At your service: working at the Shelbourne

It’s not glamorous, and it’s hard work, but at least Conor Pope discovers how to get an upgrade when he goes behind the scenes, and front of house, at the Shelbourne Hotel


‘Remember my name; remember what I like; remember how I like it; make it happen fast, and say thank you,” barks the man I know only as JD. We are standing in a cramped, windowless room behind one of the most lavish hotel receptions in the country and I am wondering why he is talking to me like a character pulled from the pages of some dodgy S&M novel.

JD softens his tone and tells me these are the five steps I need to take to reach service excellence standard in the Shelbourne Hotel. I start to worry. I have a terrible memory and won’t remember the thank yous, never mind the names of the people I will be serving. I am also a tiny bit clumsy. I keep all this to myself.

JD hands me Nuacht, a 13-page stapled newsletter stuffed with information about upcoming company events, inspirational can-do messages and, most importantly, the names of all the guests checking in in the hours ahead. As the Shelbourne’s guest relations manager, he spent last night poring over today’s check-in details. With the help of Google, LinkedIn and various booking websites, he has listed all incoming guests and highlighted those among them who might be “influencers” – important people we will need to work extra hard to impress today.

I hope I don’t meet any influencers – I don’t feel very impressive. It is very early and my Shelbourne Identity is struggling to come together. I have failed to tie my tie properly, I don’t have a white handkerchief – does anyone? – and in the half light of dawn I couldn’t find the “black business socks” I was ordered to wear.

JD fixes my tie, hands me a hanky and gets me breakfast. I am suddenly seven again. As we head to the breakfast room I get ready for a treat. This is a five-star hotel after all. But what comes next is no treat. There is no crispy bacon, no plump sausages, no beautifully grilled tomatoes or lightly sautéed mushrooms. All the staff canteen has are cornflakes, thin white bread and the worst coffee I have ever tasted.

We eat downmarket and talk upgrading. “The upgrades are all done before the guests arrive and I decide who gets them,” he says, shattering my illusion that I can charm the receptionist into giving me a suite. “Ultimately it comes down to how much you pay and how long you stay. If you are staying one night and have paid a premium, you have a better chance,” he says. “I also like to highlight those who have booked through Tripadvisor. If they come through there, there’s a good chance they’ll post feedback afterwards, so we may as well try to wow them.”

I make a mental note to book all my hotels through that site in future. It is a note I will never remember.

As I eat my toast morosely, I catch a glimpse of a notice board draped with fairy lights. It is the Good Ideas board. This is where staff post money-making or money-saving ideas. Each month management sift through around 40 entries and the best notion wins €1,000.

Recent winners are scribbled on the board. Some are blindingly obvious. “Open a gym and spa” won one staff member the cash, while another walked away with the prize for suggesting that people on reception upsell breakfasts. The hotel’s three course super-fast supper which is served in the Lord Mayor’s lounge came from the box, as did its new jazz brunch.

One idea is particularly brilliant. A junior front-of-houser suggested that the constantly revolving conveyor-belt toaster in the staff room be replaced with a regular toaster. Simple, right? It saves the company €8,000 a year in reduced energy costs. The new toast is horrible mind you.

JD and I take a turn in the hotel lobby. We walk through smiling and saying hello to everyone and we gracefully spring to the assistance of those who look like they need it.

Well, I say we . . .

I see an old lady walking towards the revolving doors at the entrance. Helpfully, I point to the side door. She looks at me like I have murdered her cat and am offering its entrails to her as a breakfast treat.

“I know there is a side door. I am quite familiar with it, in fact,” she scowls. I’m about to blurt out: “I was only trying help you, old crone” when I remember where I am and who I am supposed to be. It is a lucky escape. It’d be awful to be sacked in the first hour. I’d have missed all the bag carrying then.

