trying again.

What sets a Les Clefs d’Or concierge apart?

An optimistic Zhan shares that for “simple requests, we can always find a solution for our guests – sometimes giving several options to let guests make their own decisions, with all of the choices on the table”.

There’s a lot more behind even the most frequent requests such bar and restaurant recommendations, which many travellers take for granted.

“You have to spend your time after work collecting information. Restaurants and bars have very different opening and closing times, and you have to know them – you don’t send a guest to a closed place!”

To connect with fellow ‘Golden Key’ members, the world’s elite concierges have access to private online groups and communities, which also double as a fantastic source of information.

“We stay very close to each other, and whoever finds new information sends it out and shares it immediately,” Zhan tells Australian Business Traveller.

“We have a motto at Les Clefs d’Or – Service through Friendship, so with this friendship, all of the members help each other, even if they work for competing hotels.”

Making the impossible, possible

Renowned concierge staff take great pride in securing a table at a packed out restaurant or rustling up an extra ticket to a live concert, but how do they do it?

You can’t just bring a folding chair and set up camp, so for distinguished Les Clefs d’Or members, it really comes down to the age-old saying – it’s not what you know, but who you know.

How about a last-minute seat at Paul Pairet’s Shanghai Ultraviolet Restaurant, which serves a twenty course meal to just ten diners every evening, and needs to be reserved three months in advance?

Ultraviolet Restaurant
Ultraviolet Restaurant

“One of the Les Clefs d’Or concierges is a very close friend to the chef, who was able to tell us straight away when there was a late cancellation,” says Zhan with a smile.

The result? That ‘impossible’ reservation for the Shangri-La guest, thanks to the society of the Golden Keys.

The personal touch

With Zhan using his extensive network to entertain even the most difficult requests, he frequently helps his international comrades to give guests a more personalised welcome – even when they're not visiting the concierge desk.

“The Honourable President of Les Clefs d’Or Switzerland has a very regular guest in his hotel – she’s Shanghainese, and works for a Swiss luxury watch maker,” Zhan says.

“Every time she visits that hotel, I receive a call asking what Shanghainese people like... I help by giving a lot of ideas, which are used to please this guest.”

Other, more subtle approaches also don’t go astray – Zhan has taught staff at that same hotel to write ‘ni hao’ for Shanghainese guests in their local dialect (that's ‘nong hao’, for those playing at home).

“This guest is quite amazed at how much care she receives in Switzerland, and also from other Golden Key colleagues.

“After her trip, she came back to this hotel and visited us. She said 'I know where all those secrets came from!', which made me smile.”

So whether you’re in the mood for a nice cocktail bar to share with colleagues or a table at an intimate, hard-to-get restaurant, look for Zhan or one of his Les Clefs d’Or counterparts – they’re sure to deliver more than just service with a smile.

Chris Chamberlin travelled to Shanghai as a guest of Shangri-La.

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Chris Chamberlin

Chris Chamberlin is the Associate Editor of Executive Traveller and lives by the motto that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, a great latte, a theatre ticket and a glass of wine!


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