Photo by Anna Agliardi
Discreet, multilingual, competent to a fault – Raffaele Sorrentino has turned his impeccable brand of hospitality into a thriving business: providing concierge service to luxury apartments.
Raffaele Sorrentino’s base, located in a quiet street behind Kurfürstendamm, is a rather plain set of rooms, airy and bright even in grimmest midwinter. There’s not much to immediately indicate the business at hand.
The devil’s in the details. A rack of long, immaculate jackets trimmed in red. A desktop punching bag, with a cheerful sewn-on invitation to batter it in moments of peak stress. In Sorrentino’s office, a baseball cap signed by Formula One drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, and a blown-up monochrome photo of a man in a high-end race-car, kissing the heavily bejeweled hand of his wife.
Sorrentino himself, 51 years old, hair slicked, trim and crinkle-eyed, wears sharp dress casual – navy blue, rich browns, scarf, Rolex. Lux, but not loud, is the name of the game: Sorrentino is former head concierge at the Hotel Adlon, and now runs a concierge service of his own.
A natural raconteur, he speaks in pleasantly accented English, slightly German-inflected after three decades here, with expansive Neapolitan gestures that open further as he relaxes, sometimes delivering gentle thumps to the table to emphasise a point. His biography is rather cinematic: the son of a Naples tailor who went bust in the late 1970s after the rise in chain clothing stores, he travelled to Lake Como at age 15 in search of work after a year at a tobacco plantation. Missing his stop on the bus, he says, he ended up outside a hotel advertising vacancies. The hotel was the super-luxe Villa d’Este, and his career trajectory – from bellboy there to top of the Adlon food chain, via San Moritz, Paris, Barcelona, Munich, London and San Francisco – is the stuff of hotel industry dreams. “Within five years, I could speak five languages.”
He rattles off some vital concierge traits: near-uncanny people skills (“Either your mother gave it to you in her milk, or you cannot do it”), iron tenacity and a lack of envy: “You see things you cannot afford. You have a delivery from Louis Vuitton, and there is a bill of €35,000. Maybe this is what you earn in a year.”
An astounding amount of preparation goes into catering to the rich. “Before you start the job,” he advises new hotel concierges, “you have to spend two months going around your city, meeting people, going out to eat – you can never tell your client if something is good or bad unless you have tried it.”
So what’s a concierge without a hotel? Busy. In 2009, Sorrentino left the Adlon and turned to more long-term clients: the residents of luxury apartment buildings.
His company, RAS (subtitle: “Service at any time”) caters to 25 buildings around Germany, with 12 in Berlin and four more to open here in 2015. They are for the most part located where you’d expect: between Ku’Damm and Friedrichstraße, concentrated in Mitte, perhaps one of the heftiest showpieces being the greater part of the Beisheim Center on Potsdamer Platz. Some, like Maison Ouest by KaDeWe, are older refurbished buildings, others are brand new and purpose-built for luxury living. Berlin is not New York and the idea is still something of a novelty to the German capital, although Sorrentino recalls seeing concierge service on Tiergarten’s Corneliusstraße 20 years ago. “But now it’s developing all over the city.”
RAS offers a one-stop-shop service for its wealthy clients, arranging housekeeping, fridge-filling – “Everything has to be perfect – it’s not a matter of a carton of milk, it’s the carton of milk” – sorting furniture scuffs or balcony weeds, flight booking, laundry. “You organise their whole life, in a way.”
It’s not a matter of a carton of milk, it’s THE carton of milk. Fridge-filling, flight booking, laundry... you organise their whole life.
Staring up at the creamy façade of the Beisheim’s Tower Apartments over the Ritz-Carlton, it’s hard not to wonder who’s gadding about inside. Sorrentino delivers a client breakdown: “I would say 70 percent Germans, 30 percent foreigners. French, Russian, Middle-Eastern, Italian, British…” Many, it turns out, are Berlin’s favourite bogeymen: globe-trotting investors. “You see that they don’t come to live in Berlin. They come maybe two or three times a year, they have an apartment in Paris, London, Dubai…”
In fact, there may be nobody to enjoy the view at all – Sorrentino can call to mind at least one ‘resident’ he has never seen, in five years contracted to his building. Still his concierge keeps the apartment in impeccable order: the water is run every week, his Jacuzzi filled monthly for the sake of the filters, to keep everything in readiness lest he return at short notice. If the whole notion is slightly nauseating to those outside looking in (or rather up), Sorrentino takes it in cheerful stride.
He credits his languages for his success, but with his affable manner it’s easy to see how he forged his connections, from pristine windowcleaning to early shouts from real estate developers that make his business possible. Thirty-five years of experience and what seems to be a genuine liking for people grant him the resilience to please people for whom “no” does not exist.
Indeed, RAS operates under the principle that only Sorrentino can refuse a request, calling the clients to apologise personally, so that their own concierge never has to let them down. “The emotional contact the concierge has in the building is extremely important. So if he says “no”, you kind of destroy this.”
He’s pleasantly dry about the changes he’s seen in the extremely wealthy. “In the late 1970s in the Villa d’Este, no one went to dinner without a tuxedo. Today you buy blue jeans with holes everywhere, and it costs €600. And this person has a hotel suite for €2500 per day.”
Sorrentino’s view on the effect of wealthy newcomers pushing poorer Berliners out of the city centre and into the remote suburbs is unemotional but sensible. “I don’t think it’s very healthy for the social life of a city, because you really have two extremes now.” But after a frustrating two-year stint in local politics (he served on the Kleinmachnow district council from 2002-2004), he seems to have renewed his dedication to doing what he loves best.
Though the concierge landscape seems to be drifting towards equal opportunities – he tells a rather sweet story of hiring a female applicant almost on sight through her sheer charisma – it’s also hard not to notice how masculine prepositions dominate his examples and anecdotes about the wealthy, but that’s perhaps par for the course. What’s heartening is Sorrentino’s old-school attitude to worker’s rights, conspicuous in the inhospitable hospitality landscape with his talk of automatic birthdays off and impromptu paternity leave (he urges employers with retention issues, “Look in the mirror and ask yourself why. I can tell you if you want, because I know how you treat your people.”). And his general glow, the aura of a man in the perfect job – rather than servility, he exudes the groomed twinkle of a confident magician. As if we didn’t have enough reason to envy the rich.
Originally published in issue #134, January 2015.