Budget Travel

Confessions of a Lifetime Hotel Concierge

Concierges meet a lot of people, see a lot of things, and field a lot of intriguing requests. We checked in with a woman in Washington, D.C., who's seen the world from her desk in a hotel lobby.

Cynthia Van Zandt has seen a lot from behind her desk—guests panicked because of lost luggage, couples euphoric from a recent engagement, families excited for a graduation ceremony, businessmen and women anxiously on their way to give career-making presentation. As concierge at Sofitel Washington DC Lafayette Square for 11 years (and other hotels for several years before that) she’s met—and helped out—people from all over the planet. How, you ask? Let us count the ways. She’s zoomed to the airport to deliver a left-behind iPad, and tracked down where to buy catheters and rare European game meat. She’s made such an impact throughout her career that she was awarded membership in the Les Clefs d’Or, a national professional society of hotel concierges that only accepts people based on recommendations. Ask Cynthia about her work, and she will tell you how lucky she feels, how there’s never been a doubt in her mind that she made the right career choice in her life. She’ll also tell you that it comes with intense challenges.

“I’ve always worked in fancy hotels, but the job isn’t as glamorous as some might think. It’s the hardest profession there is," she says. "You have to love people and love taking care of people. You’re seeing them at all of their moments, high and low.” We checked in (no pun intended) with Cynthia to get the skinny on some of her more memorable moments and astonishing feats she pulled off.

1. A Wizard in Disguise

One morning, two little boys and their parents were checking in. They had clearly never been to a hotel before, and they were trying to grasp what it meant to have access to the comforts of home while they were so far away from home. Cynthia greeted them, explained that she could help them if they got hungry or if they wanted an extra pillow. She could help them get anyplace and answer any questions about where to go in the city.

“So, you’re like a wizard?” the boy asked matter-of-factly. Cynthia still laughs when she tells that story.

2. Baby’s Very First Hotel Stay

Cynthia has met no shortage of couples on their honeymoon in the nation’s capital. Babymoons are a tad less common. A young pair was visiting from Europe, their final trip as a party of two. Soon after, they returned to D.C. as a party of three and checked in again. To welcome them back, she gave them a toddler-size Sofitel bathrobe. They thanked her and went on their way. Less than two years later, they emailed her a photo of the baby all dolled up in the robe. “It was so lovely to know that they remember us. I had to take a minute,” she said wistfully.

3. A Last-Minute Valentine’s Day Triumph

Few days of the year are busier for the hotel industry than Valentine’s Day. One year, a high-rolling man wanted to surprise his girlfriend, but he made the unfortunate mistake of waiting to the last minute to figure out how to do that. Well, in a rookie’s hands it would have been unfortunate. But Cynthia did not balk when, at 4:30 p.m., he asked for his room to be filled with 1,000 red roses. By that point in the afternoon of Valentine’s Day, it’s slim pickings for flowers in any city. But Cynthia’s connections run deep and wide, and within 30 minutes, the roses were delivered and his room transformed into a romantic fantasy world.

4. Detective Work

A good concierge never reveals her secrets. If you don’t believe us, just ask Cynthia about the time a family that was staying at the hotel for their son’s graduation from George Washington University. The parents asked her to get hold of the graduate's kindergarten picture for a celebration they were throwing for him. And get hold of it she did. “The world is much smaller than we think,” she said in response to us asking her how. “You just have to do a little detective work and be creative in your thinking.”

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