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by jon warech | April 1, 2014 | Lifestyle
From first-class travel arrangements to all-hours parties and shotgun weddings, Miami’s top concierges make Champagne wishes and VIP dreams come true.
Sonja Hoffmann at the Epic Hotel downtown.
“Expectations are high in Miami when it comes to style,” she says. “It’s a beautiful place with beautiful people and beautiful things. They want a little piece of that life, so it’s, How can we make it happen?”
Traveling in style is key for visitors at Epic. Hoffmann has rented a ’62 Mustang convertible for a guest—a car that usually comes with a driver, but the guest insisted on driving it himself. She’s also been asked to charter a helicopter to take a guest from the hotel to the Sony Open—the tennis tournament that’s a mere seven miles away—because he didn’t feel like dealing with the toll on Rickenbacker Causeway.
Some guests don’t like to travel at all, which is why Hoffmann, who is originally from Germany and has been with Epic since it opened in 2008, can bring the world to you. One guest didn’t want to make the trek down a few flights on the elevator to the gym, so they put a treadmill right in his room. Another couple brought their pet monkey to Epic, so they did a lot of in-room dining. Picture Joe’s Stone Crab with a side of bananas.
“We provide all the amenities for the pets,” she says. “The couple that travels with their monkey, they bring a little bed that we make all nice for him. He was quite a star here.”
The thing about Epic, though, is that once people come, they often want to stay. It’s the kind of hotel where people will move in for months at a time while their Miami home is being built. All of a sudden, they’re no longer concerned with fancy cars and instead have their eyes set on a certain stone for the floors or artwork for the walls.
“We have guests who ask us to help with their apartment,” says Hoffmann, who has even assisted one such guest with finding a fingerprint-touch door lock for his future home. “We have a lot of people who stay with us for a long period of time because they came here to visit and they decided they really love Miami.” It’s just like with the cars: Once they saw Miami, they had to have it. 270 Biscayne Blvd. Way, Miami, 305-424-5226
Italo Fornoni at the Mandarin Oriental, Miami.
“Stories? We’ve got a few,” says Italo Fornoni, concierge at the Mandarin Oriental, Miami, when asked about the memorable moments from his five years behind the desk at the Brickell Key hotel. “Some of them are PG and some of them are not, and I keep those to myself.”
He’ll quickly rattle off tales of closing the gym for three hours every morning for an entire week so an actor could get in shape for a movie, booking a week’s worth of restaurants for a guest so eccentric that he would cancel the reservation if the table wobbled, and hiring a “little person” from a talent agency to party with a Mexican man who was throwing a wild bachelor party.
If you want stories, Fornoni will give them to you at the speed of light, and if you want something else—anything else—he’ll get that for you right away, too.
“Most of our guests are very well traveled, so they know what they want,” he says. “Brazilians, for example, they read in a magazine [what] the top five restaurants in Miami [are], and they say, ‘I want to go here no matter what. I want to rent a Lamborghini or Ferrari for the weekend. I want tickets to the Miami Heat, and I want to sit next to LeBron James.’ It’s the same with the Eastern Europeans or guests from the Orient. They want Prime 112. They want Joe’s Stone Crab. They want to rent the car that they saw on Miami Vice years ago. They don’t care about the price tag. Just get it.”
After nearly 20 years in the business, Fornoni—born in Chile but raised in Argentina—has a guy for just about everything, and believe it or not, getting your hands on some stone crabs is actually more difficult than catching the sweat off LeBron.
“You cannot do this job without a good ticket broker,” he says. “But having a relationship with the maître d’ at Joe’s is key in Miami. Bones—the maître d’ there for years—he’s everybody’s friend and he’s nobody’s friend.”
It’s a game of give and take in the land of concierges, and in his hand Fornoni holds access to Mandarin Oriental’s five-star spa and popular restaurants Azul and La Mar. He’s got the hookup all over the world, and as he’ll tell you, “The concierge is a good friend to have.” 500 Brickell Key Dr., Miami, 305-913-8288
Claudia Abma at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach. Silk embroidered gown, Blumarine ($12,520). Diane Firsten, 28 Via Mizner, Worth Ave., Palm Beach, 561-833-2353
If it doesn’t seem possible to create a totally private, romantic moment at the Fontainebleau—a bustling hotel with 1,504 rooms and an estimated 20,000 guests walking through the doors on a big weekend either staying on the grounds, dining at top-tier restaurants like Scarpetta, Hakkasan, and Michael Mina 74, or partying at the world-renowned LIV nightclub—then you haven’t met head concierge Claudia Abma.
“A few years ago, a couple wanted a baby grand piano in their room so he could play and she could sing,” says Abma, who within hours had the piano shipped down from Broward County. It didn’t fit through the doors of the suite, so Abma improvised, searching throughout the hotel for an area they could make intimate. They settled on a ballroom, and a magical moment was created. “The next day, she told us she was crying, she was so excited.”
What the guest probably didn’t even realize was that there really is no better place to tickle the ivories than a Fontainebleau ballroom, where everyone from Frank Sinatra to Sammy Davis Jr. to Elvis Presley has performed.
