There's a wealth of perfectly tailored holiday advice waiting just at the desk.
I've always been a little nervous of hotel concierges. Maybe I find uniforms intimidating, or perhaps I've never quite known what I should do with that rather imposing person behind the front desk.
Or perhaps it's because one of my first experiences with a concierge didn't go too well.
Concierges are in the memory-making business ... They love celebrations, special occasions and a challenge.
I lost a notebook in my Paris hotel, but the concierge kept denying it had been found. It was only after a French acquaintance telephoned the concierge on my behalf that I discovered he was expecting a tip to find it. If I handed over 50 francs it would immediately appear.
This made me wary of ever seeking any concierge's advice, lest they demand a fee for it.
But I've discovered in the years since that this behaviour is quite against the concierge's code. Certain hotels outsource their concierge's desk, so occasionally you get people manning the desks who are more interested in a bit of payola than the hotel's reputation.
But the best concierges, while often busy, should never be frosty or dismissive.
Concierges who are part of the international society Les Clefs d'Or, recognised by the golden keys pinned to their lapels, have a motto: "Service through friendship". Concierges work hard for this distinction, which necessitates at least three years behind the concierge's desk, five years in hospitality and first-rate recommendations from other members and hotel management. There's also a rigorous written examination.
Holly Stiel, the author of The Art & Science of the Hotel Concierge, advises that hotel guests shouldn't hesitate to ask concierges for what they really want. "Not only are concierges guardians of your trust, they are miracle workers, with a network of connections worldwide," she says.
Stiel was the first female concierge in the US, at the Grand Hyatt San Francisco. In her career as a concierge, she's known of requests ranging from the repair of a souvenir snow globe to sourcing one hundred vanilla cupcakes to be arranged on the guests' bed spelling out "Will You Marry Me?".
Concierges walk dogs, dash to pharmacies to pick up medicine for sick guests, ship packages, organise itineraries, make reservations, snaffle hard-to-get theatre tickets, procure missing garments or – in the case of one child – arrange for a staff member to drive a five-hour round trip to retrieve a toy bunny left at home.
Concierges in less salubrious hotels also keep a book of escorts for the lonely traveller.
Concierges are in the memory-making business, according to Stiel. They love celebrations, special occasions and a challenge. Don't be shy about asking, she says. But do be specific in your objectives. Don't ask, "What is there to do around here?", but give details of what you like, how much time you have, and so on.
Keep your expectations realistic. No matter how ritzy the hotel or how shiny the golden keys, even the most well-connected concierge can't get you into that white-hot new restaurant with a couple of hours' notice, or get tickets to a Broadway premiere. "Concierges will bend over backwards to fulfil their guests' dreams, but when they seriously advise against pursuing an idea, it's a good idea to trust them."
And when things go wrong, don't start demanding or accusing. It might only get their hackles up. Ask, nicely, "How can we both solve this problem?", and you're more likely to get a result. Don't throw a phone at them, as a certain actor once did.
I've begun to trust the concierge desk and now head straight for it after I've checked in. Concierges have bought me medicine when I've been too ill to get out of bed and used their own money to change currency for me when I've been stuck. When asking for suggestions for a restaurant or activity, I always ask, "Where do you and your friends go?". I make it clear I don't want the kind of place where they might usually send their more conservative guests.
As for tipping, Stiel says it's always appreciated but not a necessity. Only tip after outstanding service and never tip before. She suggests $20 if the concierge has gone out of his or her way to secure a reservation you couldn't have secured yourself; $50-100 if they've helped plan an entire stay; about $20 if you've availed yourself of the services several times during your stay.
Make it clear the tip is exclusively for that concierge, in case they pool tips.
Now I know.