I was a fan of the 1980s American TV series Hotel, which opened with establishing shots of the legendary San Franciscan hotel The Fairmont. I’ve a great photo of a much younger me and my bestie Lori sipping Bloody Marys in the bar hoping to catch sight of Anne Baxter, James Brolin, or Connie Sellecca.
I loved Wes Anderson’s comedy Grand Budapest Hotel and the antics of concierge Gustave H, played by Ralph Fiennes. I was intrigued by the concept of Les Clefs d’Or (The Golden Keys), a global society representing la crème de la crème of hotel concierges, some 4000 people working in over 80 countries and 530 destinations.
Each of the 4000 members wears twin golden key lapel pins when they’re on duty. That’s how you spot them. Les Clefs d’Or Hungary, established in 1983, has 38 members. These are the elite, the inner circle, the advance guard – the first to be invited to new hotels and restaurants around the country. Membership is difficult to get and can take a long time. Every two years, though, there’s an open competition – Portásverseny – which pits the best of the best against each other, each vying for the honour of wearing the aranykulcsok.
I met with the most recent winner, Bence Molnár, who graciously indulged my curiosity over a coffee in Kolosy tér one evening.
At 19, unsure of what he wanted to do, Molnár attended a career fair in Millenáris. HTMi, Hotel and Tourism Management Institute Switzerland, caught his eye. The idea of being of service, in service, appealed to him. He applied. He was accepted. And he moved to Sörenberg, in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. A truly international setting, the institute had about 200 students from 40 different countries on its books. Alternating study periods with work placement, Molnár soon found his feet.
His first six-month internship was at the Marriott in Zurich. With poor German and his English not nearly as fluent as it is now, he worked in Banqueting, just about as far as he could get from the front desk. His second internship was at Dukes Hotel in London. (I have fond memories of a posh night out beginning with a Cosmopolitan or two at their world-famous cocktail bar.) There he graduated to restaurant and room service. His third internship was a year-long stint at the Four Seasons in Miami on a Food-and-Beverages rotation. ‘The Four Seasons culture is beyond anything else’, he told me. ‘They put their employees first and then their employees take care of their guests.’ The General Manager, who knew all 500 employees, would address him by name if he passed him in the hallway. The strong philosophy and culture of the independent hotel chain that focuses on streamlined elegance and sophisticated luxury, left a lasting impression on Molnár and shaped his career as a concierge.
Back in Hungary after his year stateside, Molnár was doing his damnedest to get back to the USA. But fate intervened. A former teacher from HMTi had started with the Continental Group and invited Molnár to join him at the city’s first boutique hotel, Hotel Parlament. After his initial four-month stint at the 4-star hotel, Molnár moved on to the Group’s next addition, the stunning Hotel Palazzo Zichy. I mentioned that I’d met a British friend who was a regular business visitor to Budapest there for breakfast one morning a number of years back and was very impressed with the offer. Molnár thought for a minute and then mentioned my friend by name.
I was surprised that I was surprised. As concierge, that’s his job. To know everything. Unlike a butler, who follows you around, tending to your every need, as a guest you approach the concierge in the expectation that they’ll know what’s happening and where it’s happening. But as more and more tourists are doing their homework before they arrive and are in less need of help to get around the city, many four-star hotels are blending the role with that of the Front Desk. A separate concierge role remains a requisite in five-star hotels, though, and indeed is a signature of sorts for many.
The 2018 Portásverseny attracted 56 entrants, mainly from 4- and 5-star hotels in the city. More than half were eliminated after the first round, a written test of local and national knowledge, featuring typical questions a concierge might be asked.
Round 2 was a 3-minute roleplay dealing with a very angry, dissatisfied customer, checking out, with a taxi waiting outside. Molnár’s job as concierge was to change his perspective of the hotel. He fessed up, took responsibility, and gave him his card. Simple. Effective. And rarely done.
Seven contestants made it to Round 3, a 20-minute multicharacter roleplay involving a comedy of errors around an Oscar-winning movie star whose coat had come back from the dry cleaners a size larger. I laughed aloud as he recounted the story of what happened. Molnár realised that he shouldn’t promise what he couldn’t deliver, that he didn’t have to come up with a solution. He simply needed to calm everyone down and buy some time. And he did. With style. And with it came his set of golden keys.
Like other professionals I’ve spoken to in the industry, Molnár rues the day when being a waiter became a job and not a passion. ‘There’s a lot of tourist interest in the city and good ideas shaping into hotels and restaurants,’ he said, ‘but there’s no staff to serve. It’s no longer about service, it’s about money, about tips.’ At just 27, Molnár might lack the gravitas of Brolin’s Peter McDermott at the St Gregory Hotel or the worldliness of Ralph Fiennes’ Gustave H, but he is both charming and sincere with an understated sophistication that belies his years. He’s a fine ambassador for the Aranykulcsok and a living embodiment of its motto Baráti körben szolgálni (serving in a circle of friends).
First published in the Budapest Times 14 June 2019