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The concierge can't say "no"

What do elephants, samurai swords and the Statue of Liberty have in common? The hotel concierge. Find out why. Asian hotels share some bizarre and memorable guest requests.

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by Lydia Soh

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Bizarre concierge requests by hotel guests

JUST DO IT. Impossible is nothing. Catchy taglines of major sports brands are the likely mantras of hotel concierges who tackle more than a fair share of mind-boggling requests from demanding patrons. Sure, the elite properties have a wealth of resources at their disposal to cater to every outlandish whim. And no doubt concierges are masters of the arcane dark art of networking and speed dialling, plucking mighty miracles out of the ether.

Yet at the heart of all this finger-snapping-Aladdin-genie industry is a healthy dose of Energizer Bunny perseverance and dogged determination. These sentinels of the door are as human as the next person, but with superhuman gusto. How else do you manage to change not just the sheets and pillows – that would be monstrously mundane – but the entire bed, as at the Sala Phuket Resort & Spa? And what about guests who want to view the Orangutans of Borneo? Easy if you're in the Sandakan Reserve in Sabah but a tad challenging if put to the concierge of the Empire Hotel & Country Club in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, far removed from the orange critter action.

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An American family at Empire wished to stay a night at the reserve, which was well nigh impossible as it was impractical. The trip would take almost nine hours, involving a 30-minute flight from Brunei to Kota Kinabalu, followed by an eight-hour journey overland and by boat to Sandakan. The concierge rubbed his magic lamp and, presto, a private plane materialised to fly the guests to Kota Kinabalu where a helicopter awaited to whisk them into the rainforest.

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I'm leaving, on my own jet plane

Chartering jets is no longer just for Tom Cruise or billionaires; it is becoming commonplace, despite the hefty price tag. And you can hire your own set of wings for any occasion. Hip Beijing boutique hotel, The Opposite House, arranged for a family of eight to fly to Xian and Shanghai in the comfort of a private plane.

The rent-a-jet option also comes in handy whilst sprinting to appointments between continents. The Oberoi Udaivilas, in Rajasthan, India, had no problem catapulting an Australian guest from Udaipur – a relatively small princely city in the desert – to Sydney, to attend an urgent business meeting. Could they have arranged John Travolta in his customised B707? Well, ask.

More modestly, the JW Marriott Hotel Hong Kong paid homage to the phrase “Romance is in the air” when they fixed up a helicopter ride for a couple’s anniversary. Flying high (minus overly chatty fellow travellers) is just a Post-It away nowadays.

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Don't stop the party

Itching to throw a cool, crazy bash? Just dial ‘C’ for concierge. Like the English couple who decided they wanted to throw an Indian-themed birthday celebration at the exclusive Pangkor Laut Resort in Malaysia with six of their closest chums. Thus the ever-reliable concierge ensured everything – from the song selection, to the cuisine and décor – was spiced up with Indian panache. The guests got into the mood with henna painting for the ladies, and sherwanis, silk shirts and traditional turbans for the men.

Ritzy The Peninsula Tokyo has its own story to tell. An Italian male staying at The Peninsula Suite had his heart set on hosting a New Year's countdown bash that highlighted Japanese culture. And what a shindig it was. The suite was decked out with hundreds of balloons and aromatic flowers (presumably Nippon's finest), and party-goers were entertained by a magician, pianist and saxophonist. The cost? A trifling US$10,000. In addition, the concierge roped in a trio of experts in origami, ikebana flower arrangement and the tea ceremony to conduct private lessons during the revelry. Just another US$5,000 on the tab.

All's well that ends well. Of course Italian-style parties have their merits too – Borsalino hats, trench coats, Cosa Nostra heavies and the occasional heavy ordnance helping reduce the head count. We'll take the ikebana.

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Bamboo binge, balloons, and eternal youth

The Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore garners numerous requests on places to visit and dine because of its proximity to popular tourist haunts and shopping havens. Shangri-La’s Mactan Resort & Spa in Cebu, Philippines, rates inquiries about local culture and delicacies as the top category of request by visitors to the sunny island. Not so mundane was the request by a guest who ordered "lechon" (the local variation of suckling pig); the catch being it had to be a black native pig, and not the usual commercial pink variety. Native pigs purportedly have less fat, more muscle and more flavour. And they tend not to leave a residential or postal address, preferring to grub about in the wild or camp out at private piggeries in provincial towns far from larger cities like Cebu. There was one less piggy that subsequently went to the market.

