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A conversation with Francesco Cogoni and Roberto Pirelli, first and second concierges of the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni
I wanted to find out what happens behind the rotating glass door of The Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, Lake Como, one of Italy’s world-renowned five star hotels. A conversation with Francesco Cogoni and Roberto Pirelli, first and second concierges revealed the secret to the success of this Lake Como luxury establishment that is now celebrating 100 years of hospitality.
Francesco Cogoni and Roberto Pirelli of the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio
With over 50 years of experience between them, it is no surprise that the day-to-day running of the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni front desk is done with flair and precision. Today I got a chance to sit down with both of them during the shift change. Shift change is the most important part of the day for both of them. A thirty-minute meeting that not only marks the start or finish of the workday but it is when they update each other on each individual guest. Every day an average of sixty guests come and go and each has their own expectations.
Francesco Cogoni, first concierge, is svelte and elegant in his black dress suit uniform. Originally from Sardinia, he first came to work at the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni 25 years ago, working here for five years, but then after a year sabbatical that actually lasted several years, he returned behind the desk of the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni. During those sabbatical years, he traveled the world and worked in some of the most renowned hotels of the French Riviera, but Bellagio remained in his heart.
Roberto Pirelli a friendly faced, soft-spoken man is open and warm-hearted. He started as an errand boy at the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni at the age of 17, then worked his way to become second door man and then first door man. In 1990, he went abroad to work in luxury and boutique hotels in London, Dusseldorf and Munich. He too, had a special place in his heart for Bellagio and returned to his beloved origins.
Francesco said, “Learning different languages and traveling to learn about other cultures is fundamental for this job.” Roberto adds, “I learned the different languages of the countries I worked in. I cannot say I speak them all perfectly, but I make myself understood; communication with the guest is such an important aspect of this job.”
What is a concierge?
In some ways, the role of the concierge may seem outdated or old-fashioned. There is already a receptionist at the hotel, and many establishments have self-check-in or app screens with local information. When asked to define a concierge’s role, Roberto explained, “It’s difficult to define a concierge. A concierge is the person who makes the guest feel welcome and at home, and will always find the best solutions to make them feel comfortable. It gives me a real sense of pride and happiness when a guest tells us they had a nice day.”
Francesco elaborates, “A concierge is a dispenser of information and culture. Giving the right advice of where to go to eat, what to see and what to do. Reading the guest is important in giving recommendations. I always try to understand the mood and the guest’s emotional state to understand which direction to point them in.”
Discretion is key
Celebrities, successful entrepreneurs and dignitaries from all over the world pass through these doors looking for relaxation and privacy. Roberto said, “You must learn to be very discreet. You cannot be invasive. The ability to understand if the guest wants privacy or extra attention is important in finding a correct balance. Privacy is highly appreciated by our VIP guests when we give them their space.”
Celebrities are not the only guests that want quiet and privacy, people of all backgrounds stay at the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, many of which are returning, loyal guests.
Francesco reminds us, “Clothes do not make the emperor. We have to treat everybody the same because many times the person who seems the most humble are the people that will most surprise you. One time we had a family staying with us and they saw one of the sculptures and they said that they were interested in buying it for their own home. I would have never imagined that a family would want to buy such an important piece of artwork for their garden.”
Making the guest feel at home
The sitting lounge at the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni
It is clear that this human approach and altruistic spirit to make the guest feel welcomed creates comfort and security for their loyal guests that return year after year. Seeing the same person when they arrive at the hotel truly makes them feel at home. With some of the guests, true friendships have been cultivated throughout the years. Francesco talks about his friendship with one guest, “I stay in touch with one of our guests, a professor from New York. We exchange book titles by email and when she and her husband come for their holiday, we have wonderful discussions!”
Francesco told me that the most challenging part of this job is when a guest arrives unhappy, perhaps because of travel delays, traffic, missing luggage or the room is not ready when the guest arrives. He said, “This is very delicate because you have to try to make the customer feel at ease and assure them that the problem will be resolved. We have to find alternatives to make the guest feel comfortable and relaxed. The spa is always a good remedy.”
Is the impossible, possible?
Most requests from visitors are for extra towels or room amenities, last minute restaurant bookings, requests to set up tours or to make travel plans. An urgent late-night pharmacy run might come up, but every once in a while, an unusual request crosses the desk. Francesco tells a story about an eccentric guest, “When the guest arrived, he asked me what my suit size was, he didn’t want to rent a suit for a wedding he was attending, so he asked me for mine. When I told him I only had one suit because the other was at the cleaners, he didn’t stop there and he asked me what my shoe size was! After I had seen how he had ended the night, I was glad that I hadn’t lent him any of my clothes!”
Roberto replies, “Miracles are quite difficult! You do the best you can. When the guest sees that the concierge is doing everything in his power to resolve a problem, you can see the client does appreciate it. No, there haven’t been impossible requests but some difficult ones, yes.”
Living on Lake Como
Poolside at The Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni
Both Francesco and Roberto started their careers in Bellagio and after traveling the world returned to enchanting Lake Como. Roberto tells me, “Guests come back after a day out and they are absolutely enthusiastic about the beauty of our Lake. They tell us how lucky we are to live the most beautiful place in the world.”
Although Sardinia will always be a strong influence in his life Francesco says “Its a privilege to work here immersed in beauty and art every day. I love working here and the relationships we create with our guests is incredibly enriching.”
Will apps and robots replace the figure of the concierge?
Roberto is optimistic, “I hope that there will always be the role of the concierge. It may be reduced, but my hope is that there will always be concierges because it’s the first person that a guest sees when they walk in. Upon arrival and departure, it is very important that there is a person there. A person that knows how to welcome and make them feel at home on arrival, and on departure to be sure that their stay was pleasurable, especially if they are a returning guest. We want to know what they liked and what things we can improve so the next visit is perfect.”
Francesco agrees, “A computer will never replace a human. We use computers as a tool, but the most important and beautiful thing about our job is the human interaction and relationships we create.”
The success of a hotel is due to not only its central location and comfortable rooms, but the service provided. Quality service can only be provided by people with experience and shared values. That is what makes the guests of Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni return year after year.
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Celia is the founder and managing editor at MilanoStyle.com. Originally from New York, she now spends her time between Milan and Lake Como sharing her discoveries and experiences living in Italy. Follow @CeliaAbernethy on Twitter