The Concierge’s Concierge

 

 

 

Frank Laino has been the head concierge at The Stafford Hotel in London for 11 years. “There is no great secret to being a great concierge,” he says, but being able to think on your feet helps.

 

Frank Laino knows how to gets things done. In a city like London, this comes in handy. Tickets to Billy Elliot, you say? Check. Table at Scott’s, the hottest restaurant in town? “What time?” Laino will ask. An audience with the Queen? That’s pushing it, but when you have the contacts Laino does, never say never. You see if Laino, now in his 11th year as the concierge at The Stafford Hotel, doesn’t know someone directly he can phone (which is rare, believe us, he knows everyone) he will know someone who does. Maybe that’s why he received this year’s Luxury Travel Advisor Award of Excellence as the top concierge in all the land.

 

Top Trio: Laino with the Stafford’s general manager, Stuart Procter, and bar manager, Ben Provost, at the Luxury Travel Advisor Awards of Excellence. Laino was voted Top Concierge Worldwide and the Stafford’s American Bar, under Provost’s guidance, was voted Best Hotel Bar Worldwide.

 

 

With credentials like that, Luxury Travel Advisor had to find firsthand what the fuss was all about. Not to mention check out one of London’s premier hotels. Located in St James’s, one of the toniest neighborhoods in London, the hotel is so tucked away and removed, it’s a feat to just find it. As we soon found out, the hotel’s clandestine feel only adds to its mystique.

We met Laino for breakfast one early November morning. For a man of slight build, he can move mountains. One tidbit he shares shows off his extraordinary ability. “I had a doctor come to me, whose lifetime ambition was to see every single [Johannes] Vermeer painting,” Laino says. (Only about 35 paintings have been attributed to the Dutch master.) “He was working through his list and had two left,” Laino adds. One of these happened to be hanging in Buckingham Palace. Problem was, it was in an area that is off-limits to visitors. “Through people I know,” Laino says, “I was able to get him in for a private viewing at the palace.” He wouldn’t tell us who that person was (the Queen, perhaps?).

 

 

The Award-Winning American Bar has over 50 years of memorabilia hanging from its ceiling and affixed to the walls.

 

An anecdote like this is not uncommon. How about a private visit to Stonehenge at dawn? Child’s play for Laino. In fact, it’s tough to come up with a scenario to stump him.

Proficiency like this doesn’t happen overnight; it takes time to build a network. “There are no shortcuts,” Laino says. “You can’t force a relationship—they have to be built on mutual trust and understanding and likeability. You have to nurture it.” It’s also a balancing act. Laino is out three to five nights a week trying out new city spots to “see if I want to send clients there,” he says. “I get invited to a lot of places. But you have to pick and choose. If a place is not up to a certain level, you have to be honest and diplomatic about it.”

So what does it take to be a great concierge? “You have to be good at scrambling and thinking on your feet,” Laino says. “But also, you have to be a well-rounded person, and be able to talk to people on a whole range of different issues and interests—a jack of all trades. What differentiates a concierge from a really good concierge is the ability to get stuff done. Common sense is a given, but you also have to be streetwise. Now, anyone who tells you that they can get you anything at any time is lying. But being able to do it most of the time and when it really matters, that’s the key.”

Laino, a native Briton, but whose family is Italian, began his career in hotels when he was 17. He followed a girlfriend to Italy, where he got a job in Positano at the Hotel San Pietro. (His uncle was the head chef there; Laino still calls it his favorite hotel in the world.) “It introduced me to the world of luxury,” he says. When he returned to London, he wanted to remain in the hotel business. He got his start at The Montcalm in the West End. From there, his star took off.

It landed at The Stafford, which, unlike The Dorchester or The Ritz, is not as well known. “If you stop 10 people in the streets in London and ask them if they’ve heard of The Stafford, nine out of 10 would say ‘no,’” Laino posits. And that’s fine. “We fly under the radar,” he says. “We are the hotelier’s hotel.”

The Stafford is a time warp to old-fashioned housekeeping; a place where, quite literally, everyone knows your name. Laino posts within a small space next to the hotel’s entrance; he’s the first face you see when you enter, the last you see on exit. In front of him a large ledger rests where he keeps notes, tidbits, even information to jostle his memory about particular guests. (Knowing the name of someone’s daughter and the university she attends goes a long way toward guest retention.) We spotted a computer, though it’s mostly used to check football scores. Laino does author a monthly online newsletter, “Frankly Speaking,” his picks for local events, exhibitions and shows.

Laino’s usefulness reaches well beyond the normal routine of a hotel concierge. At one point, he read aloud a message from a past guest, who asked if Laino could help secure a Kazakhstan visa for her son. Favors like these are typical. “Over the years you build up a private clientele that stays with you,” Laino says. “I have clients who have bought apartments or houses here, but will still call me for things and that’s cool. A busy concierge desk is a good thing as long as it doesn’t compromise the service you give to your hotel guests.”

It’s also copacetic with Stuart Procter, The Stafford’s general manager, whose young age (he’s 34) belies his experience and industry know-how. (He’s also the contact for luxury travel advisors.) We were given exclusive access to the hotel’s daily 9 a.m. briefing—the so-called Prayers Meeting. It’s restrictive enough that our notepad was prohibited. What we can tell you is that no detail is glossed over: room-by-room accounts are presented, guests and VIPs alike are thoroughly discussed and each staff member, from hotel engineer to head of housekeeping, is given a chance to speak. It’s all very egalitarian.

