The Genesis of Les Clefs d’Or
The idea to create a group of hotel concierge is not recent. An association of the same type existed in France in 1908. It stopped in 1914 during World War I. Even if the Concierges and Doormen were wearing the keys on their uniform the name “Clefs d’Or” was not used yet.
Concierges in Cannes, 1909
Post card posted on November 1909. On this photography, are Concierges of several palaces of Cannes from the following hotels : “Britannique”, “Gallia, “Grand Hotel”, Grande-Bretagne”, “Des Anglais”, “De France”, “Beausite”, “Montfleury”, “Suisse”, “Royal”, “Victoria”, “Terminus” and “Gonnet”. On this very rare picture, some of the Concierges already wear crossed keys on the lapels of their uniform.
(Property of M. Alain Feneau, Architect in Cannes)
Other attempts to create an association started in 1919, with a more stable economical period. But created with heterogeneous and various professional activities with a lack of experience, it disappeared.
After the war was a rich period where appeared in all fields, social activities, associations, societies, unions, which for some reached a high level of power and prosperity.
How could one explain this great move towards solidarity. One of the reasons is probably to be found in the tragic four years that so many had spent wearing the same uniform, whatever was their culture, their education or social level, putting aside their individuality to serve the community and reach a common objective.
This is probably how was born the idea of the “Union des Concierges de Grands Hotels”. It was in the air and only needed to have a few friends to get it started.
In 2008, going through the archives of the association, we found two most important letters. They were both dated from 1959. One was from Ferdinand Gillet, writing on the occasion of the 30th Anniversary of the French Association to Pierre Quentin, its founder, asking him to relate how it all started.
Ferdinand Gillet’s letter to Pierre Quentin (1959)
My Dear Friend Quentin
I hope you are well and that the work load is not too heavy
I am writing you to say : .” The Clefs d’Or Association” is 30 years old and you have been its devoted founder. Therefore I would like to ask you to write for our magazine your thoughts on the creation of our association as well as the initial difficulties.
A few words would certainly be of interest to our French and foreign colleagues.
Agreed, thanks, and please accept my friendly regards.
Pierre Quentin’s answer.
Dear President and Friend,
In September 1929 I was invited by some friends to attend a meeting of the Paris Interpreter Society that was held in a café on Rue du 4 Septembre. There I met other fellow interpreters During the evening one of them suggests that I join the association. I agreed and applied as well as some other friends. To our surprise and despite of the fact that we presented the requested qualities to join them, we were not admitted as active members. The reason ? We were Hotel Concierges.
Coming out of the meeting, we started talking and from this discussion, the idea came all of a sudden. Since we are not welcome, why wouldn’t we do the same? Create our own fellowship of Hotels Concierges! Why not? There it was, the idea was launched, all we needed was to get it started. That was the hardest part. Each of us started prospecting among other colleagues.
On my side I contacted some good friends, spoke to a few Managers, Staff Directors and Reception Managers. They all approved and thought it was an excellent idea. Other colleagues sympathized right away, but some were reluctant as they perceived the association as the result of a cross-purpose between several hotel companies, patrons and directors. I did my best to try to convince these and we were rewarded as after some time when they came themselves to join the association. I would like to thank them as this gave us even more confidence in the outcome of the society.
We were already quite a few when I was contacted by a person who had heard about our idea and was enthusiastic about it. We decided to meet on that same evening and discussed the purpose. The gentleman was well informed about hotel business as well as about associations, as he had just left a society that had been dissolved and informed me about a lot of aspects that we just simply ignored on the subject. In brief, I was seduced and he offered to volunteer and be at our disposal to do all the administrative steps and obtain the necessary authorizations to create our society.
His name was Mr. Berthollier, that all our colleagues who were there from the beginning have known and highly appreciated. He was upright and conscientious man who made all steps, not counting his time and energy, and succeeded in just a few days. We owe him a lot and I am sorry that he is not here anymore to see the development of our fellowship since 1929. I owe him my sincere gratitude for all he did for our association.
One day, one of our colleagues submitted the idea to get all together for a dinner and sent invitations. The appointed day, we went to restaurant “NOEL PETERS” thinking we would be about twenty. We were disappointed to find only eleven of us, some who had only heard about others.
