Making an entrance: the master of the Mandarin

Chief concierge is all things to all guests and has tended to likes of Nixon, Princess Diana and Leslie Cheung

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 October, 2013, 4:47am

Walking through the entrance and into the Mandarin Oriental's lobby, the first face you are likely to come across is a jovial-looking man named Giovanni Valenti.

The hotel is celebrating its half-century this year and he has been there for much of it.

The 69-year-old Florentine is neither an expatriate executive nor a live-in guest. He is chief concierge of the hotel in Central, a post that he says is not so much a job as a way of life.

Since 1979, Valenti has met, befriended, entertained and tended to a star-studded list that includes Princess Diana and former United States president Richard Nixon.

"For guests, I am more than just a concierge. I am also a priest, confidant, consultant, dispenser of information, and sometimes even a banker," says the quadrilingual man, who had been manager of the Mandarin Grill before taking up the post in 1983.

On top of managing a team of 72 and the hotel's 21-car fleet, Valenti describes helping countless men set the scene for marriage proposals, lending a ear to troubled guests, and "witnessing all the joys and sorrows" at the Connaught Road hotel.

He recalls sourcing 3,000 roses for a Japanese guest so he could propose to his sweetheart, and rushing to a hospital emergency room in the middle of the night to assist a European guest who could not speak English.

He also remembers the sombre evening after the death of Canto-pop legend Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, who leapt from the 24th floor on April 1, 2003. "I used to see him walk through the hotel every day. It was just so sad for him to go so suddenly."

Despite the temptation of countless offers from other five-star hotel chains in Hong Kong and abroad, Valenti says the Mandarin's lobby - and Hong Kong - remains his true home. "My life is in the lobby of this hotel," he says. "Every day is different and challenging, and that is what I love."

Asked for the secret to being a good concierge, Valenti says it needs wholehearted passion - something he believes the next generation of hospitality workers should work on. "You have to learn to think like the guest … It comes with experience, age and, sometimes, you're just born with it."

It has been exactly 50 years since the 26-storey Mandarin Oriental opened its doors as The Mandarin, basking in the glory of being the city's tallest building. The HK$42 million building was also the first hotel in Asia with a bathtub in every room.

A 1963 front-page splash in the South China Morning Post expressed awe at the ability of the luxury hotel's lifts that could "catapult" guests to the top floor in a mere 21 seconds. "Elegance achieved through simplicity," the September 1 article read.

Tonight, the hotel will hold a gala marked by a 6,400 square metre 3-D video projection of the facade opposite Statue Square. Its guest list includes actress Michelle Reis, fashion designer Vivienne Tam and Mayor of London Boris Johnson.

Valenti has seen the city go through the handover and grow into an international financial hub. The people have changed, too. "People are under so much pressure these days and always in a hurry."

But with more stress comes a growing demand for good hospitality. And that's where Valenti comes in - making people happy.