{Native pigs purportedly have less fat, more muscle and more flavour. And they tend not to leave a residential or postal address...
 

Declare to the front desk at Grand Formosa Regent Taipei that you wish to be forever young and the employees there won’t bat an eyelash. Taiwan is well-known for medicinal herbs and the hotel is bombarded with requests from visitors seeking medicine that prolongs life to Methuselah proportions or magic pills and potions that keep you pickled in the soft-focus wrinkle-free, rosy realms of eternal youth.

I’m pretty definite I would be sporting a splitting grin if I had the opportunity to gawk at the Taj Mahal up close. But I may be scoffed at for lacking a sense of adventure. Why stay grounded when the best view is usually from the top? Indeed. The Oberoi Amarvilas, Agra, has dealt with a patron who desired to hot-air balloon over this hallowed work of art. With this wonder of the world soaring gracefully just 600m away, it is no surprise that the hotel deals with more than a fair share of fantasy whims.

When you like the country, take it home. Or at least, part of it. If you chance upon Chinese bamboo in the wild Wild West, it most likely is the doing of Louis Baleros, head concierge at InterContinental Hong Kong. A guest was so enamoured of the bamboo used for the countless construction sites in the city that he called on Baleros’s help to ship bamboo to his hometown in Texas, an amount sufficient to fence in his ranch.

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Let's do numbers, or play statue

Ah…and there is that Vietnamese marble, famous for its pureness. Though marble sculptures and craft of all size and description can be easily purchased, an American visitor took it one step further. Staying at The Nam Hai, Hoi An, the retired military man decided he would take home his very own marble Statue of Liberty. Though not life-size, it was no small feat for the concierge as the final product was about 10 metres tall – roughly one-quarter of the actual size. Lady Liberty was duly shipped to her owner in the US.

Fortunately, hotel concierges don’t face these wacky challenges 24/7. Everyday requests include flight confirmations, first dibs on where to eat and shop, and must-see places. But nationality does play a role too. Especially when it comes to superstitions.

Many Asians dislike rooms with the number four as it symbolises bad luck (when spoken in Chinese it sounds like "death"). Female guests junketing alone, for security reasons, prefer rooms on the same level as the lobby. On the other hand, business travellers would rather hole up for the night in rooms far from the elevator (for minimum disturbance).

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The hotel concierge as cupid and postmaster

It is not unheard of for hotel concierges to lend a hand in conjuring up a romantic rendezvous or two. But Baleros faced a daunting task when a pair of American lovebirds wanted to tie the knot during Hong Kong’s handover in 1997. They were bent on being first in the line for foreigners to be issued a marriage license by the new SAR (Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China) government.

Definitely not a walk in the park, but the veteran – he had his first taste of the hospitality industry in 1975 – came through yet again. Despite the three-day public holiday, he managed to make the couple’s dream come true the first business day that ensued. Plus, he doubled up as their best man, with one of his assistants filling in as the maid of honour.

Employees at the Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore found itself searching for a classic needle in a haystack when a frequent visitor sought its assistance in locating an envelope in another country. To complicate matters, it was not registered mail. Undeterred, the concierge worked with the post office in that country and the missing envelope was finally recovered at an airport.

Try searching for a grave when the lone clue is just a general idea of the final resting place. An elderly Japanese lady approached the concierge at Grand Formosa Regent to help find her father’s tombstone. And the only detail she could provide was that it was somewhere in "ershuei hsiang" (Mandarin for “village") in Changhua county. But that was all the information the staff needed. No satellites, no GPS, no Google map. The concierge not only unearthed (no pun intended) the grave site, but also reunited the guest with her long lost relatives living in Taiwan.

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Waiter, there's an elephant in my soup

The common consensus is that there are no limits to ensuring the satisfaction of the guests as long the hotel has the resources to do so. As The Opposite House puts it, “We are increasingly getting more people wanting an exclusive experience.” This could range from the banal to the bizarre.