Abma—a Peruvian who has spent 17 years with the Fontainebleau—and the team of 13 concierges have done everything from waiting in seats at The Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theater so a VIP guest could sit front row at a first-come, first-serve My Morning Jacket concert to preparing poolside proposals for guests looking to pop the question. One time a proposal went so well that the very next day, Abma was asked to prepare a wedding.
“He asked her if she wanted to get married tomorrow, just out of the blue, and she said yes, so they both came back to the concierge,” she says. “Everyone was working on something different to get it together in time for a sunset wedding. Getting the official that quickly—someone who would actually marry them—was the toughest part. But we made it happen.”
They always make it happen. There is a classic story told among the concierges at the Fontainebleau about a child falling into a wishing well that, when the hotel first opened, sat where Bleau Bar is today. There was screaming as if the boy were drowning, but it turned out he was just trying to pick up the coins. These days, the well is gone, but thanks to Abma and company, the wishes still come true. 4441 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, 305-538-2000
Gabriella Di Falco at the W South Beach.
Imagine the horror of chartering a yacht and discovering, once you’re in the middle of the ocean, that you’re out of limes to enjoy with your favorite tequila. For most, that would be an Art Basel disaster, but for a VIP guest of the W South Beach, there’s “lead W insider” Gabriella Di Falco to save the day.
“The guest was like, ‘I don’t know where I am, but I need my limes for my tequila,’” says the Sicilian Di Falco, who has been with the W for five years. “So we got on a little boat with a big tray and brought her the limes. Of course, it’s impossible to enjoy the tequila without lime.”
It’s also impossible to enjoy a party without a lion, apparently, since Di Falco has helped a famous actor wrangle one in for a last-minute celebration at the hotel. “I thought it was a joke,” she remembers. “I called someone who rents lions for photo shoots and movies, so long story short, he came around with an old car with the lion in the back scratching the window. The guy was driving with one hand and holding the lion with the other hand. The guest was so happy. He thanked me forever.”
She has also melted chocolate to fill a tub so a couple could bathe in it, talked Zuma into opening on an off night to cater a meal to-go on a private jet, and become a 24-hour personal assistant preparing guests for club arrivals or solving their “where do I go now?” South Beach problems at 4 am.
“My phone is on 24 hours,” she says. “I built a little plastic box inside my shower for my phone, so if somebody is calling and it’s something important, I just take it. And at night, my phone is always under my pillow. It’s a little strange, but I like to work like that.”
Alongside Di Falco, there are three other “insiders” and a director of guest services supervising, but at the end of the day, it’s the guests who call the shots. They control where she is and when, which is why sometimes she’ll go to a club ahead of time to make sure the red carpet is rolled out for her guests’ arrival, and other times she’ll be in the club with them making sure everything is just right. “In five years, I’ve never had the opportunity to say no. It’s a real challenge, but it’s exciting for me every day.” 2201 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, 305-938-3000
D’Michael Haas at the Delano.
There is a unique duality to the Delano: On the one hand, it lies in the heart of the bustle of South Beach, and on the other, it often serves as a serene getaway for VIPs looking to turn the iconic hotel into a weekend home. The job of keeping that balance belongs to D’Michael Haas.
Those who read the gossip pages know that Jay Z and Beyoncé partied at the hotel’s club FDR, Lindsay Lohan once rested poolside after a brief post-New Year’s hospital run, and Leonardo DiCaprio dined with Hollywood pals at Bianca. But what people don’t know is that Haas, his two concierge colleagues, and the guest experience manager have also closed the dining room down to allow VIP guests to dine privately, sent every amenity possible (that list will remain confidential) to a guest’s room so they wouldn’t have to leave, and even moved the bar to the penthouse for guests who wanted a private party.
“Sometimes people who are very well known want a retreat and shy away from the attention, and sometimes they come to Delano and they want to be in the center of it,” he explains. “That’s the nice thing: You can have it however you want it here.”
The aforementioned penthouse party was a 50th-birthday celebration where the host didn’t want to deal with anyone outside her circle of friends. “She raved about our mixologist from the Rose Bar and wanted them to come up and be her private bartenders for the party,” Haas recalls. “Of course, we made that happen.”
He’s filled a room with everything from green hydrangeas to kombucha tea to Lindt chocolates for VIP guests, planned a helicopter ride to Kennedy Space Center, and arranged all-hours spa and fitness amenities inside a suite.
“If you’re a penthouse guest, you have 24-hour access to the team,” he says. “If you’re someone who takes their fitness routine on the road, we can get you the private yoga session right there in the penthouse or get you a trainer 24 hours a day in our gym.”
Haas and his team will do what they can to accommodate guests because, as he says, “We need you to feel at home to be happy.” And as “residents in paradise,” as he calls them, no request seems too absurd—except maybe the time a guest wanted a horse by the pool. Did it happen? What happens at the Delano stays at the Delano. 1685 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, 305-672-2000
photography by gary james