You sell the sizzle, and not the steak.
There’s no apartment building more sizzling than The Setai Wall Street, which has the chutzpah to describe itself as “the world’s most privileged condominium”—and the reputation to back it up.
It’s as dark as a nightclub in the lobby, with Buddha Bar music playing in the background. It smells very exotic, too. You can’t really tell if it’s fresh gardenias, or if they have scented candles, but it definitely smells very nice—and very, very rich. The floor is covered with beautiful silk rugs, and the walls are adorned with gigantic tribal jewelry pieces framed in boxes that protrude almost a foot off the wall. You’d expect there to be some Playboy Playmate in a gorgeous nightgown, smoking a cigarette and dipping into caviar, lounging on the sofa in the lobby.
My concierge company had long since taken concierging outside of the hotel context and into luxury buildings, but there’s luxury and then there’s luxury. When it came to our relationships with buildings, we always got the “nice girl,” the Betty. We never got the fancy, sexy Veronica—and The Setai was definitely Veronica. Being a concierge is often about trying to get behind the velvet rope. Getting The Setai would be like jumping over the rope and parking ourselves there, so that we’re not on the other side constantly trying to push our way in. We’d be in a position to decide who gains access.
I wanted to send in a proposal when The Setai was first going to open, but it was hard to sit down and focus. Concierges do more before nine o’clock than most people do in a day. As my staff and I had our meeting, the discussions settled around:
Do organic tampons only come in one absorbency? (They do? Order a crate, then.)
Ms. Strauss wanted Ciao Bella to deliver a salad with grilled chicken to her apartment on Tuesdays and Fridays at noon—but Ciao Bella isn’t open for lunch, and they don’t deliver. Her “second choice” restaurant, Jacques, is also not open for lunch. Plan C?
Mr. Jaiswal was just inoculated when he climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Are there inoculations specific to Rwanda for his next trip? (Yes—and how.)
Ms. Sheehan needs to be called. Someone needs to remind her that she can’t tell anyone where she got her $5,500 ticket for the premiere party for the new Sarah Jessica Parker movie. She also wants to get private typing lessons.
“I don’t remember the brand name,” Daria reads from a client email, “but I just returned from Moscow and I saw an air purifier in the window of an electronics store. It was really sleek looking and modern. Can you get one of those for me?”
Car service is a must for Robin, our jeweler, who will be carrying $100,000 worth of diamonds to Mr. Stadtmiller’s office. He’s “too busy” to go into the store; maybe the diamond studs aren’t for his wife? He also wants a second-hand television for $75 or less delivered to his office—today.
There is a pop-up restaurant in Paris sponsored by Electrolux. You can only make reservations online, they are only open for a year—and they are totally booked. Does anyone have a vacuum cleaner connection? (Action item: make contact with the director of corporate communications for Electrolux in Milan.)
Who knows the best Jewish bakery in the Marais area of Paris?
Any ideas for a fifty-eight-year-old’s bachelorette party? Anyone?
But if my mind was in the countless requests we were working our way through, my heart was focused on finding time to write that business proposal for The Setai. It was the days of yore—2007—when Soho House still mattered and people fought for reservations at Spice Market. The market had yet to crash, and The Setai was going to be the new playground for all the hedge funders sick of Core Club.
I met countless times with their marketing people over the following months, and presented every possible scenario to get the account. I tried the deluxe plan: Four people on duty at all times! White gloves! International coverage for members! Then I suggested the economy plan: Two people covering fourteen hours a day between them, gloves optional.
No matter what I said, they weren’t biting. But apparently someone in the company thought enough about me to add me to their email list, and I kept track of everything that was going on in The Setai. I knew when the south elevator would be closed. I learned about March’s spa schedule. Regardless of the subject line of the email, I made sure to read the thing. One day I noticed that the emails had a new footer:
Director of concierge services, Setai Club, Wall Street
Crystal Springs? Crystal Springs? I thought they would have had some really hot Scandinavian model or a real-life Bond Girl. But Crystal Springs sounded like an off-brand bottled water, or some teenage deodorant. I printed out the email and brought it over to my partner, Abbie Newman. She’s the “Abigail” in Abigail Michaels Concierge (except her full name isn’t really Abigail, but who cares). “Look at this!” I said. “Someone named Crystal Springs is the concierge at The Setai!”
“That name sounds familiar,” Abbie said. Abbie knew everyone and could out-schmooze anyone. I wouldn’t be surprised if she told me she used to sit down on Sundays to watch The Ed Sullivan Show with Howard Hughes. “I’ve either met her or I just bought a candle with that scent.”
“Let’s look her up online,” I suggested.
We found pictures of Ms. Springs, and I understood it immediately. She was pretty and she was only about thirty years old. I could laugh at her name, but at the end of the day she was doing The Setai—and I wasn’t.
