March 26, 2018
With over 100 years of history, a prime location near Prešeren Square, a beautiful Art Nouveau building, and four stars, you’d expect things to be special at the Grand Hotel Union, and you’d be right. However, despite the large size and high reputation of the hotel where he works, Blaž Sok is convinced it’s the details that matter. And he knows the business well, having worked at the hotel for just over 10 years.
I first met Sok about 18 months ago, and if anything he’s now even more enthusiastic about his work, the hotel and Ljubljana than he was then, and with good cause. As we sit down for this interview it’s a little over two months since he and his colleague, Gregor, became the first members of Les Clefs D’Or in Slovenia, and the first-fully booked night of the season, the start of all the excitement, and thus his phone rings and buzzes several times during our conversation – there’s always something to be done – but we soon settle into a quick and easy chat about his work before the next thing on his endless to-do list gets crossed off.
Tell me about joining Les Clefs D’Or.
Well, now we’re full, affiliated members of Les Clefs D’Or in Austria. The motto is “Service Through Friendship”. When we first contacted them Gregor and I went to Austria, because there’s nothing like that here. We met a lot of concierges, visited some hotels, and even met the president of the group for the area, and that was the first step, back in May 2016.
It’s a long procedure to become a member. First you have to work as a concierge for two years, and before that you must have worked behind the front desk for five years. But I’ve been here for ten years now. For three and a half years I was a bellboy, then I was on the reception desk, and then I became a concierge.
You have to have a full contract as a concierge for two years, and then the President from Les Clefs D’Or in Austria comes to visit you at work. So he came here and saw the hotel, asked some questions. And they probably also sent some hidden guests, who come along to test us.
If everything is OK, then the application is sent to the board, all of whom have to approve it. Then if oyu pass you get the golden keys on your jacket, and that’s a sign. If you’re the kind of person who travels a lot, especially if you stay in good hotels, then you’ll recognize this. Not only all over Europe, but all over the world. I think there are 4,000 members now, from around 50 countries and 150 destinations.
Blaž and Gregor. Photo: Marko Delbello Ocepek
How many members are there in Slovenia?
Two, me and Gregor. So becoming a member was a big deal, not just for us or the hotel, but for Ljubljana, and Slovenia. It put us on the map.
And what does this mean for guests?
Let me put it this way: if it’s legal, moral and within the guest’s budget, then I can arrange pretty much anything. Just saying “no” to a guest isn’t acceptable. If I have to say no, then I always offer something else.
In some ways my job is waiting for people to ask for something, but that’s only part of it. A concierge is also someone who connects the various departments of the hotel. If a guest wants something then maybe I need to see the housekeeping department, or go to the breakfast room.
Moreover, if I’m working with a VIP guest then it’s my job to make sure that everything is how they want it even before they check-in, so I go to the room and check things. And I’ll do some research, like how can I get in touch with their assistant, so I can know when they’ll arrive and make sure, for example, that the barriers in front of the hotel are down and they can come directly to the entrance.
This is really the essence of Les Clefs D’Or, in the details. Anyone can do the check-in, check-out, and all the staff do a great job here, but as a concierge you have to go further, because every guest is a king or queen, no matter whether they’re paying 500 or 100 euros a night. My job is just to ensure that we can reach the maximum standard of service for everyone who stays here.
Postcard of the Grand Hotel Union, 1915. Wikimedia
Do people need to pay extra for this service, and what kind of things do people want?
No, unless we arrange something, pay for it and the guest then cancels, then there will be fee, but in general, no.
Some of the more common things guests want are a special trip to be arranged, or a limousine, a special dinner, or they want to propose to their girlfriend while on vacation, but really anything you can imagine we’ve been asked to do, at some time or another. Part of my job is knowing how to get things done, but for the more unusual requests we may need a day to arrange things, say for a custom tour, where I need to find the driver, the guide, and so on.
Now the season is starting we’ll get more requests for private trips, restaurants, opera, theatre, tourist things – these are the most common, I’d say.
As for the unusual, we recently had a guest who wanted seven graphics cards for mining Bitcoin. Gregor and I looked into it, and we soon found out that it’s hard to get them anywhere in the world. It took us two hours, but we got them. Each card cost 1,200 euros, and then when everything was arranged the guest confirmed it, then half an hour later they called back and cancelled. So for that there was charge.
Another story I should mention was last year was when we had a special guest, Mr Chuck Norris. Now Mr Norris is an icon, of course, so it meant a lot for me and Gregor to work with him, and he had a few special requests. He wanted an adaptor for some electronics, so he could plug in his American devices here. It was Sunday evening, and all the stores were closed, but I called my father and luckily he had one, so I rushed home and got it.
Today the area is mostly pedestiranised. Photo: Grand Hotel Union's Facebook
How do you keep organised?
Well, when I started working the hotel I wasn’t so organised, but this job has changed me. It’s all about schedules, so all the important guests, the requests, the details, it’s all written down and we can access it online – Excel, Calendar, and so on. We have files on regular guests and requests, as well as on the more unusual things, which can be interesting to go back and read.
Being organised is one of the most important things, and it’s getting easier and easier, as we get more experience, and so I just have this list of things to do, and then work my way through it every day.
Maybe that sounds boring, but it’s not, because what I like about this job is that every day is different. When I come to work I never know what the day will bring, because maybe only 30% is routine. This is something I love about being a concierge, and also when a guest says goodbye to me, and says how much they enjoyed their stay. This is what really motivates me, and that’s important.
The spa at the hotel. Photo: Grand Hotel Union's Facebook
Is it stressful?
Of course. Sometimes you have three or four guests all making demands at the same time, and that can be very stressful, but you don’t show it, you just deal with the situation. I’ve been working here 10 years, so I know how things are.
What do you like to do on days off?
In my free time I like walking nature, in Golovec. But at the weekend, if I have no other plans, then I spend 3 or 4 hours walking around the centre and seeing what’s new – a restaurant, store or exhibition. I need to know everything that’s going on, because that makes it much easier. I don’t need to turn to the Internet, because it’s all in my head.