This month’s hero of the hospitality world is none other than William Thomson, Head Concierge at The Macdonald Randolph Hotel. He was recognised for his exemplary work in 2016, when he was awarded the Young Concierge of the Year award by the prestigious Society of the Golden Keys of Great Britain and the Commonwealth. Here he is in conversation with Toby Hambly.
You wanted to be a butler when you were younger – What drew you to service and hospitality from that young age?
I have wanted to be a help to others for as long as I can remember. I’ve always loved the idea of fixing problems for people whilst being well groomed and traditionally dressed in a tailored uniform. I don’t know where these aspirations began, but I do remember my wonderful grandmother introducing me to the idea of being a butler for the Royal Family. Maybe we had been watching Upstairs Downstairs and it stuck! Anyway, she encouraged me to research the Guild of Butler School, which I did, and it fanned the flames of my enthusiasm for a career in service.
For any readers that don’t know, could you give us an idea of what comes under your remit as Head Concierge at the Randolph?
Known affectionately as ‘The Grand Old Lady’ The Randolph Hotel is an incredible Oxford institution. It promises high standards and therefore the front-of-house team must be on top form day and night. As Head Concierge, it is my job to ensure our guests need for nothing during their stay. We anticipate our guests’ arrivals, welcome them to the hotel, and ensure a luxurious yet home-from-home experience. We are on call 24 hours a day to ensure any request is dealt with in a timely manner. My team represents Oxford’s only active ‘Les Clefs d’Or’ Concierge desk, so it is vital we are up-to-date with what’s happening in the city and are able to deliver bespoke experiences for our guests and visitors to this beautiful city. The Concierge motto is ‘In Service Through Friendship’ which means that I can call upon my fellow concierges from around the world to aid with any of my guest’s requests and likewise for them. We are connected from one desk to another and our goal is to provide ‘service magic’ to guests far and wide.
What was your route to becoming Head Concierge and did you have any mentors that helped you along the way?
When I left school, I joined catering school in East Yorkshire and achieved qualifications through the NVQ curriculum program. Whilst studying, I took a part time job in the finest hotel in the area and was mentored throughout my education by my Head Chef, Mr Paul Fox, or as I knew him, ‘One’. I was the only one in my year who graduated with all three years catering and hospitality.
A week later my wonderful lecturer, Mr Dave Leaf, called me and asked, “Do you want to move to Oxfordshire and work for a previous student of mine who is now a General Manager of a hotel owned by the Macdonald hotels family?” I agreed and soon arrived in the historic town of Woodstock to begin my career at the Bear Hotel. My General Manager at the time, spotting that I was happier front of house than in the kitchen, encouraged me to expand my horizons and dedicate my career to the area which I loved – dealing with people.
I was introduced to the new role of Concierge at the Bear when the General Manager was tasked to improve the hotel’s star rating from three to four. One of the requirements to achieve this goal was to introduce a Concierge service. My world opened to this amazing opportunity and I have never looked back.
What’s the typical day in the life of a Concierge? Or is there no such thing?
There’s no such thing as a typical day. One of the great things about being a Concierge is how our activities are entirely driven by the needs of our guests. As you can imagine in a large five star hotel, these are many and varied. One of my Concierge mentors, Mr Paul Still always says to me to remember, “You always learn something every day and you always achieve something daily, no matter how big or small.”
What the significance of the golden keys on your lapel and what does it take to wear them?
The golden keys signify unity within a family of Concierges across the world. With only 4,000 golden key members across the world, it is a very prestigious honour to wear them and be part of a network all working towards the same goals – guest satisfaction, charity giving and support of one another.
In order to wear the keys, you must actively work in a four or five star hotel for a minimum of five years in a role as a Concierge. Following on from this, if you are ready, you will need to apply with all relevant documentation, nominations from two active Les Clefs d’Or members, followed by an intense interview by the section President and committee members. This is a daunting process but necessary for the opportunity to be considered to join the elite family of Concierges in Great Britain and across the world.
What have you learnt about yourself and people in general through your profession?
That I really can’t rest until I find a solution for whatever the guest requires. This does require a degree of obsessiveness! I believe if you have not made a positive impact to a guest’s stay, then you really have not achieved the goal of a concierge. Networking, both internally with the team at the Randolph, as well as with peers in the business and local area, is an integral part of my role and the role of all in hospitality. So, you very quickly learn about whom you can call upon for help – and where best not to waste your time.
You must have to stay abreast of Oxford’s evolving scene so that you make the best recommendations to your guests – does this make it a 24/7 sort of job?
Hospitality in general can be a 24/7 sector, and if you are aiming for high standards, it only increases the pressure to be on your toes constantly. Luckily, I’m very active socially and I am constantly networking to stay up-to date with what’s happening locally. Oxford is a constant whirlwind of change, hotel clientele change, as do their requirements so yes – it’s a full on role. Oxford continues to deliver great service as a city, and the Randolph sits proudly at the forefront of this change.
Without naming names, what are some of the most memorable requests you and your team have delivered on?
We have had some high-profile guests in the past who have required getting them into the hotel without being spotted. This required imagination, creativity and the support of all my team to achieve. I’m no makeup artist; however with the help of fluffy towels, one doorman’s coat, heavy eye shadow and a top hat, anything can be achieved. Did I also mention that discretion is central to a concierge’s many qualities?
William’s dos and don’ts of great service
Listen for what is being asked of you
Lead by example
Surprise and delight
Show absolute discretion
Find a solution
Give incorrect information
Lose your temper