In the atmosphere of this friendly dinner, we all decided to immediately create a temporary Committee. Despite of the fact that I was among the youngest of the meeting, it was elected, to my surprise, as the temporary President. I tried to elude this decision but was kindly forced to accept. The only condition that I put forward was that everyone else would remain on the Committee and that Mr. Berthollier would be named Director of the association. This was agreed unanimously. The temporary Committee being created, the only thing we had to do was to spread the news and get active members. Everyone was devoted to our aim, acting in his own field, and we soon started to better see the outcome.
I found a place where we could establish our office. It was at the time of the lodging crisis and it was not easy. A poor little office on the “Rue du 29 juillet”. We worked hard to establish the statutes. Acceptance of active members, associate members, patrons and honorary members, we also had to consider our treasury and there was nothing in our accounts. Thanks to the efficiency of everyone and to the kindness of a brave secretary from the Ambassador Hotel (where Pierre Quentin was Head Concierge), who volunteered to type memos, letters and all we needed, everything was done rapidly.
The association was officially registered. Thanks to the work of the temporary Committee, we were able to organize a Consultative General Assembly which was held on November 27, 1929. We managed to get together 75 active members from Paris as well as applicants from various regions. For a start, it was quite a good result. The statutes were adopted and the association was named “Union Professionnelle des Concierges des Grands Hotels” which will later become “Les Clefs d’Or”.
I was elected President and kept the temporary Committee as well as Mr Berthollier as Director. He had really deserved it. I remember seeing him rushing at around 6pm, telling me all the work he had done during the day. Luckily, the Bar was never too far and we could enjoy a comfortable moment. We completed the Board by adding some new colleges as to have the appropriate number of representatives.
Many of the members among those who created the association have passed away, too early to enjoy their wonderful achievement. I keep of them all, fond memories and owe them all my gratitude. We continued to grow, but our financial means were limited in regard to our needs. But the spontaneous support of all our colleagues during the consultative meeting had given us the necessary energy and goodwill to achieve our goals. I sincerely thank all of those who, by their devotion and precious assistance, and in particular, the members of the temporary Committee as well as their successors $, who have kept the going and growing. Many of our colleagues do not realize the amount of work and self-abnegation that are required to run an association. We need to recognize the hard and selfless work of the Presidents and Members of the Committee, who have, by their loyalty, achieved to make of our association, a wonderful society that we can all today be very proud of.
Thanks to my friends, Francois Dechaume, who took over from me and Ferdinand Gillet, the current President and founder of the U.E.P.G.H. who directs so well our association, everyone of us, member of this society, in any affiliated country, can, whatever happens, count on a reliable Friend, and this, reciprocally.
This is a huge achievement, and to keep it going, let’s stay united. I will end this letter by wishing you all, work, health and prosperity.
Yours sincerely and friendly,
A History of “Les Clefs d’Or”
by Victor Ducarton, General Secretary UIPGH “Les Clefs d’Or” 1972-1974
Of all times since the advent of modern hotel industry during the nineteenth century, and whether it is in the lobby of the most prestigious palaces as in the seaside hotels or or spa resorts, the silhouette and the personality of the Porter have played a prominent role.
The continuous care shown by administrations and directions when it comes to adding this collaborator shows the value attached to this trusted function and the consideration they bear to such a valuable auxiliary..
The ‘Portier’, also called ‘Concierge’, brings his contribution in the accomplishment of multiple tasks, which makes him a department head. He knows everything about his company. He is like the central point where all minor or major problems coming from the client, converge and need to be solved as quickly as possible without any error.
Therefore the skills required are numerous. Good manners, gracious welcome, experience and knowledge of languages should be added to the necessary professional background: good tourism background, good skills in the handling of national and international mail, great knowledge regarding travel, railways, boat or aeroplane. These are the basics to which should be added many and various other skills that compose the professional capacities required in order to gain the trust of the management and the confidence of the Clientele that any good element never fails to attract.
Thanks to the friendly relations which naturally develop between artisans of the same profession, it soon became clear how the efficiency of the Porter could gain with the extension of a confident and ongoing relationship between colleagues. These early demonstrations of good will and cooperation, limited at first, were not slow to expand and be successful.
The considerable changes which happened in all fields between WWI and WWII, with, as a result, the development of tourism, generated many problems, accelerating many changes in the profession and disturbing many of its routines. Therefore, the need for us to develop our friendly exchanges appeared to be crucial.
