You know a hotel has made it when it is named in the dictionary and people start writing songs about it. Of course, we’re talking about The Ritz London. And when it comes to Putting on the Ritz, the property’s Head Concierge Michael de Cozar is in a class of his own.
Whether Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts are hogging the lobby for a movie, British royalty is visiting or a rock star is arguing that his attire is smart casual, de Cozar is always cool, discreet and ready for just about any situation a guest might present him with. He knows where London ticks the loudest, how to get into a sold-out show or find a table in a fully booked restaurant. He is part of a worldwide concierge brotherhood that knows how to make things happen, and he certainly knows how to keep a secret.
Recently, de Cozar took a rare coffee break in the sumptuous Ritz Palm Court to speak with us and tell us of love for the Princess of Piccadilly and his dedication to what he considers the best job in the world.
JustLuxe: Your work here is truly a lifetime vocation. How did it come about?
Michael de Cozar: Three members of my family have worked at The Ritz London. My father worked here for 27 years, he worked in room service and then progressed to banqueting. My brother Louis has worked here for 30 years, starting as a cloakroom attendant, then moving to the Ritz Restaurant and now a member of the luggage team. He is a very strong man!
I started working here when I left school. I would assist my dad in room service and help him set up the tables. Then I met the head concierge at the time and he offered me the opportunity to work as a permanent pageboy. I left school and started working here in July 1973. That was my first job straight from school and I have been here ever since. I worked as a pageboy for four years, became a junior concierge until I was 24 and then I was lucky enough to get the position of head concierge. I was very young for such a senior post as most of my peers were twice my age or sometimes even more. It was very daunting but I didn’t run, I walked, and changed things gradually.
JL: In the film Grand Budapest Hotel the main character manages to escape through the concierge fellowship known as the Society of Crossed Keys. Is there in fact a concierge association in the UK and elsewhere?
MdC: Most certainly. I have been a member of the Society of The Golden Keys for almost 36 years. Last year I received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the society. As they say in the Grand Budapest film, “That’s what we do…that’s our contacts.” If anybody needs a favor in any country worldwide our association is everywhere. We have annual gatherings from all continents, annual awards and meetings every month. We keep in touch with all of our colleagues worldwide. If anybody calls me I will help in any way I can.
JL: Have you met Ralph Fiennes, who starred as the concierge?
MdC: I may have. We are very discreet about the clients that visit our hotel.
JL: How do you and your colleagues manage to remember guests’ names?
MdC: It’s something that I do because it means a lot to me. I am 58 years old and I remember every single number that I deal with and I remember a face. The more you practice it, the easier it is. Some people rely on computers but I don’t. It saves time to remember these things.
For example, I know all of the numbers of our local contacts [at] restaurants, salons [and] shops. We don’t have a lot of time at the desk, so we have to be quick. If I see a face I remember their room number so I can have their key ready to hand them before they even request it.
JL: Tell us about some of the requests you’ve received?
MdC: There was an important business meeting being hosted in the hotel and one of the attendees’ shoelaces happened to break. He asked me to give him a new lace but it had to be round and jet black to match his shoes. So I used my initiative and thought on my feet and literally gave him my shoe lace which matched perfectly. It was a talking point at their board meeting, that the Head Concierge of The Ritz London gave his shoe lace away. Could you call that thinking on your feet?
Another strange request was during my first Christmas spent working at the hotel and a guest requested to have a bath, but not just any bath. He wanted sea water from Brighton. Now that’s 50 miles from London, but I asked one of my team to drive to Brighton and collect a few buckets of sea water. The guest later told me he had family in Brighton, and this special bath totally made his Christmas.
But the most elaborate request I have ever had was when I was asked if I knew of any wartime battleships for sale. Through various contacts I found one, and my guest has since renovated it with a bowling alley, basketball court, swimming pool and putting green for his seventeen grandchildren to play in. We get all kinds of requests: a drawing pin, a battleship, helicopter or a bus. That’s what we do, it’s our contacts.
JL: What are the most common requests?
MdC: That would be about shopping in London. People ask for Harrods, Fortnum & Masons, Selfridges and the main shopping streets. Everyone loves Bond Street and gentlemen like Saville Row for their bespoke suits. People want to go to the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace when they are open. Daily, I get the same question: “How can we get in, Michael?” about The Ritz afternoon tea. This is so popular we are booked up months in advance.
My suggestion for the perfect day is English breakfast, watch the changing of the guards, afternoon tea at The Ritz London, a theater show and then a nice restaurant within walking distance. You need to ask the guest what they are after. There are certain times of the year when you get asked for different ticket requests for the top attraction at the time [such as the] Chelsea Flower Show, Wimbledon or key sporting events.
JL: Although The Ritz offers wonderful hospitality, guests must often ask your advice on competing London restaurants. What do you tell them?
MdC: If they are going to the theater and want to go somewhere afterwards, give the guest a couple of choices within walking distance. The problem is whatever capital in the world, if you get a drop of rain and you don’t have a chauffeur driven car outside, it is always difficult to get a taxi to get to a restaurant. So I always try to advise a restaurant within walking distance so they don’t have too long to walk and you have two or three different choices.
Again, it is about asking the right questions. There are certain people who will only eat in Michelin star restaurants. The challenge is once you have recommended a restaurant you then have to get them booked in, some restaurants have to be booked far in advance. Our own restaurant is very difficult to book especially on a Friday or Saturday when it is Live at The Ritz. Everyone wants to try the latest restaurants so you have to keep up with new openings. I get job satisfaction from feedback from the clients and hearing they had a great evening.
JL: What are the top three attributes of a top concierge?
MdC: I would suggest a good memory, contacts and good communication skills. You have to be a leader amongst your colleagues. You want people to follow your example so you have to be on your best behavior. You need to have a willingness to learn. I have been here 42 years and I still don’t know everything, I am always learning something new. I am proud for a pageboy to tell me something that I was not aware of and I praise them for the knowledge.
JL: Do you ever take a holiday or day off, checking out how your competitors handle guests?
MdC: I love to go to really fine hotels, but I like to go unannounced so they don’t know who I am and I can see it for myself. I want to see what the client gets rather than have the establishment go over the top. It is often difficult though, to go unnoticed as I usually see people I have worked with or been associated with through my work.
JL: How do you keep abreast of new developments in London that will be of interest to leisure and business guests?
MdC: We are kept well informed with emails and invitations to attend anything new that is opening. When I drive into work, I listen to the radio. I know the sports scores, the weather and what the pound and dollar are doing. I have already done my homework for the day. London newspapers highlight new openings, perhaps a city restaurant you would never have heard of but which might come in handy that very day.
JL: I imagine you need a smattering of many languages. How many do you have?
MdC: I can speak five languages. I speak English and I am originally Spanish and I also speak Italian, Portuguese and a bit of French. I get by with a bit of Greek. It is part of my job to communicate with everyone so I try to learn the basics in other languages such as Japanese and Chinese.
JL: Can you imagine a better role or a better hotel?
MdC: No I can’t. The Ritz is the name in hotels. What I love about it is the tradition, our uniforms and our white gloves. I promised my father I would work here for 50 years and after 42 years, I am on course.