‘I Love the Thrill of the Chase’
It was a broken curling iron that changed the course of Julie Saunders’ life.
New to D.C. in 1983 and one week into a job at the Madison Hotel, she walked into the old Bell’s store in Georgetown to buy a replacement. There, Julie ran into an older Austrian man whom she’d briefly met at the Madison.
‘We’re in the store and he said, ‘So you vant to have coffee?’ We went across the street to the American Café and we’re sitting there and he says, ‘So vut you really vant to do?’ And out of my mouth, totally unconsciously, came, ‘I want to be a concierge.’
‘He told me I wasn’t ready, and I thought, what am I thinking? I didn’t even know what I said. I’d lived in France and had a concierge in the building I lived in, but she was like the landlady. And then there were these concierges in luxury hotels; these seemingly really old men who were probably in their thirties, but what was I, 21? I had no idea what they did.’
She didn’t know it at the time, but it was her first—and most important—test. ‘I know that I know nothing,’ said Plato. ‘But I’ll find out,’ would add a concierge.
Julie did just that. Two years later she was director of private dining at the Jefferson Hotel, but a change in management left her without a job. A friend at the Madison convinced her to come back as a concierge. Julie took a leap of faith and learned as she went, frequently calling The Four Seasons concierges for help—never guessing she’d be one of them eight years later.
Today, Julie is only the third Chef Concierge since the five-star hotel opened in Georgetown—and the first woman to earn the title. She’s as unflappable as you’d imagine is required for such a role, yet every request is treated with the same sense of urgency.
Like macadamia nuts, most recently. Mauna Loa, to be specific—needed the next day. Julie had only ever seen them in Hawaii, so she started researching with a colleague.
‘A concierge needs the skills to think and get the wheels turning: Who do I need to call, what do I need to do, boom, boom, boom,’ Julie says. ‘You need to enjoy the thrill of the chase, of the hunt, of tracking things down.’
Mauna Loa could get the nuts to D.C. in two days, but that wasn’t fast enough. On to Plan B.
‘You never know what you’re going to be asked in a day. It could be the teeniest thing that takes you hours to do, or the teeniest thing that took minutes, but it’s made a huge difference in someone’s life or in their experience. It’s really big to them, and you were the person they asked. You made it happen.’
Technology has sped up such problem solving—one Google search replacing four phone calls. But it’s also challenged the value of a concierge, something Julie has had to reconcile.
‘This is a real moment for us. Years ago we were the source, with Rolodexes and black books that went everywhere with us. Guests are much more knowledgeable now, but there’s so much information out there that people are trying to get on their own, and it doesn’t have the touch of a concierge.’
Julie still makes most of her reservations the old-fashioned way. She picks up the phone.
‘Those relationships are important to me. Many of the newer restaurants only do online reservations and they’re doing very well and don’t need us—until they need us. The smart ones realize that concierges have great resources. My work is based in those relationships.’
Though she’s often tethered to her desk, Julie’s experiences outside of The Four Seasons have provided some of her most beneficial professional development. Deeply spiritual, Julie has meditated every morning for 25 years—a necessary practice when your entire day is spent solving unforeseen challenges. During a morning meditation in 2009—after several trips to Brazil, often to see healers—Julie received an invitation from the most famous of them all.
‘I finished my mediation, went downstairs and said to my husband, ‘Hey, so John of God shows up in my meditation and says, ‘see ya in March,’ and my husband said, ‘Well, I guess you’re going back to Brazil.’ Through a series of different things I ended up there with John of God, and it was a life-changing experience. That did a real serious inner shift for me that was very powerful.’
An inner shift, and an even deeper understanding of the South American country that would soon serve her well.
Back behind The Four Seasons desk, Julie met a well-known actress from New York City who was in D.C. to get a visa—a requirement for all Americans traveling to Brazil, which she’d only learned after she couldn’t board her flight at JFK. Julie not only arranged for a car to the embassy, but called on the connections she’d made during her many personal trips to have someone meet the actress when she arrived in Brazil.
‘Whenever she stays with us, we always talk about Brazil. One’s experiences really add great depth and dimension, and the ability to connect with people, even if it’s over one little thing.’
That’s been the story of Julie’s entire career, really. A series of little big things.