PEOPLE YOU’D ASSUME WOULD MAKE GREAT CONCIERGES—BUT WON’T
The Party Girl Who Hangs Out at All the Hotspots. She might forget to put your name ahead of hers on the “list.” Hangovers can also hamper her service skills in the “early” morning hours before noon.
Out of the blue, I got a call from the club manager. He’d spent decades in the hotel industry; he wouldn’t even glance at something that didn’t bear five stars. “Michael? This is Toma Vaca.” At least that’s what his name sounded like, filtered through his thick French accent. “I want to know what is your idea on how you do Setai.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do your people come here or we call you?”
“There’s many ways we could do it,” I said, trying to decipher his idiom (which is part of the job, anyway). “We could have an on-site person, or you could call into our office remotely and we could handle requests that way.”
“Because Crystal, she tell me she is no more. She is gone!”
“Really?” She left The Setai?
“She done wonderful work, she taken really good care of the people, but she not happy and she got another job for a hedge fund company as their social director. I really, really want to do this, and can you give me a proposal?”
“Can you have it in an hour?”
“Uh … No.” I hadn’t sent him proposals for months; most of the data I had was no longer relevant. So I spent the entire weekend working on two new tentative proposals. Toma Vaca took them to the owner and we got approved immediately.
“We want to do one of these,” Toma Vaca told me. “But I think it’s going to be the smaller one. Let’s have a meeting.”
Toma Vaca should have been an artist, because the picture he painted of The Setai’s clientele was exactly what I had suspected. Rock stars hobnobbing with hedge fund superstars—in other words, the kind of people who would suck the life out of you. The building was not only a luxe condo, but also a private membership club. It was clear that the residents would be using our services the most.
“So how many members do you have?” I asked him.
“Oh, we’re doing very well on the membership. The members, they like to have very nice. Very nice Porsche, they drive. Celebrities, they like to come. Oh, the luxury!” He wasn’t speaking English, and he wasn’t speaking French. He was speaking Keyword.
He couldn’t answer many basic questions, but it didn’t really throw me. Part of a concierge’s job is ascertaining what someone wants, even if they don’t have the vocabulary to explain what that thing is. Besides, I had an entire week before they wanted us to take over. I was used to delivering things “now, now, now!”
“All right, look,” I said. “I need Crystal to download everything to me. First, so I can understand if you’re making the right choice with this skeleton crew that we’re going to be putting in here. And second, I want to make sure for my own self that we didn’t underbid this.”
The next day, I had an appointment to see Crystal. I had seen her pictures online, and I had left the bathroom smelling like her, but I had yet to meet her. I brought along Daria, our VP of client services. She’d been in the concierge business even longer than I had.
The doorman pointed us to Crystal’s office, and we sat down and waited for her. The room itself, like most back-of-the-house office spaces, was pretty industrial and not at all elegant. I slowly looked around at the mess that was everywhere. Peeking out from under her desk was a pair of really expensive shoes. The combination of those two things should have warned me about what was coming, but I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Fifteen minutes later, Crystal arrived in a complete flurry. She had on a short little jacket, a pair of really slim pencil pants, and some cute ballet flats—and everything was clearly designer. Her gigantic Marc Jacobs bag could have served as a suitcase.
There wasn’t even a hello.
“I’m sorry!” she said, in a jittery voice. “I don’t know if I’m a very good trainer. Okay, let me tell you about the residents here first. Mrs. Armstrong. She’s just really, really nice, but her son’s kinda weird. Like, don’t look at him. Don’t shake his hand, because he’s got really weird boundary issues and stuff. I think he’s got ADD, but I don’t know. He’s probably like twenty-eight years old. So anyway, he’s really nice, but he doesn’t live here, but he’s a member.”
I waited for her to pause, so I could slow her down. But not only did she not pause, she didn’t seem to be breathing. Holy crap, I thought. She’s one of those people that can speak on both the exhale and the inhale!
“Mrs. Armstrong owns a really, really famous film company in London. I guess it’s kinda like Paramount Pictures, except it’s London, you know, they’re really, really big. And she has a handler and his name is Roger, and he’s really, really nice. He’s like the business manager, so when she starts to spend too much money, he’ll call you and tell you that you have to tell her that it’s time to stop, because he doesn’t want to do it.”
I didn’t look Daria in the eye because we both would have burst out in hysterics. She was furiously scribbling notes as Crystal talked, flipping pages in her notepad faster and faster.
“Oh!” Crystal said, snapping her fingers. “Mrs. Armstrong gets a fresh-squeezed orange juice and an almond croissant every morning at eight, but she likes the kind that’s not a rolled almond croissant, it’s like a pain au chocolat, except it’s like a flat croissant. It’s got almond paste. It’s different than a rolled almond croissant. At one time, I used to get them from room service at Cipriani Wall Street, but then they became very unreliable, because they found out the bellman was coming over to our property and he wasn’t allowed to, so they put an end to it.”
