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Smashing the glass ceiling at a Paris ‘palace’

Sonia Papet is the chief concierge at palace hotels in France and forms a tiny elite of women who have entered the traditionally male realm. – AFP pic, July 28, 2014.Sonia Papet is the chief concierge at palace hotels in France and forms a tiny elite of women who have entered the traditionally male realm. – AFP pic, July 28, 2014.As new chief concierge at a top "palace" hotel in Paris, Sonia Papet is part of a tiny elite of women who have entered the traditionally male realm.

She took on the job last month at the prestigious Hotel Le Bristol on the chic rue du Faubourg St Honore, which is decked out with Baccarat crystal chandeliers, Carara marble and Gobelin tapestries and boasts a chef with three Michelin stars.

Few other women have broken through the hospitality glass ceiling.

Last year, Colleen Grant became the first woman to take the top concierge job at a Hastings Hotel Group spa in Northern Ireland. Across the globe in New Zealand, Amelia Patterson became the first female chief concierge in the capital Wellington in 2012.

As one of only two women who are chief concierges at palace hotels in France – the other, Marie-Christiane Grun, works at the Grand Hotel du Cap-Ferrat, on the Riviera – Papet is something of an "ambassador", a colleague said.

The 40-year-old blonde, who wears her hair pulled back in an elegant chignon, says she has not encountered any male chauvinism.

"Whether you are a man or a woman, the qualities of a good concierge are the same: curiosity, general cultural knowledge, and a desire to please," says Papet.

Wearing a black jacket over a silver waistcoat and tie, Papet proudly sports a pair of crossed gold keys on each lapel, a sign of a membership in the Clefs d'Or club of luxury concierges.

The organisation, which has 4,000 members around the world, counts 420 concierges in France of whom only 45 are women.

Dominique Guidetti, the head concierge at the Park Hyatt Paris and the president of the Clefs D'Or in France, says concierges used to start their careers "as hotel grooms, luggage porters, doormen".

Now, he says, that is changing, with many applicants for the job having studied hospitality before coming to work in the top hotels.

Papet herself earned her stripes at The Pierre in New York, Mexico City's Four Seasons and the world-famous George V in Paris, another Four Seasons property, before becoming deputy chief concierge at the Bristol in 2011.

Top-end luxury

The Bristol is one of only 13 luxury hotels in France with the coveted "palace" label accorded by the tourism authorities to five-star properties using criteria, including location, history, comfort and notable amenities such as Michelin-starred restaurants – and of course personalised service, the kind expected from a top-notch concierge.

"The average price of a room at the Bristol is currently €1,400 (RM6,100) a night," said Papet.

"At that price, you cannot make mistakes. You need both impeccable service but also to anticipate the needs of your customers."

That means constantly keeping "abreast of cultural news and being up-to-date on all the new exhibitions, the latest chefs, and the menus of the top restaurants”.

"With the growth of the Internet, our clients no longer really need us to reserve them a table, or book them tickets to a show," says Papet, who oversees a staff of 12.

"Our role is to make sure they have all the details that they might need, so they can be sure of getting a result that they are happy with."

With an ever-more demanding clientele, the number one rule of a concierge in the top hotels, says Papet, is never to let a guest leave unhappy.

"People don't often say that they are unhappy. It's up to us to notice, even if they don't say so very clearly," she said.

Cinderella party

Any outlandish requests or eccentric demands? According to Papet, they are actually quite rare. At the Bristol, she says, celebrities and long-term patrons tend to be fairly discreet.

That said, there has been the odd special challenge: like one client who was planning to pop the question to his girlfriend over lunch and asked for the engagement ring to be delivered by a top jeweller while the pair were having dessert.

"Which is no easy thing," Papet says.

She also recalls organising a helicopter ride to Vaux-le-Vicomte, a baroque chateau south of Paris, and a lunch on the castle terrace with the owner, as a particularly memorable request.

Perhaps even more so was the time she helped organise a 10th birthday party for a girl – who had her heart set on riding in a Cinderella carriage. – July 28, 2014.

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