This idea had made its way, to lead to the creation, on October 6th 1929, of Les Clefs d’Or which was officialized during a ceremony on October 26th at Noel Peters Restaurant, 24 passage des Princes Paris 2éme, and ratified during our first General Assembly which gathered 75 participants on November 27th.
Eleven Parisian Porters (footnote 1), united and motivated by a strong sense of camaraderie and common beliefs, saw with joy that day the achievment of the project they had conceived. Pierre Quentin became the President of this new association for three years. The first head office of Les Clefs d’Or was 7 rue du 29 juillet in Paris (it moved to 217 rue Saint Honoré in 1932 – building where Pierre Quentin lived).
Soon, applications were received from everywhere. Almost all the Porters / Concierges from luxury hotels became members. The drastic statutes regarding the admission of new members allows to say that these were the elite of the profession. Thanks to the rapid development and continuous expansion, the original goals were soon exceeded. After a launching period, the association, established on solid foundations, evolved rapidly. The orientation was moving towards new objectives: social work, employment and friendship were on the agenda.
During the General Assembly held on October 22nd 1932, Francois Dechaume succeeded to Pierre Quentin. During this assembly Pierre Quentin was elected Honorary Member, receiving many applauds. Francois Dechaume along with all the members brought the energy and dynamism to make the association a prosper one.
In 1933, Mr Berthollier (Director of the association 1930 – 1931) one of the major actors off the foundation of LES CLEFS D’OR, left us for a well deserved retirement.
Among quite a lot of realizations, one of the most important was the Professional Directory created in 1930. It was a permanent link between all Active Members, Honorary Members and Patrons of Les Clefs d’Or, as well as an invaluable tourism guide.
1933 and 1934 were difficult years, mostly because of the World crisis. To keep our treasury we had to decrease the membership fees and find new Honorary Members among our most well-known stores and merchants who did not know yet about our association.
In 1935, the tourist movement in France marked a slight improvement, attributed in large part to the Jubilee of His Majesty King George V in London, and the Brussels World Exhibition, that brought to Europe a large number of visitors. On 22 October 1955, at the Annual General Meeting, President Dechaume reported on the functioning of the society and on all the work done during the year, and handed his resignation and that of the Committee elected with him whose term was ending. This resignation was formally refused and a unanimous vote of confidence and esteem brought again François Dechaume and his Committee to the head of the association.
In Spring 1936, and in an even more sensitive way than the previous year, the flow of tourists seemed to be growing in favor of France when happened the Events of June (footnote 2) which the Paris Festival suffered tremendously of. From the very beginning of this social movement, the Clefs d’Or Committee spent an incredible amount of energy to defend the professional interests of the corporation towards syndicates of employers and workers unions. Due to the particular situation of the Concierge, because of his role as department head in charge of the hotel lobby (Guest services), but also because of some sort of a moral contract towards the Clientele, the task was quite delicate and difficult. The delegate of Les Clefs d’Or was approved by both the employers’ delegation and the delegation of workers, and thus sat in all the meetings and sessions, where he had to present and defend the status of the Concierge that had been prepared with care by the Committee. Recognizing on either side of the validity of claims put forward by the parties, he sought above all to maintain, to the possible extent, his role as of a mediator, striving to calm the storm often willing to burst during sessions when attempting to combine totally divergent interests.
It is also in 1936 that Les Clefs d’Or moved to 12 rue Cambon in Paris (still the current address of the association).
1937 was the year of the Universal Exhibition in Paris. The service of the Commissiariat General of the Exhibition in charge of its promotion honored Les Clefs d’Or by appointing them as the Official Delegation towards the Concierge and Information Desks of the greatest hotels abroad, which caused even more exchanges with foreign colleagues.
1937 also saw the birth of the section of Les Clefs d’Or Belgium.
In 1938, more than 900 000 foreign tourists came to France. Our regions, and obviously the most touristic ones, saw an increase in the number of visitors between 20% and 50%, despite of the international situation and major events that had occurred before the Summer and were threatening peace accross Europe. Les Clefs d’Or maintained their good relations with all the international supporting colleagues of the association. That year was also painful with the death of our dear colleague MASSON, Treasurer, ardent pioneer and founding member of our association. This was a great loss.
