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CONCIERGE CONFIDENTIAL
By Michael Matthews
August 11, 2011 -- Walk into the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, look over to the Concierge desk and you'll see an attractive young lady dressed in a smart Mandarin uniform.

Her name is Nicole Mondragon and she is one of two concierges at the swanky hotel overlooking the capital's Tidal Basin.

Nicole's arrival at the Mandarin was a circuitous one. She is a graduate of the University of Arizona in Tucson where she studied ballet and history. She studied a year in Florence. This was followed by an internship at the Westward Look Resort in Tucson. (After all, there aren't many jobs when you have a degree in ballet and history.) Then there was two years at Les Roches in Switzerland where she earned her MBA and also a degree in hotel management. Then she moved to China for a year to work at the Mandarin Oriental on Hainan Island.

Mondragon is in an elite category. After all, there aren't many MBAs in the concierge community. Still, if you can make it as a concierge, you do seem to live a rather nice life.

Some moons ago, the international association of Les Clefs D'Or met in Washington. (You should recognize these folks: They are the ones with the crossed keys on their lapels and, in most parts of the world, the very snooty attitude.) I was asked to speak to them. There were about 300 in attendance. Wow! I have never seen so many diamonds and minks gathered in one place nor so much Champagne being drunk. I got the message: These people don't carry your bags to your room. In some cases, they own the room.

I should have had a clue about the status of the concierge class since my invitation came from the head concierge at New York's (now defunct) Mayfair Regent Hotel. He owned three Manhattan apartment buildings. And he had connections. If you wanted a seat on the Concorde, he had them. Needed seats in the front rows of the orchestra to an impossible Broadway show? He had 'em. Dinner at Le Cirque? He could secure a prominent table.

For a great concierge, nothing is ever unavailable or sold out. Doing the impossible is what a concierge is all about. Of course, they do the impossible for a price. And they get it both ways. They receive a commission from airlines, car-rental companies, limo services and theater brokers. Even restaurants lavish food on them. And then they receive tips from you, the hotel guest, who asks them to do the impossible.

Which, I guess, is a roundabout way of asking: What do you tip a concierge these days?

Here's what I think. A reservation for a table at a hard-to-get restaurant is worth $5. If the dining room is famously impossible and you need to show off to a client, bump the tip up to $20. Last-minute seats on a flight? I'd say $10. Limo reservations? Five bucks. A ticket to a Broadway show? I suggest 20 percent of the price they charge you over and above the face value of the ticket. A round of golf at a very private club probably rates a minimum of $100. Doing the truly impossible? Just roll your eyes, open your wallet and pray.

If you expect to use the concierge frequently during your stay, tip up front and make it $50 to $100. (This is particularly true in major European cities.) Introduce yourself and give your name and room number. Slip him or her the notes at your first meeting. Then tip as above. (If you are a regular visitor to the hotel, call the concierge and have him make your reservation for your next visit. He will do you proud.)

These tipping suggestions are for major American cities. It's obviously less for Podunk, Iowa, or Peoria, Illinois. In Europe, however, double the tip. It's expected.

There are many tales of concierges getting amazing tips. Adnan Khashoggi, the arms dealer, regularly left $1,000 for the concierge. (He also tipped the telephone operators.) Saudi princes are known for leaving oodles of cash and rarely expect the concierge to do anything for them. But there is also the story of the concierge who hand-delivered a forgotten briefcase to a Wall Street type flying back to New York City from his Chicago hotel. The concierge received a dollar for his "above and beyond" service. You can't win them all.

Before Nicole took her job at the Mandarin in Washington, I told her what she should expect. Expect a minimum of $75-$100 a day in tips, I suggested. She gets a base pay of $17.50 an hour and so far has managed to make the munificent sum of $20 a day in tips. Maybe that's because she's not yet a member of Les Clefs D'Or, which requires five years experience before you can apply.

But Nicole is very smart and she doesn't expect to be a concierge forever. She aspires to a "grander" position. But my stepson, a banquet captain at a Four Seasons Hotel, has a different idea. He makes more than the property's general manager and is blunt about his future: "Why do I want to work my way up for less money and more responsibility?"

When Nicole took the job at the Mandarin in Washington, I warned her that she would be asked by male guests where to find some "company." I told her to tell them to look in the yellow pages. She told me how out of date I am. Finding "company" is apparently done on the Internet now. Besides, she told me, the only miracles she would work are the legal ones.

Either way, I know a good concierge is indispensable in times of need and the good ones are very, very well off. I'm headed to Las Vegas this weekend and the concierge at the Mandarin Oriental there, Renne Haberman, has already secured me two tickets to Cirque du Soleil's O show at the Bellagio on Saturday night.

It's totally sold out, so it's going to cost me. But maybe Renee will give me a break on the rent in one of her apartment buildings one day.

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ABOUT MICHAEL MATTHEWS Michael Matthews has managed and marketed fine hotels around the world for more than 45 years. He spent 14 years in Hong Kong building the legendary Regent International group. He has also worked with St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton and Rosewood hotels. Matthews is currently based in Arizona. He began writing Do Not Disturb in early 2004.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Michael Matthews in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Matthews. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Michael Matthews.

This column is Copyright 2011 by Michael Matthews. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.