How one hotel concierege is forcing the city retailer's to get real
August 7, 2006
By JONATHAN O'CONNELL, Hartford Business Journal Writer
The name that may be the key to Hartford’s future as a welcoming city isn’t Larry Gottesdeiner, Eddie Perez or Michael Wilson, but Fitzgerald Heslop.
Gottesdeiner may control most of downtown’s real estate, Perez may be the mayor and Wilson may set the stage for theatre goers. But Heslop is the man who, every day, hundreds of tourists and convention-goers turn to for advice about the best Hartford has to offer.
And Heslop says he’s not about to give out bad advice.
In the Hartford Hilton’s lobby, where Heslop, a Hartford native and Weaver High School alumnus, is the new concierge, all the keys to a Hartford resurgence — the convention center, restaurants and arts attractions — come together.
By making recommendations to hundreds of guests each week, Heslop serves as the field general for city officials and planners who preach the importance of convention center-related business and foot traffic.
His work in that role was on display last week when he hosted a cocktail party, tour and dinner for managers and owners of local restaurants. Heslop designed his own invitations, delivering each one by hand and hiring a violinist he’d seen playing in Bushnell Park to greet guests.
He believes that greater attention to service — put in place through cooperation with restaurants — can change people’s minds about Hartford, one hotel guest at a time.
“These people come in on a Monday,” he said. “By Thursday, they’re family.”
His mission to improve service is much more than a job for him. At the start of June he was an unemployed 24-year-old graduate of Nashville’s Fisk University, back at home. But while sitting in Morty & Ming’s restaurant on the Hilton’s ground floor one day, he discussed an idea he had for a magazine focused specifically on service and class. Hilton’s assistant general manager overheard him, and Heslop was hired later that day.
Obsessed With Quality
His new role allows him to unleash his obsession full-time.
Because he wants his guests to always feel at home, he expects the restaurants he recommends to meet the same standards as Hilton staff: phones should be answered within three rings; tables should be neatly and tastefully set; questions ought to be answered with understanding tones and helpful answers. And not only does Heslop ask his guests for feedback upon their return, but he sometimes follows them to a place he recommended so he can see for himself the presentation of the menu, the volume of the music, the time it takes for the salads to arrive.
He doesn’t pretend to be a food critic; what he cares about is service.
“What I am qualified to speak to is what our customers’ experience has been like. That’s what I’m looking for. If you’re in the restaurant business, you should be preparing good food,” he said.
Vying For Attention
The restaurants that can keep up make it to Heslop’s list of places he will recommend. A spot on the list, which 22 restaurants now enjoy, is better advertising than money can buy. Every night the hotel’s 393 rooms hold more than 400 people, and Hilton General Manger Robert Sighinolfi believes about 300 of those go elsewhere to eat, often on Heslop’s recommendation.
As Hugh Russell, owner of The Russell, a nearby restaurant and jazz spot, put it: “It’s been very helpful to get to know Fitz. He’s sent a lot of customers our way.”
Other restaurant owners and retailers have clearly also taken note. For instance, Tuesday’s Clothing, on Asylum Street, recently re-opened nearly an hour after closing when Heslop called with a guest in need of clothes for the next day. Need a spa appointment when there are no openings? Heslop can get you one (he did for Madonna’s tour manager).
A knack for connecting with people would likely have served Heslop well no matter what his career path. A political science major and former aide to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, he once debated on a CNN program. In June he served as Weaver High School’s commencement speaker, encouraging students from his former school to work hard toward their goals, whatever they may be. So politics or public speaking may be in his future, but for the moment, Heslop is worried about what he will say when his next guest walks in and asks, What good ever came from Hartford?