Monday, April 23, 2018
Business

Concierges, Ybor City scratch each other's backs

TAMPA — A hotel concierge never knows when a guest will be looking for the ultimate goth experience, complete with a dungeon, red leather love seats, custom spanking benches and handcuffs.

Which explains why members of the Bay Area Concierge Association were excited last year when they walked into the Castle bar in Ybor City.

"I never know what I'm going to be asked," said Ron MacDougall, a concierge at the Loews Don CeSar Beach Resort in St. Pete Beach, "but I want an answer."

And now he has one for the would-be goth guest looking for a respite from the sun-splashed beachfront.

Although the Castle has been an Ybor City mainstay for 20 years, "I never even knew it existed until our tour last year," said Sonja George, a concierge at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort in St. Petersburg. "It was amazing."

She has since sent a couple of guests to the Castle, underscoring the symbiotic relationship between a concierge and restaurant, nightclub or bar, even if those establishments are 30 miles away.

A stop at the Castle was on the itinerary again last week for the third annual Ybor City gathering of the Tampa Bay Concierge Association.

It's a chance for Ybor City restaurants, bars and attractions to show what they have to offer to a group of people who can send paying customers their way. And the concierges get acquainted with the people who can make things happen for a guest.

Jason Fernandez, owner of the highly regarded Bernini restaurant on Seventh Avenue, was there schmoozing and handing out $25 gift certificates.

"Concierges are extremely important," he said, recalling landing a rehearsal dinner for 40 the day after last year's event.

The schmoozing goes both ways. Knowing someone like Fernandez can help a concierge score a reservation for hotel guest on a busy night.

"Bernini has been my go-to place for years," George said. "They always take care of my guests."

And that's what it's all about.

"Taking care of the guests is the most important thing you do," MacDougall said. "That's No. 1."

The gathering is also a chance for Ybor City boosters to offer some reassurance about the neighborhood.

"Unfortunately, Ybor City gets branded for what happens between midnight and 3 a.m.," said Vince Pardo, manager of the Ybor City Development Corporation and leader of the effort to woo concierges.

It's an issue Ybor City has battled for decades, even though perception does not meet reality.

As the Tampa Bay Times reported in November, a month after a high-profile shooting at a Seventh Avenue nightclub, crime in the historic district is down 84 percent since 2001, outpacing Tampa's overall decrease.

Getting that message out is important because Ybor City has multiple personalities.

Daytime is quiet, with office workers and tourists mingling on sidewalks lined with brick buildings full of Tampa history. The early evening draws dinner crowds to the equally historic Columbia Restaurant or Bernini or the Tampa Bay Brewing Co.

As the clock ticks toward midnight, Ybor City nightclubs fill with younger fun-seekers.

"We refer to them as split-use districts," Pardo said. "So we do a lot to market what we do have during the day, what I call the kinder, gentler Ybor."

A concierge is more likely to send guests to Ybor City during the day "for the history and the architecture," said Adrian Robbins, president of the concierge association, and steer them away at night "when there's a lot of partying going on."

Unless, of course, that's what they're looking for. It depends on the guests, she said.

"Guests like to be pampered," MacDougall said. "Pampering them, wooing them, giving them the unexpected."

Thursday night, though, the pampering went the other way. A couple of dozen members of the concierge association were treated to free drinks and food at the Don Vicente de Ybor Inn, a boutique hotel in the old Gonzalez Clinic across from historic Ybor Square, the former cigar factory founded by neighborhood namesake Vicente Martinez-Ybor.

Afterward, they picked up goodie bags stuffed with T-shirts and gift certificates before heading over to Club Skye. It was 8:30 p.m., too early for the club crowds, so they had the place to themselves.

Charlie Creel, a concierge at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort in Clearwater, was happy to get a look around, because it's unlikely he would go on his own. "I'm usually in bed by 10," Creel said with a laugh as he leaned against the bar while a group of female concierges posed in front of a brass pole.

Now he can describe exactly what the club looks like. Because you never know when a guest might ask.

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