For most viewers, the Society of the Crossed Keys — the secret international society of hotel concierges seen in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ — was a fictional absurdity. But for Brisbane’s Graham Hodgson, it’s a way of life.
Graham, the head concierge at Brisbane’s Emporium Hotel, is the newest member of the exclusive Les Clefs d’Or (The Golden Keys), the real-life society of concierges that inspired The Grand Budapest Hotel (director Wes Anderson reportedly met with members of the society for research purposes). Graham’s acceptance into the exclusive club — there are only 40 members in Australia — makes him Brisbane’s answer to Monsieur Gustave H.
The exhaustive application process required Graham to produce a track record of excellence as a concierge (which meant obtaining letters of support from limousine and taxi companies and restaurant managers); obtain sponsorship from two current Les Clefs d’Or members; and complete an exhaustive interview and exam. Only the best of the best get to wear the society’s distinctive gold crossed keys, and Graham has had to earn that status — he wasn’t exactly born into aristocracy.
“My background is in fast food,” he says. “I had a career with KFC for 12 years, and then I decided that what I enjoyed was the interaction with people and the management of a small team, not the fast food. So I thought, well, maybe I could try hotels! It seemed like a logical choice, so I went to university as a mature age student and I did a Bachelor of Hotel Management at Canberra University. My first job was in a hotel in Canberra as a receptionist, and from there I went to the Hyatt Hotel Canberra, which is Canberra’s premier hotel, and I was there for four years. I started as a porter, and I became concierge.
“Then I met my wife, who lives in Brisbane. We met on an aeroplane. We sat together on a plane from New York to LA and stayed in contact, and now we’re married with a family! So I moved to Brisbane to be with her, and applied for a job at a number of Brisbane hotels. The Emporium Hotel called me up and got me in for an interview, and at the same time, their chief concierge was relocating to Melbourne, so I was successful in getting the chief concierge role here at Emporium having just moved here.”
In the four years since then, Graham has thrown himself completely into Brisbane life — a virtue recognised by Les Clefs d’Or. “What they’re looking for are people who actively get out there and experience their city,” Graham says. “You need to actively demonstrate that you are getting out there and dining and experiencing all that Brisbane has to offer.”
Beyond an active social life, then, what sets a great concierge apart from the rest? For a start, it helps if you’re a people person.
“You’ve got to be able to communicate with people from all walks of life. You’ve got to be able to relate to people and converse and find out what makes them tick by asking questions. By doing that, you can make appropriate recommendations. You also need to be able to manage your team; you do have to have management skills to manage your team of porters. I think the best concierges have a flair, too, a shine in their eye — they’ve got a presence about them. I don’t know if I’ve got that flair, but I think I relate well to the guests.”
Of course, not every guest is that easy to relate to — and some don’t want to be related to.
“You need to acknowledge that not everyone who stays at a hotel is there for a good time. People travel to attend funerals, for example. People travel to attend job interviews. You need to be aware that people aren’t always going to be in a good mood. Someone might have just been fired from their job, so if you walk up to them and say, ‘Hello, how are you going, are you having a nice day?’, they probably just want to be left alone.
“If people are a bit rude, you just don’t take it personally — that’s the key. You accept that they’re having a bad day for whatever reason and you just bite your tongue. I had to do that just this morning, actually. There’s no point getting upset about it, because it will just ruin your day.”
In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Monsier Gustave H calls in favours from his fellow concierges in the Society of the Crossed Keys to stay one step ahead of the law after escaping from prison. Graham probably won’t have to worry about that anytime soon, but there are other perks to wearing the crossed keys.
“It opens up an international network of contacts. The Clefs d’Or motto is ‘Service Through Friendship’, and as a member, I will become friends with the other members around Australia, so if I’ve got guests traveling from here to Sydney or Melbourne or Adelaide or Perth, and they’re looking for somewhere to say, I can pick up the phone to my contact and say, ‘Hey, look, I’ve got XYZ coming to stay, I’ve suggested they stay at your hotel, can you assist them with an airport pick-up? They’d like to go see a show and go to a nice restaurant close by.’
“So there is prestige and an aura around being a member, because those gold crossed keys are internationally recognised… they represent to the hotel guests that the wearer conducts themselves in a certain way, and in a professional manner. They can expect a certain level of service from people who wear the keys.”
The crossed keys are particularly useful in a time when it seems anyone can call themselves a concierge. In much the same way that Gustave H mourned the decline of civility and decorum in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Graham yearns for a time when his profession was a little more exclusive.
“You find ‘concierges’ in shopping centres now, you find them in banks, you find them in car dealerships. This corporate concierge has also become very popular in a lot of large office towers these days. 111 Eagle St is a perfect example. They’ve got a concierge desk on the ground floor, and you’ll find that nine out of 10 people who work at the desk are ex-hotel staff.
“These sorts of ‘concierge’ positions have detracted a little bit from the old school meaning, but those that are in the profession do it because they love it and they’re passionate about it.”
Now that Graham has his gold crossed keys, the next item on his agenda is simple — he needs to find time to watch The Grand Budapest Hotel.
“You know what? I’ve actually got a complimentary ticket to see The Grand Budapest Hotel sitting at home, but I haven’t been to see it yet! I have a young family, which makes finding spare time a bit difficult. I really want to see the movie — I’m going to love it. My colleagues have told me a lot about it, and I think it’ll be a good laugh.”