Concierge Confidential: Inside The Shelbourne with Concierge Denis O’Brien
No figure in the hospitality industry mystifies more than the hotel concierge. They have to know everything and everyone; source anything from an elusive table at the best restaurant in town, to that must-have handbag of the moment; cater to requests that can sometimes range from downright absurd to borderline impossible; all the while staying perfectly polite, polished, and professional.
They are hotel ambassadors, yet, at the same time, concierges happily shy away from the spotlight; prioritising the comfort of the guests, and leaving the details and practicalities of their own job fade into the background.
Who better to turn to get a true insight into what exactly a concierge does, and how they do it, than Denis O’Brien; head concierge of Dublin’s landmark five-star hotel, The Shelbourne.
“She’s looking well for a 192 year old isn’t she?” says Denis, referring affectionately to the hotel itself as we walk from the marble encased lobby through to the No. 27 Bar & Lounge. Midday on a Monday, the lounge, with its real silk ‘wallpaper’ and burgundy leather bucket chairs, just as comfortably hosts those chatting business as it does the table who are enjoying a platter of fresh oysters.
“That’s the great thing about the Old Lady, you don’t need an excuse to come in,” says Denis.
“As I say, when you push that revolving door it goes the same way for everybody; no matter who you are; no matter if you are from Gurranabraher or Guatemala.”
“I’m a Dub, born and raised, and as I kid we used to play across in St Stephens Green. My parents, certainly my grandparents, they would never come in because they would have considered it above their means. That type of misconception, thankfully, has been blown out of the water.”
Denis admits as a child he never saw himself working in The Shelbourne, and began studying philosophy and theology with the intention of becoming a priest. It was by accident following this decision to end his studies that he found himself a job in a hotel, and with that his new calling. “I moved to the West of Ireland, and I didn’t have a job and you have to pay bills. So I applied for a job as a night porter in The Great Southern in Galway and I got it.”
Over his thirty years in the hospitality business, he has worked his way up the pecking order; previously a concierge in Druids Glen in Wicklow and The Great Southern in Galway, Denis took up the esteemed position of head concierge at The Shelbourne 10 years ago, shortly before the hotel reopened after two years of renovation.
“There were a lot of new people who joined the Shelbourne then, for some of it was fulfilling a dream, for others it was getting their foot onto the rung of the ladder at a very different level to where most people would get the opportunity to start at. For me it would have been a culmination of the two.”
But what exactly is a concierge?
“You’re a one stop shop, for everything the guests want,” explains Denis. “You’re a mister, you’re a confidant, you’re a counsellor, you’re a shoulder to lean on, and one to cry on. You say very little, and give very little advice, but you’re there with your ear which I think is better than using your mouth.”
On the day-to-day tasks Denis and his team of four carry out Denis says: “It could be the simple things like booking a taxi or a restaurant; or it could be stressful things for the guests like locating the luggage that the airline, to trying to organise something for the guest and ensuring their partner doesn’t know what’s going on.”
In a bid to provide the utmost in experiential luxury, the modern concierge must now offer a catalogue of increasingly creative services; like the rental of sunglasses for guests caught out on a sunny day, tracking down hard-to-find sneakers, or pre-filling closets with designer labels. Denis says he and his team think nothing of going the extra mile: “It’s what we get our buzz from, making the impossible, possible.”
But there are some guest requests he just can’t cater for. “Very simply, if it’s not legal, or if it’s not ethically or morally right, it doesn’t happen,” Denis explains. Anything outside of these constraints however he will do his utmost to carry out, and without question too.
“I won’t ask Miss X why she wants 50 dresses all in the colour purple; that’s what she wants and it’s not my position to question. My job is to try to fulfil her wish.”
For the more “time sensitive” tasks it’s often necessary for Denis consult his enviable contact list. “It could be that I need flowers delivered in Toronto in an hour, and thankfully I can lift the phone to my contact in Toronto and I can guarantee you that I’ll have them there.”
