Lerato Maimela
Digital Journalist
6 minute read
21 Jul 2021
11:20 am

What lockdown at a hotel is like, according to a concierge

Lerato Maimela

It was Michael J. Fox’s role as Doug the Concierge in the film 'For Love or Money' that influenced the young Ryan van Zyl’s career path.

Ryan's van Zyl, Head Concierge at The Table Bay. Picture: Supplied

The tourism industry has had a hard time during the Covid-19 pandemic after travel bans and restrictions had to be put in place to ensure that countries and cities are doing their best to stop the spread of the virus.

Ryan van Zyl is the head concierge at The Table Bay in Cape Town and some of his daily tasks cover everything from restaurants and flight reservations, to recommendations on activities, shopping, tours and many other requests.

With the lockdown regulations, it has become difficult for Van Zyl to carry out his tasks as not many people are travelling and booking to stay at the hotel.

The Citizen got the chance to talk to Van Zyl about the hotel scene during lockdown level 4, and how the pandemic has affected his job. He also touched on the experience of tourists who are staying at The Table Bay hotel during the lockdown.

Could you tell us a bit about how the 1993 film For Love or Money influenced your decision to pursue a career as a concierge? 

It was the style of hotel (colonial/classic-style), which I’ve always loved, and always managed to work at. The way he was able to make impossible dreams, possible and countless other small nuances that really spoke to me, and how I saw myself as being able to strive to achieve. The fact that he also had “Golden Keys”, as I do too, was just the cherry on the top.

We are aware that you have been a part of teams that have hosted globally recognised public figures such as Michael Jackson, Morgan Freeman and the Obama family. Could you tell us a bit about the experience of hosting such big names? 

What almost everyone who has experience with these types of people, from the service end, can attest, is that the big names are almost all wonderful and kind. It is their assistants and entourage who tend to be difficult, obnoxious or unreasonable. I personally can count on two hands the number of famous people I have dealt with who weren’t lovely, and literal dozens and dozens who are/were.

You completed an in-house training programme in Zimbabwe. Could you tell us about the programme and what it entails?

What a lot of people are exposed to in this country and internationally, is theory and practical parts to their training; mine was different in that I was employed as a trainee and put to work in three different responsibility levels for the three years of the training; the levels were entry-level role, supervisory role and management role.

What this meant is that after three years, I had three years of practical training, whereas a colleague doing a more traditional hospitality degree program would have maybe 15-18 months maximum. Being thrown in at the deep end may have been jarring at first, as I started the programme less than a month after leaving high school, but I count it as a massive reason I have been able to achieve the things I have.

I think when you are forced to be responsible, to take charge when you may be nervous or ill-prepared, the majority of people rise to the occasion and have a positive outcome. This is how it was for me, and how it has always been. 

Can you give us a rundown of a typical day as a concierge?

In normal times, the life of a concierge is very much an amalgamation of personal assistant, GPS, Google (my friends actually called me Roogle, because they say I know everything), itinerary planner, supervisor of staff and general maker of miracles. We book transport and flights, recommend tours, activities and restaurants, manage a large team of porters and valet staff and are known to be extremely knowledgeable about anything in or out of the hotel.

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Has the pandemic changed anything in terms of the number of bookings that the hotel accepts in a day? 

Well, in terms of the number of rooms we can fill and people that can sleep over each night, no, but as with current legislation, our public areas, restaurants and bars do have to stick to the prescribed maximum allowed persons.

Has the pandemic affected your duties and responsibilities as the head of concierge in any way?  

Sadly, a large number of my own staff, and colleagues here and internationally, have been very negatively affected by the pandemic. For many hotels that fail to appreciate the concierge as a vital role in a large luxury hotel, it was been as easy to eliminate the role.

However, I have written articles about, and also spoken extensively, on the role of a concierge in modern times and how there still isn’t an absolute replacement for a living, breathing person for some key tasks i.e. an app won’t get you into a fully-booked Michelin star restaurant, won’t get you tickets to the best show on Broadway or West End, can’t plan an itinerary as completely and with as much initiative, nor can it show compassion when you have a personal issue, or even just lose your luggage.

For that, and countless other reasons, I have not seen a massive dip in the usefulness of my role over the years.

How was Covid impacted your dream job? 

My team and myself have been a lot more involved in assisting at the reception, with VIP guest requests prior to and during their stay in the absence of our guest relations staff, and also taking on duty manager tasks on a daily basis.

I think we have all had to re-evaluate how we see our current job roles and make the necessary adjustments so that we are useful to the company and still productive in these most trying of times.

Concierges are often asked to help guests figure out how to spend their free time in an area. How would you make recommendations given the current lockdown level 4 regulations?

It has been incredibly difficult to be faced with level 4 lockdown, when we had been closed during the last Level 4 period; however, a positive is that all of the tourist attractions, for the most part, have been open, so our guests can still shop, go to the spa, explore the beautiful sights and be accommodated in beautiful facilities.

Could you please describe a time you went above and beyond the expectations of a concierge to meet the needs of a guest?

I have been trained, and have trained each of my staff, to only give the very best service possible to every guest, every day. We exceed our guest expectations daily, and that’s the job of a concierge. I won’t accept anything less from my staff or myself, and I’m fairly certain my expectations for myself are a lot higher than theirs are for me! We do things for our guests that no other department can, so it really is the most rewarding hotel job there is.

What do you get up to when you’re not on duty? 

I try to spend time with my family, where appropriate and socially distanced, of course, these days, and with friends. We are mostly in the same industry, so it also allows for my other interests such as making new contacts, visiting new wine estates and restaurants and trying fun new activities. I hope to get back into travel as soon as the pandemic allows because that is my other big main passion!