Bag carrying is a big part of my job and it quickly becomes apparent that Americans come with more baggage than Twink and have learned the art of packing from dowager aunts who crossed the Atlantic on regal liners in the early part of the 20th century. They could do with Michael O’Leary putting manners on them, frankly. They spill out of taxis with ridiculous amounts of higgledy piggledy luggage, which I have to neatly stack on heavy brass trollies which cost €7,000 a pop. For that kind of money you’d think they’d have power steering. They don’t.

Dealing with bags and valet cars is straightforward and I grow in confidence until I develop an unfortunate verbal tick. There is a 15/5 rule here. If I am between 15 and five feet from a guest I’m supposed to greet them and if I’m five feet away I’m supposed to offer them assistance. Instead of saying “Good morning” I start saying “Howaya”.

When JD hears this, he has conniptions. I promise it won’t happen again, but it does, over and over again. I can’t stop with the howayas and every time I hear myself say it, I do a JD flinch and follow the flinch with an audible “damn it”. Then I flinch more. The only thing missing from this Homer Simpsonesque tableau is a “Doh”.

There’s dough in the kitchen though and that’s where I am sent next. I’m shown to the dessert station where head pastry chef Kate McLoughlin is waiting. She creates hundreds of little works of art every day. I marvel at her finesse as I struggle to put tiny pieces of fruit onto creamy fancies and she tells me: “It is not that hard really. All it takes is practice. It’s hard to recover when things go wrong though.”

Tell me about it.

When our desserts are done, I wheel the ornate sweet cart into the hotel bar. All eyes turn to me. I have never been looked at with quite so much longing in a bar before. It is amazing. When I abandon the cart I become depressingly invisible.

This hotel has a storied past, although its golden age, when James Cagney, Maureen O’Hara, John Wayne, Grace Kelly, Laurel and Hardy, Taylor and Burton, Jack and Jackie, Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth routinely came through its revolving doors, is most likely behind it.

Hitler’s brother Alois worked here too, incidentally. The hotel is less boastful about that.

My kitchen duties are done and I’m off to the flower shop. Three months ago Mary O’Reilly started work as the Shelbourne’s first in-house florist and in week one she had to arrange all the bouquets for Flotus. Michelle, Sasha and Malia Obama stayed in the Princess Grace suite while Barack was up at the G8 in Lough Erne in June. That must have been exciting? “Well, we saw her legs at the top of the stairs once,” O’Reilly says. Right.

She gets some unusual floral requests from demanding guests but there are none today. The most extravagant order comes from a chap who wants rose petals spread all over his duvet – to impress someone else, I hope. This is a new service the hotel offers and while a bed of romantic roses is well and good, it’s also kind of messy. I can’t help wondering what happens after the duvet’s deflowered. Will the loved-up couple sleep on the foliage or will they sweep the petals under the carpet? These are thorny questions that I need answered. O’Reilly can’t help me though.

It is past noon and I’m starving. Luckily there are cookies at reception. I eat one. They are great. JD thinks it’s far from great that I am eating them. We are not allowed to eat the cookies. We are not allowed to use our mobile phones. We can’t chew gum. Or lounge. We have to be always on, always smiling and always willing to help. It is tiring. And it is not me.

I have a rest at the staff briefing given by the hotel’s general manager Stephen Hanley. The Shelbourne is now part of the Marriot chain which employs more than 10,000 people in countries all over the world, so understanding cultural distinctions is clearly important. The briefing is unintentionally hilarious. The 40 of us are taken on a whistle stop tour of the world’s faiths and we are told that Christian houses of worship are called churches and Christmas is a big deal with those people. Muslims frown on alcohol consumption, while Jews don’t eat pork and Hindus don’t care for beef. The briefing ends with atheists. We learn that their “eating habits vary greatly based on their personal preferences”. Who knew?

