What springs to mind when you think of a concierge? You might conjure up a character somewhere between Home Alone 2: Lost in New York’s Mr. Hector and The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Monsieur Gustave. While arguably at opposite ends of the spectrum, both are marked by a sense of pomp and grandeur – wired with old-world formality that can at times makes them feel unapproachable. But with their wealth of knowledge, connections and impeccable taste, it would be a mistake to avoid them.
London’s Biken Urkiri’s striking stature might initially give you pause, but one minute with the St. Martins Lane’s concierge will melt any icy preconceptions. “We have an unconventional atmosphere in that we’re upscale, but we do things in a way that’s not too formal,” he explains when asked what makes work feel like play. “We’re a young team and we have the same passions and interests as our guests.” Gone are the days of white gloves and call bells – Urkiri skips the dress shoes avoids his desk (“sometimes I get called out,” he laughs). And while he’ll happily ring up the finest white-tableclothed restaurant in town, he’s most excited by helping visitors discover his city via the path less travelled.
We took to the streets of London with Urkiri while he schooled us on his modern-day job description of the concierge – and how to one into your best friend when travelling abroad.
Lesson #1: Take Time to Connect
Urkiri loves when a visitor asks about his accent (he’s from San Sebastian, Spain) – because it’s an easy way to connect about culture and clue in to what a guest is excited to explore. If you’re open with your wants and needs, he might just find a way to make them happen. “I’m very passionate about tennis, and we had a guest with an upcoming birthday who was trying to get Wimbledon tickets – which, if you’ve tried, you’ll know is very, very difficult,” he recounts. “So I got together with the pastry chef and we organized a tennis-court themed cake as a surprise for her room.” But that wasn’t all – “She was about to give up on the tickets, but we weren’t; we texted some of our contacts and were able to score her tickets for the semifinals.” Game, set, match.
Lesson #2: Go Outside the Lines
Urkiri’s favourite days on the job are the ones in which he helps a guest experience the London he’s come to love. “I see the today’s concierge as having more responsibility than just booking tickets – we’re creating experiences for each guest,” he says. And while he’ll make run-of-the-mill bookings with a smile, he gets extra excited when enrolling guests in the pastimes he’s passionate about – be it a new play, a graffiti tour or a session with an up-and-coming local designer. “I don’t like to force or pretend when making recommendations,” he admits. “I think that the best way to get to know London is by hanging out with locals or doing something a little less conventional.”
Lesson #3: Trust
It’s easy to get stuck on your itinerary, but Urkiri promises that an attitude of openness will get you much further. “I work a lot with intuition,” he explains. “The best thing our guests can do is be calm, flexible, and trust that I can read into their needs.” At times, Urkiri will literally hold the cards: he describes one guest who was in town for business and wanted to be surprised by a spontaneous suggestion: “I drew up a set of playing cards that had different activities I thought she’d like on them – stop and go tours, the cinema, gambling – and had her choose one,” he laughs. “We had fun with it, and she wound up happy.”
Lesson #4: Take it Outside the Lobby
Urkiri’s relationships aren’t confined to the concierge desk. “I’ll have guests who’ll want to keep in touch through social media so they can let me know the next time they’re coming to town,” he says. And he’s not afraid to take the extra steps to ensure an experience is just right. Once, he recommended a Spanish restaurant down the road to a visitor from Japan who was concerned about ordering because of a language barrier. Particularly passionate about the region’s fare, Ulriki took the menu matter into his own hands and joined the guest for the beginning of his meal to help him order the ultimate introduction to the cuisine. Ultimately, it’s the human connection that keeps him clocking in. “If this industry was just about selling bedrooms, I wouldn’t be part of it,” he says. “For me, it’s about something a little bit deeper than that.”
Follow along with Urkiri @2bken.