Denis is referencing the global network he has access to as part of his membership of the Les Clefs d’Or, The Golden Keys, an international association of hotel concierge. “I can lift the phone, call hotels all over the world and say a very good guest of ours will be visiting, could you extend every courtesy to them that you can; it might just be that they get a room with a better view,” Denis explains.
“I have had the pleasure of being the only Irish man to be the world president. So I am now a honourary president for life,” he says proudly pointing to a pair of crossed Golden Keys on his lapel, the same “Keys”, worn by Clefs d’Or in 44 countries throughout the world. He says that the Irish members in 45 hotels across Ireland meet once a month, and even have a Whatsapp group.
“I could message them saying: I need two tickets to Beyoncé; or I have three tickets for Riverdance, does anyone need them?; or does anybody have spare roll away beds? We talk everyday. If I had a guest going to Belfast and I needed a quick answer, I’ll message the group and ask for help.”
“My phone has more work contacts than personal contacts”, says Denis. Like the ‘invaluable’ contacts he has in luxury stores around the country who give his guests exclusive access, or offer a shopping trip without the need to leave the hotel. “We have some guests who don’t want to leave their rooms, and some who don’t have time to, or those who just don’t want to go into a store and be recognised.”
Though he adds that Ireland is the perfect for guests looking to go under the radar. “In other parts of the world they might be mobbed, but in Ireland we treat celebrities with respect and leave them go about their business.” With guests such as Michelle Obama and her daughters Sasha and Malia, and Bill Clinton, Denis says he is often asked who left the biggest impression on him.
“I always don’t like singling people out, but I always remember meeting Sir Richard Attenborough, and what a quintessential gentleman. Someone who didn’t ask for much, but when you think of the movies he was in and the things he has done, when you meet him it was just, wow!”
When people dig a little deeper for the inside scoop on The Shelbourne’s celebrated guests Denis says to them: “If you knew what I really did you wouldn’t ask me that question, because a good concierge would never divulge those details to you.”
The guests that Denis has built the strongest relationships with are The Shelbourne’s many loyal guests.
“Someone might only come at work particular time of the year, but I know they are coming, I know they like a particular room and newspaper, they like their toast done a particular way. These are the little idiosyncrasies you pick up over the years, and that’s why keep people coming back, because you remember them.”
“There is a tremendous return guest loyalty, but that’s because we as a hotel have given them a loyalty; respect, courtesy, confidentiality,” Denis says. “Years ago there was the idea of the concierge’s famous black book, and he sold that on; that was his pension fund. Most of my things about my guests are in my head. Some of it has to be in my head because it can’t be anywhere else, you have to respect their privacy.”
For all the modern luxuries The Shelbourne offers, Denis says it’s tradition that makes The Shelbourne special. “There’s a saying, if it’s not broke don’t fix it. We are very proud of our tradition, it’s what has got us where we are. Sometimes history is not kind to people or places, but this old lady has taken it all and thrived over the past 192 years and faced all the challenges.”
“There’s a certain generation in Ireland who met each other by looking over the balcony in the ball room, caught each other’s eye, and went on to do a line, have their engagement parties, weddings, and christenings here. This old lady has played a massive part in Ireland; socially, histotically, with the 1922 constitution being drafted here. It’s not just a physical place on St. Stephens Green.”
It’s history is encapsulated within the walls of one room, The Shelbourne’s in-house museum. Very few hotels have such a room says Denis, who has become the unofficial Shelbourne historian. He admits he knew as much as the next person about the Shelbourne when started ten years ago, but with the help of his guests, and their familial connections and memories, he continues to piece together the history of the iconic hotel.
The Shelbourne’s unique Genealogy Butler service too has allowed Denis to connect with his guests in way no other hotel could: “This gentleman came to us with very little information surrounding his birth, and by the time he left to go back to America he had found his 34 relatives and had a party for them down in Mayo. Those kind of things you wouldn’t write. All of us have been here as long as I have know that we are only carrying a baton for the next generation.”
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after a brief dalliance with law, she completed a Master’s degree in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.