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A CONCIERGE IS A TRAVELER'S BEST FRIEND

Cynthia Reid, chief concierge, pauses behind her gilded desk in the lobby of the Huntington Hotel for a much deserved quiet moment.

It's barely 9:30 a.m. and she's already found tickets to a show sold out for the next four months, hired a chauffeured Rolls to carry a pair of honeymooners to the theater and located a secretary fluent in English, French and Hindi for an international businessman. She also replaced a stuffed platypus for a tearful child who left one on an airplane on arrival from Sydney.The highlight of her career, she says, was helping a guest orchestrate an elaborate marriage proposal.

"I arranged a limousine to pick up his girlfriend and chauffeur her across the Golden Gate Bridge," she recalls. "Mid-span, the driver played a video proposal. When the surprised young lady accepted, the driver brought her here. Champagne and a bower of flowers awaited. It was very romantic."

The couple's name?

"The relationship of concierge and guest is confidential," Reid says. "Like that of doctor and patient."

What, exactly, is a concierge? The French word means caretaker. The origins are obscure, but since the Middle Ages the concierge has been keeper of the keys in castles, palaces and manor houses. He received visitors, supervised protocol, kept records of where important guests were lodged and attended to their personal needs.

In European hotels, the concierge is a long-standing tradition, providing guests with special services ranging from travel arrangements to restaurant reservations, from receiving packages to sending clothes to be laundered.

The service-oriented Four Seasons Hotel chain claims to have introduced the concierge to North America in 1970. At present, most upscale hotels have them, but some guests are intimidated - until they catch on to the benefits.

According to Wolf Hengst, a vice president of operations at Four Seasons, a concierge is a tireless over-achiever who works compulsively to satisfy his guests' every need. They eat stress for lunch, often sharing the repast with a global network of well-placed contacts.

Hengst says the chain's "Private Concierge Network" has taken the service to new levels.

"It enables guests, even those who visit infrequently, to use our concierges as private secretaries, even from a distance," he says. "For example, a guest who lives in London and stayed with us in Houston may call our concierge in Toronto to ask that roses be sent to friends staying at another local hotel, or that prescription eyeglasses be obtained for a home-bound relative. The charge is only the cost of the flowers or the eyeglasses."

Service should be round the clock. At Westin's Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, Hiroko Dreyfus, a Japanese-speaking concierge, wears a beeper and is on 24-hour call. She answers guests' questions about American menus, provides medical contacts, organizes rides to Disneyland and shopping safaris to Rodeo Drive. She also handles luggage repair, locates responsible baby sitters, sends flowers and briefs guests about local events and current affairs.

How can you recognize a fine concierge? The way they say "concierge" can be a key to their professionalism. The correct pronunciation is "kon-si-ayrzh." Those who introduce themselves as the "can-see-air" or "con-she-urge" are probably not members of Les Clefs D'Or (pronounced "lay-clay-door"), otherwise known as Golden Keys Society, the honorary fraternity of conciergedom.

World wide, there are 5,000 members of the Paris-based Les Clefs D'Or, about 160 in the United States. Membership standards are high: five years' minimum in the hotel business with three years as concierge, written test and endorsement from two members.

Les Clefs D'Or members, wearing the golden crossed keys emblem on their lapels, can pull strings for guests traveling to Paris, London, Tokyo or Nairobi. It's a network and service worth getting to know.

Do you tip the concierge? It isn't necessary. But if you've received special attention, a note of thanks with tip enclosed is appropriate and appreciated - but never expected.

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"Four Seasons' Field Guide to the North American Concierge," an entertaining brochure, is available. For a free copy call 1-800-332-3442 in the United States or 1-800-268-6282 in Canada.