For nearly three years Hanley has been at the helm of what Terence de Vere White once described as “the archetypal hotel, built at a time when people understood the souls of hotels and theatres and public houses”, and he has worked hard to save the Shelbourne’s soul. His aim is to restore this hotel to preeminence in Ireland. “Being able to add 100 staff in times like this is great,” he tells me on our lunch break. “Occupancy has grown by 20 per cent in three years and is now around 90 per cent year round, while our rates have gone up by the same amount.”

A €100 million refurbishment is now complete and the Grand Old Lady of the Green hasn’t looked as sprightly in more than a century. It’s not all plain sailing though, and the hotel is more deeply in debt than Downton Abbey. I ask if it is in Nama, as I have heard repeatedly that the hotel is tied up with the property agency. He couldn’t be more adamant. “No, never” he says and we move on.

To the Obama visit: he plays it down. “Everything went without a hitch and after it was over it was a bit of an anti-climax,” he says. “In the run-up we had meeting after meeting with embassy staff and just when we thought everything was in place, we had another round of meetings. Nothing was left to chance.”

Hanley met the First Lady and presented her with a 1926 copy of Ulysses and a copy of the Constitution which was drafted in Room 112 by Michael Collins and his fellow Free Staters in 1922.

The rare copy of Ulysses was sourced by Dennis O’Brien (no, not that one). Dennis is the concierge. He’s a real Mr Fixit. “My main strength is my contacts,” he tells me. “I have been 26 years in this business and while I may not be able to guarantee a guest a table at Chapter One with an hour’s notice, at least I know Declan – the restaurant manager there – well enough to give him a ring. If he can possibly accommodate me, he will.”

Dennis is discreet, too discreet for my liking and he won’t divulge the peccadilloes of any of the famous people he has sorted things out for. He’s disappointingly discreet about shenanigans in the Horseshoe Bar, too. For decades the Horseshoe was at the centre of much intrigue in Ireland and a place where “women with a past met men with no future”. All the drama and all the late night assignations (and drunkenness) have switched to the front of the hotel and now standing room is hard to find in the L-shaped Number 27 bar most nights. It may be buzzing, but some of the magic is gone.

I go back to work. JD is talking earnestly to his assistant. Something important, no doubt. “I need you to get me some Maltesers, some Partegas and a can of beer,” he tells her. A very special guest is checking in later. He has spent more than 700 nights in the Shelbourne since 2007 and because of his loyalty he is getting two of his favourite things – Cuban cigars and Maltesers. The beer is for another guest.

I am sent back to the door and given a top hat and tails. I look more Charlie Chaplin than Great Gatsby. A couple come out and ask for directions to Dunne & Crescenzi. I know the Italian restaurant well, but my mind goes blank. Rather than say I don’t know, I point vaguely down Kildare Street. They want me to be more specific, so I am. Specific and quite wrong. They’re probably still looking for the place today. Sorry.

I retreat to the staff room where I read that the four keys to a high guest rating are room cleanliness, room maintenance, breakfast and the internet service. “The internet is not something that will bring someone to the hotel, but if it is not there, they will miss it,” JD says.

JD doubles as the butler for the Princess Grace Suite. Tomorrow night someone will shell out €2,500 to stay in the suite. For one night only. So we have to get it ready. Well, I say we, but JD is all over it. He puts the flowers in place, checks the Nespresso pods, fluffs pillows and stocks the free bar. I carry a tray.

When the suite is occupied tomorrow he’ll be on 24-hour call. Before then, he has much to do and he needs me out of his hair. He hands me my cards and as we stand in the lobby we make idle chit chat.

“My great, great, great, great grandfather was Charles Dickens,” one of us says. It is not me. I am flabbergasted.

JD Flynn is a direct descendent of one of the finest novelists the English language has ever seen? And he mentions it only in passing? His colleagues don’t even know. Well, they might now.

I hope he didn’t have any great expectations of me as a colleague and whether he thought it was the best of times or the worst of times, I can’t say for sure, but I’m pretty certain it’s still the age of The Shelbourne.

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