On October 26th 1938 was held our Annual General Meeting. Our President, François Dechaume presented a thoroughly report of the activities of the association, and for the second time handed his resignation his three additional years as President. Once again, this resignation was unanimously refused and massive vote reconfirmed him at the head of Les Clefs d’Or. He was reelected for 3 years as well as the Members of his Committee.
Our annual Gala in the Hotel Lutetia was held on November 5th and was a resounding success. The cocktail was honored by the presence of the highest figures in the Tourism and Hospitality. Esteem and the sympathy that our society had managed to deserve were greatly highlighted by the presence in our party Messrs.. the Owners, Directors and Executive of many Parisian hotels.
The association, after its first decade of existence, could be proud of its spectacular development, when the war broke out in 1939.
It was sad period of four years during which the general upheaval would not spare the association. Put to sleep because of the circumstances, the activity of the group continued, however, slowly. This allowed to relieve many distresses and to solve many difficult problems. In the absence of President Dechaume, arrested by the Germans, Vice-president Gillet became Acting President and handled the day-to-day tasks (footnote 3).
The war ended (Ed: we encourage you to read the novel from Pierre Assouline, Lutetia, Editions Gallimard.)
Without delay, the vitality of the association appeared again. An important information meeting was convened soon. Surrounded by the early pioneers, the President, whose release had been a joy for all of us was present (The President François Dechaume was arrested on 27 August 1940, interned at Dijon prison in solitary confinement for seven weeks, then transferred to Germany where he was held in eight different prisons. He was released in 1941).
This meeting that was conducted by Vice President Ferdinand Gillet and its aim was to establish the major objectives of our association for the future and the best way it could serve Hospitality, while preserving the professional interests of the Concierges. The agenda for the next Annual General Meeting was decided.
This AGM, the first of the kind since 1938 took place on the 30th March 1946.
After the information meeting it was encouraging to see that, far from release, the bonds of friendship and spirit of cooperation were stronger than ever in the Society. This fact should be confirmed during the meeting of the General Assembly, which attracted many regional delegates. From all corners of France, they brought a stimulating support. President Dechaume had, since 1932, gained the confidence of the successive assemblies and was consistently re-elected to the presidency. However, it is during the session of 1946 which he presided, that he shared with the Assembly on the circumstances which led him to abandon the profession, and, therefore, his position at the head of the association.
Naturally, the choice of the assembly was to elect Vice President Gillet and entrust him with the destinies of the Society. Taking the flame of Les Clefs d’Or from the hands of his predecessor, President Gillet knew what daunting task awaited him. But he was driven by a strong confidence and never doubted that he could count on the dedication of the members and the committee. All helped him without failure, ensuring the prestige of the association, to continue the traditions, and to continue the development of the work so well begun.
From now on, our statement was: The Clefs d’Or Servicing French Hospitality and Tourism
Vive Les Clefs d’Or,
Long live “Les Clefs d’Or”
Continued in: The Foundation 1952
Translated from French into English by Austen Spooner & Roderick Levéjac
Note 1: Even if we did not find any official list, we gathered the information through the reports we found in 1929, 1930 and 1931 archives, and we are now able to give you the list of the 11 founding members with their member number
N°1. Pierre Quentin – Hotel Ambassador Paris, N°2. L. Righi – Hotel Royal-Malesherbes Paris, N°3. M. Masson -Hotel unknown, N°4. J.F. Carrère – Hotel Algéria Algiers, N°5. S. Savi – Hotel Carlton Paris, N°28. J.L. Daniel -Hotel Chambord Paris, N°29. E. David : Hotel unknowned , N°30. François E. Dechaume – Hotel d’Albe Paris, N°36. H. Dudal – Hotel Reynolds Paris, N°63. F. Laurençot – Hotel Windsor Paris, Mr. Teush – unknown activity.
Note 2: June 7th 1936. Agreement under the presidency of Léon Blum, between the Confédération Générale de la Production Française (Managers Union) and Conféderation Générale du Travail (Workers Union) n companies, elected personnel delegates, a salary increase between 7 and 15%. Managers also agreed on paying vacations and time of work was brought to 40 hours per week
Note 3: During a “Committee of alertness” held on March 14th 1941, President Francois Dechaume suggested to switch our association into a professional union. This project never happened. On December 14, 1941, he stated that his current activities did not correspond to his role as president. The executive committee wanted him to remain President but the entire work load was given to the Vice-president Ferdinand Gillet.