by Wendy Helfenbaum
(Photo: Owen Egan)
Once a month, 40 influential Montrealers meet behind closed doors to exchange inside information that will affect many local businesses. Nope, it’s not the city’s executive committee, but rather the concierges at Montreal’s poshest hotels. They share secrets of the trade – which florist didn’t deliver? Which limo driver didn’t show up? How did that chic resto treat your A-list guests?
Virginia Casale, BA’87, occupies a coveted seat at this high-powered table.
“As concierges, we’re only as good as our network of contacts,” says Casale. “And trust me, I will remember if Maria from the Sheraton or Tommy from the Ritz said they got terrible service from a company.”
Last May, Casale became the first Canadian president of the prestigious Union Internationale des Concierges d’Hôtels Les Clefs d'Or (UICH), a global network of nearly 4,000 concierges from 43 countries. Casale is only the second woman to head the organization since its creation in 1929. No small feat for a Little Italy native who originally planned to teach Italian for a living.
While studying languages and literature at McGill, Casale spent her summers as a hostess and guide at the Olympic Stadium. In 1984, her tourism and language experience led Casale to a part-time job at the Hyatt Regency that sparked a full-time passion. Six months later, Casale began training at the main concierge desk, and within a year, she took on full-time duties there.
“The eighties were a wonderful time to work – our corporate clientele had really huge expense accounts: Limousines, top restaurants, shows – money was not an issue,” says Casale.
In 1990, Casale was tapped to open the concierge desk at Montreal’s first luxury boutique hotel, the Loews Hôtel Vogue. “People couldn’t believe I’d leave a 737-room hotel for one with only 120 rooms, but I knew that to go further in service, you need to go to a smaller property,” she explains. “They gave me carte blanche.”
While at the Vogue, Casale dealt with some delicate situations. She was the liaison between a Montreal hospital and a terrified wife in France, after the woman’s race-car driving husband crashed during the Grand Prix, and she held an elderly woman’s hand in the emergency room after her husband had a heart attack in the hotel.
“I try to make things as easy as possible in any situation,” she recalls. “As a concierge, you must have patience, determination and diplomacy.”
In 1999, Casale followed her general manager back to her old stomping grounds at the former Hyatt, re-launched as the Delta Hotel. That same year, she was elected president of the UIHC’s Canadian chapter. Around that time, hotel concierges greeted a game-changing guest when Google checked in.
“Sure, you can book anything in the world on the Internet; you have information at your fingertips,” acknowledges Casale. But nothing trumps the expertise of a well-connected concierge. “If you Google ‘best restaurants in Montreal,’ you know what garbage you’ll get?”
In 2002, Casale leapt at the chance to open the concierge desk at Sofitel Montreal Golden Mile. “Sofitel appealed to me because it was an international chain,” she explains.
Today, halfway through her two-year term as UIHC president, Casale is proud of her initiatives to improve education for new concierges, attract women into the field and forge stronger links with hotel head offices.
In May, Casale travelled to Frankfurt, Germany, to promote her beloved city on behalf of Tourisme Montréal. “For the first time ever, the light came on for them: a concierge can sell Montreal! We’re not salespeople; we have a different approach. I am an ambassador.”