Procter has overseen the 105-room hotel since January 2006 and spearheaded the all-suite Stafford Mews development, which opened in May 2007 and added 26 individually designed junior and master suites spread over six floors. Across from the Mews, in the 18th-century stable courtyard, The Carriage House has an additional 12 rooms and suites with names such as Man O’ War, Red Rum and Phar Lap—the handles of past racehorse greats. But the gem of the bunch is the two-level Guv’nor’s Suite that combines the trademarks of The Stafford: comfort and English elegance. You’ll find these traits in all the hotel’s rooms, which also includes the 67 in the Main House. This coupled with the hotel’s rich history (a 380-year-old working wine cellar, for one) make it a home-away-from-home for many U.S.
travelers. (Procter tells us that the hotel’s clientele is 60 percent American and it’s the No.1 Signature- and Virtuoso-booked hotel in London.)

He also tells us—and what we quickly find out on our own—that the hotel’s reputation is one of discretion. “We have an exceptionally high return of affluent travelers who come back because of it,” he says. He likes to say that if you are looking for flash, check into one of the Park Lane hotels; but if you have nothing to prove, stay at The Stafford.

Makes perfect sense. One of The Stafford’s most notable clients was also one of Hollywood’s most understated mega-stars. “Paul Newman stayed here for years,” Procter says. “He would put on his jogging gear and jog up and down the stairs for an hour.” Even an undisturbed workout is tough for a movie star.

Procter knows that Laino is key to the hotel’s success. “He’s an integral part of The Stafford,” Procter says. “Clients today want the best, they are well-educated and they know what they want. Frank [Laino] never lets a client down and he’s very calm in how he goes about his job. Many concierges you see are too loud, a bit too wheeling and dealing, but he’s not, he’s very understated. Without him, it’s just another hotel.”

The hotel is also distinguished by its history. Of all the spaces in The Stafford, none is more alluring, or special, than that of The American Bar. In a city known for its convivial English pubs, what is an American bar doing in one of London’s finest hotels? The bar takes its cue from the past. Back during the 1930s, when ocean-liner travel was at its peak, many hotels in The Stafford’s vicinity slapped “The American Bar” moniker on their bars to attract North American travelers. The Stafford was also a club for American and Canadian soldiers stationed overseas during World War II. The name stuck, and today the bar is as much an institution as the hotel itself.

It has a visual history all its own. Over the years, guests have contributed everything from hats to ties, which now hang from the bar’s ceiling. A quick glance upward and you’ll spot such items as an Oakland Raiders helmet, a Chicago Cubs cap and countless college headgear—paraphernalia usually reserved for an American sports bar. Walls are covered in framed autographed images of both American and European heavyweights, in both entertainment and politics. It’s reminiscent of your best buddy’s basement.

But the bar’s trappings are only half the story. There’s a formality that captures a certain gentility: jackets for gentlemen after 5 p.m. and eating at the bar is a no-no (guests are asked to take a seat at one of the bar’s smaller tables where the meal is brought out and served atop a personal lap tray). This, mixed with expert barmen, makes The American Bar one of those “must-try-before-you-die” places. Perhaps it’s also why it garnered the 2009 Luxury Travel Advisor Award of Excellence for the top hotel bar worldwide.

Ben Provost has served as bar manager for 13 years; he’s only the third man to hold the position since 1946. Not only can he concoct a mean martini, he’s served some very elite clientele; as such he likes to compare him and his staff to the dutiful three monkeys: “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”

But at a hotel like The Stafford, you see a lot of stuff. Just ask Laino, who has witnessed his share of odd behavior and eccentricity. “Recently a client from New York checked in with a lot of luggage,” Laino recounts. “I arranged for a porter to help him unpack it, but after an hour he was still gone.” Laino went to the guest’s room and found two suitcases worth of books—philosophy books to be exact. Turns out, the guest wasn’t a voracious reader either. “The books were to stack underneath the bed to prop it up at the exact same angle as his bed in New York,” Laino says. “He had even written out a specific order for the books. Nothing surprises me anymore.”

In September, Britannia Hospitality, owned by Egypt’s El Sharkawy family, acquired The Stafford from Shire Hotels, which had owned and operated the hotel since 1995, for a reported $128 million. “The family is very happy with the hotel the way it is,” Laino says. “They want to carry on, just enhance what we already have.” One thing Laino already knows is that the head of the family has a prodigious appetite and likes to eat at the finest restaurants. “I’ve already been put on notice,” he says with a laugh.

CONCIERGE CLUB

Laino is a member of The Society of Golden Keys of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, which is part of a larger body, Les Clefs d’Or, an international organization of hotel concierges. To become a member you need at least five years’ experience working at the hotel level (three of which have to be as a concierge). You can recognize Clefs d’Or concierges by the crossed gold keys they display on the lapels of their uniforms. Laino proudly sports his every day. He’s now been a member for 22 years. Laino and his London counterparts meet on the first Thursday of every month. The organization held its World Congress this year in China and next year it will be in Portugal. “I know all the other guys and gals,” Laino says. “They are like my family.”

 

 

The Guv’nor’s Suite. It doesn’t get much better than this two-level suite in The Stafford’s Carriage House. The hotel’s executive chef can even prepare an entire in-suite dinner.

 

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