I watched Daria write down “Cipriani Wall Street,” and I watched her cross it out just as quickly. I could see a little bit why Crystal was so frazzled. She hadn’t been dealing with the Mrs. Armstrongs of the world for decades, like I had. That echelon of client is a bit out of touch with how things actually get done. Mrs. Armstrong is surely picturing the Ritz-Carlton or the Four Seasons, delivering to her an almond croissant on a silver platter with, literally, hand-squeezed orange juice in a crystal goblet. And none of those gauche Valencia oranges, either.
It doesn’t mean Mrs. Armstrong is evil. She is the kind of woman who would call my company and say, “Oh, hello, dear. It would just be wonderful if every morning, by eight o’clock, I could have my almond croissant.” There’s nothing threatening about that. But that same person inevitably calls at 8:01, wondering, “Oh, darling, now you know that I did ask for it at eight.” In other words: It’s not really a request, it’s a command.
Now I started wondering where I was going to find these almond croissants for Mrs. Armstrong. It’s not like there was a Korean deli around the corner, and that wouldn’t have been good enough anyway. Was I going to have to pay somebody extra to go out and make sure that Mrs. Armstrong got her croissant, the flat kind (not the rolled kind!) with the almond paste?
The almond croissant was becoming an emergency. This was almondgeddon.
“Let me tell you a bit about our members and the parties,” Crystal continued. “Renée Zellweger’s a member and Molly Sims is a member, and they like are most likely to show up at the fashion events, or anything design oriented. But really the parties that have the biggest draws are when we do swimsuit and lingerie parties. Agent Provocateur is one of the companies that loves to throw parties here, and all the football players come for that. But of course you have to watch the lingerie models, because they will throw themselves at the football players. If people get drunk and they want to have sex in the bar, call the Ritz-Carlton to send a car for them and reserve them a room.”
After two hours, Daria and I had enough. We went back to our office and started to decipher her notes. They were just words, and we had to try and remember if the stories had ever gone anywhere: “Football player, lingerie, ADD, fresh-squeezed.” It was like she was playing Password. Maybe that’s why Toma Vaca spoke Keyword; he’d been around Crystal all day. Everything was so disorganized I thought that Crystal had been flat-out messing with us.
To cover my bases, I sent her an email reiterating the information she gave us in a clear, concise format and asking for some basic info.
It was T-minus two days. I didn’t have time to wait for her to get back to me. I forwarded the letter to Toma Vaca, in the hopes that he could fill in some blanks. “Oops! I forgot send this to you before, but this is what I sent to Crystal.”
I waited a couple of hours and then I called him. I decided that there were just a few things that were vitally important: Who are the members? How are they identified? Who lives in the building, and who has any kind of request happening between now and when we start on Friday? What are residents told as far as our hours and our obligations?
“I’ll email you all these things,” he assured me.
“Oh, and what’s the phone number directly to the concierge desk?” I asked.
“I’ll find out! Right away!”
He doesn’t even know the number? I thought. Oh, this is bad.
I waited and waited—no response. I had meetings. My day continued—and I was starting to flip out. I wrote an email to the owner, asking him the same very basic questions that I had asked Toma Vaca. The owner then called up Toma Vaca and tore him a new one.
I found this out when Toma Vaca called me that night. “I don’t know what to say to you,” he began. I expected the next words out of his mouth to be an apology; they were not. “I am so disappointed that you have a relationship with me, but you go over my back. I give you everything you ask for!”
“I didn’t go behind your back or over your head, whichever you mean, to complain about you. I need to get the names of the people who are going to be calling my office in two days! Not to mention, I don’t know what’s going on with the NFL draft party that’s happening tonight that you’re hosting for Calvin Pace, and has two hundred and fifty people on the list, including Fox News who’s coming to broadcast it. Is he going to be calling me because fifty of his closest friends couldn’t get in? I don’t have Mrs. Armstrong’s phone number. I don’t have anybody’s credit card. So I’m supposed to just start paying for things for them out of my own pocket?”
“I don’t know how you work, and we don’t know each other very well, but this is not the way to get a good relationship with me. If you ever have a problem, you need to just come to me.”
“Well, I do have a problem. You have created an absolute catastrophe at that property. You have no command over your staff. You let this girl operate completely autonomously. You don’t know what’s going on. You’re in over your head and you know it, and you’re bluffing. I’m not going to be your fall guy when things go wrong—which they will if I don’t get this information!”
