They’ve been dubbed the Michelin stars of the concierge world, and Moira Mdakana breaks out a broad smile as she points out the crossed golden keys that grace the lapel of her jacket.
The shining lapel pin indicates Mdakana is a member of the prestigious Les Clefs d’Or — “The Golden Keys” — a professional society of high-end concierges around the world. Les Clefs d’Or extends to 4,000 professional concierges in 80 countries, yet Mdakana is one of just 14 concierges in South Africa to have earned membership. She’s also the first black woman in South Africa, and the first woman in Cape Town, to reach this elite level of her profession.
But Mdakana takes it all in her stride when we meet one bright morning at the Cape Grace Hotel, where she is one of four concierges on the all-women team.
“I grew up in a diverse family, so I never really saw colour. I’d rather be an ambassador for women as a whole,” says Mdakana, who balances long hours at the hotel with raising her young daughter. “It makes me so proud when a guest walks in to the Cape Grace Hotel and sees two women sitting behind the concierge desk. It is a male-dominated industry, but I don’t think many women realise that this is really one of the best careers in hospitality.”
Mdakana grew up in the suburbs of Cape Town. Her mother a domestic worker, she was raised by her mother’s employer, the “granny” she still speaks fondly of today.
It was high tea with “granny” at the Mount Nelson Hotel that first sparked an interest in hospitality, leading Mdakana through a diploma at Cape Town’s International Hotel School and stints working reception and reservations at some of the city’s leading luxury hotels.
It was only when she landed a job at The Table Bay Hotel, working alongside the hotel’s widely respected concierge Ryan van Zyl, that Mdakana realised she’d finally found her niche in the industry.
“I love the interaction with guests that comes with being a concierge. It’s all about moulding a guest’s stay to make it memorable,” she says.
A BITE TO EAT? MOIRA’S TOP THREE
“I love Japanese food, so I love Tjing Tjing so much. It has the rooftop bar; it has the fine-dining Momiji floor, and Torii for Japanese street food. Salsify at The Roundhouse is brilliant, and so is Fyn restaurant. I love watching chefs cook!”
It’s perhaps surprising that the role of a concierge still exists. Mobile technology and the internet have up-ended the world of travel, yet the concierge desk remains a staple fixture in the lobby of upscale hotels. We’ve a world of information at our fingertips, yet we turn to a human for advice.
“It’s that personal connection. You simply can’t replace that,” says Mdakana, who laughingly bills herself as a “nurturer-concierge”, often tasked with appeasing the grumpiest of guests. “It’s my job to read the guest and make suggestions accordingly. What kind of experience are they looking for? What do they want to eat? How adventurous are they? With experience you can quickly pick up a vibe, an aura, from the guest.”
A website also may be able to tell you about the hottest restaurant in town, but when it’s fully booked it’s unlikely to secure you a coveted table. That’s the stock-in-trade of a well-connected hotel concierge, and on that score, networks count. So Mdakana spends plenty of time scouting new restaurants to establish which would suit the well-heeled guests at the Cape Grace.
“Building relationships with people in the industry is so important if we want to get our guests in somewhere exclusive,” says Mdakana. “Guests are more knowledgeable than ever before, and because there is so much happening it’s important for us to know exactly what’s happening on the ground, so that by the time guests come to us we’re prepared.”
Perhaps surprisingly, there’s also a sense of camaraderie and cooperation amongst concierges in the city.
“We don’t all know everything. So if it’s about advice, or a special request, we can tap into that network,” says Mdakana. “If I need a booking at The Test Kitchen, or I need a recommendation for a specific experience, we can help each other out.”
That network also came into play in the stringent process of joining Les Clefs d’Or. Applicants have to have a minimum of five years of concierge experience in a four- or five-star hotel, submit written motivations, be supported by two society members, and pass an interview with senior members of the society. The process took two years, but hard work is nothing to be afraid of, says Mdakana. “Anything is possible, you just need to be passionate about it and work hard. Any dream you have is yours if you work at it.”
• From the October edition of Wanted 2019.