Most hotel concierges wouldn’t mind trudging the extra mile to make their charges happy as long the requests are ethical, legal, do not compromise the safety of the guests and the employees, and do not go against cultural and social norms. In other words, they rarely say no and will offer alternatives if the original request is not doable. And when they do say no, there are always legit reasons.

{Would you eat your Toyota? Of course not. Babar the Elephant balloons on to exotic locales, free of the encumbrance of that large vat of boiling oil...
 

A group of Russians visiting at The Nam Hai wished to go on a safari on the Laos-Vietnam border. One of the conditions was to ride an elephant whilst at it. There was a dark twist however. The group wanted to barbeque the animal for dinner after their jungle excursion (presumably they had other means of transport thereon). So how did The Nam Hai handle this? They said no. Firmly. Quite right. Would you eat your Toyota? Babar the Elephant roams on, free to balloon to exotic locales, free of the encumbrance of that large vat of boiling oil and spices a-la Kiev.

There was drama at Pangkor Laut Resort when a guest decided to make a splash and wouldn’t take no for an answer. The man inquired whether he could swim across to the neighbouring island of Pangkor. The concierge advised him against this but the guest paid no heed. Instead, he took the plunge from the balcony of his villa straight into the sea (the pirate-infested Malacca Straits) and started paddling happily towards his dream island. But the resort’s eagle-eyed staff spotted him midway and promptly sent forth a speed boat to fish him out of the water.

You also hear of hotels giving in to demands that on the surface sound plain irrational. Sala Phuket recounts one incident that caused them much bewilderment: a regular guest wanted the entire property to be kept silent until 2pm. It turned out there was a genuine, personal reason behind the request and the resort did its best to accommodate her.

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No more sissy Swiss army knives please

The Peninsula Tokyo recounts a swashbuckling tale. Perhaps tired of those multi-purpose Swiss army knives that are great at eviscerating edelweiss but simply can't hack a decent coconut tree Swiss Family Robinson style, a “Swiss male guest requested us to forge a one-of-a-kind samurai sword." This was not for dealing with third-rate airline chefs but for his child. "The purpose was to pass it down from generation to generation," the hotel says. More heft than a Patek Philippe watch but a definite eye-popper and ice-breaker.

The guest was apparently "well educated in Japanese history" and utterly familiar with samurai swords. "He then asked us to recommend a dojo [academy] where he could be taught basic sword skills in one day. He received a certificate from the dojo after spending about eight hours there, and completed the training using a real sword." Following this swift graduation the academy put him in touch with a master sword caster and his prize will be on its way to Switzerland in a year or two.

True, every request, big or small, sane or insane, is a test of a hotel’s skill, competence and service. Being able to accomplish all these tasks adds an enviable shine to any establishment’s reputation not to mention the bonus of whispered folklore marketing. But many would concur that these guardians of the front desk are not just doing it for the sake of the job. Rather they are a big-hearted bunch who possess an unconditional willingness to help others, no matter how silly or incredible the demands. And they want to be part of creating that unforgettable moment.

I will fess up I have never tested any concierge in all my travels. I have never misplaced anything valuable while in another country and was never in need of any urgent replacement. And I’m downright sure I will never be able to afford to soar gloriously over the Taj Mahal in a hot-air balloon or commission a ten-metre marble statue.

The most shockingly exceptional request I have put across was inquiring about Christmas Day church service while vacationing in Seoul. Though my query must have bored her to tears, the nice girl at the hotel concierge left no stone unturned. "Catholic or Protestant?" she asked. Was I looking for a church nearby or would it bother me if I had to take the subway. Oh, and did I prefer a service conducted in English or a Korean service with English interpretation provided?

I eventually enjoyed a Protestant Korean service with English interpretation, on Christmas morning. The church was a five-minute stroll away, and I made my way there with the help of a hand-drawn map by yes, that lovely front office lady. Ho-hum guest I may be but this research has set me evilly thinking.

Jack Nargil, head concierge at The Hay-Adams hotel in Washington DC bravely comments, "We always say that if we can't get you a white elephant, perhaps we can get you a pink elephant. The word 'no' really doesn't exist."

Well in that case I'd like my elephant medium rare with mustard on the side.

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