Toma Vaca took a deep breath. “Okay, we start new, pretend. I want this to be successful. You will see that I am very direct and whatever I feel I have to express it. I am glad we talk and explain each other.” It was like he was shaking the Etch A Sketch of our relationship, and it made me respect him a bit more. “We need to have a meeting tomorrow morning, and I will get you everything that you need.”
The next morning—one day before my company was taking the reins—we all had a big meeting at The Setai. The superintendent was there, the engineer was there, the marketing director, the membership sales director, the condo sales director, the spa manager—and Toma Vaca and Crystal Springs. Each person gave their piece, and between everyone I figured out the puzzle that was how The Setai actually worked. The final thing I needed was access to the building database and email. Fortunately, the IT guy had conferenced in on the meeting. Unfortunately, the speakerphone was so full of static that he sounded like a subway announcement.
“I just need to be able to go to the files on that server,” I told him.
“What? I can’t hear you.”
“I need to get into your share drive,” I reiterated.
“Sorry, you’re driving where?”
“Pick up the phone,” I told Toma Vaca. “Just tell him what I need.”
Tentatively, Toma Vaca reached for the phone, pressed a button—and disconnected the call. He sat there, staring at the screen, wondering what to do and making little mumbling sounds.
PEOPLE YOU’D ASSUME WOULD MAKE GREAT CONCIERGES—BUT WON’T
The Charming Foreigner with the Ritzy Accent: Yes, he’s cosmopolitan and can speak to any guest in their native language. But his charm is compensating for the fact that he’s probably never really had to get down and dirty with the work.
I could tell Toma Vaca had no idea how to reach the IT guy, but I had been in touch with him before. I started reading Toma Vaca the guy’s number. “Six-four-six … No, I think you have to dial a nine first to get an outside line.”
After that was taken care of, we started discussing exactly what kind of concierge service they were looking for. “We really do believe we only need partial coverage,” one of the managers said. “We just want somebody who’s very visible when the members come in after work. It’s a big gathering spot for after-work drinks. Someone presentable.”
“So more like a prop?” I suggested. “I could get you some gorgeous models who are astute enough to know how to say hello to people.”
I called a modeling agent that I knew, and basically set up a casting call in my office that afternoon. I saw a bunch of people, but I wasn’t finding the person who was Wall Street smart and Setai pretty.
And in walked Peyton. I was immediately taken with her. Not only was Peyton gorgeous, but her résumé was all business—literally. She had been a personal assistant to corporate executives, people who managed $150 million funds. She had long, flowing red hair with bangs that were pushed to the side. She looked very J.Crew, naturally clean and beautiful—but I could tell that she had a chic side as well. I hired her on the spot.
PEOPLE YOU’D ASSUME WOULD MAKE GREAT CONCIERGES—BUT WON’T
The Gorgeous Model/Actor with the Magazine Hair: If they’re dumb, they can’t do their job. If they’re smart, they’re going to land a film role in two seconds and be out the door.
The next day, our official start date, I came by The Setai to see how Peyton was handling things. I was stunned, and not because she was stunning. She had makeup on, with big red lips. Her bangs were totally slicked with gel, and she had curled them so they were just barely over her eyes. Her hair was pulled back really tight in a barrette. She had a jacket with a little ruffle around it, and a shirt underneath that exposed a tiny bit of cleavage. Her skirt was so tight that she couldn’t step more than six inches at a time. She was carrying a peach-colored miniature spiral notebook that looked like it came from the MoMA Store, and a fancy pen to write with. The best thing about her costume—because that is what it was—were her gigantic horn-rimmed glasses. I could tell that they were props, because when I looked at them closely I could see that there was no magnifying power to the lenses.
In other words, she looked fantastic. You sell the sizzle, but you eat the steak. She wasn’t there to be a concierge. She was a trophy playing a part, just like The Setai wanted. While she was there, greeting members and taking requests, me and all the other concierges in my office would be working around the clock to make sure the work actually got done—which it did.
Calvin Pace had his party, and everyone who was supposed to got in. Mrs. Armstrong got her croissant every day, the flat kind (not the rolled kind) with the almond paste. I had them brought in from the Financier Patisserie on Cedar Street; as far as she was concerned, they simply continued to appear as if by magic. The members’ requests were being taken care of: somebody wants to be invited to the Playboy table at a Kentucky Derby fund-raiser party that’s completely sold out. Done. People constantly ask for reservations for Maialino, Kenmare, and Locanda Verde. No problem. What time would you like a table?
That’s because when you want a concierge, you probably don’t want Party Girl Who Hangs Out at All the Hotspots, or a Charming Foreigner with the Ritzy Accent, or a Gorgeous Model/Actor with the Magazine Hair. Your best bet might be the forty-five-year-old who looks more like a landlord than a doorman, who got his start thinking that he was going to be the next big Hollywood movie mogul.
Copyright © 2011 by Michael Fazio with Michael Malice