-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
Gone are the days when hotel concierges had to deal only with standard requests for restaurant recommendations and spa bookings.
The growing number of ultra-wealthy tourists visiting Singapore has meant that the types of requests hotel concierges receive have also grown progressively more outrageous. Think guests wanting an out-of-production toy or insisting on jumping a two-year waiting list for a designer handbag.
According to the Singapore Tourism Board's fourth-quarter report on the tourism sector's performance last year, hotels in the luxury tier were the top performers in the hotel industry, posting increases in average room rate, occupancy rate and revenue generated per room, despite all other hotel tiers posting declines.
Ms Evasusanti Abdullah, club manager of The Club at Capella Singapore, says that unusual requests among its hotel's guests have definitely become more common in recent years.
"People today are more well travelled and they are exposed to more varied service experiences. As such, it is natural that there are expectations that they bring along with them," she says, adding that the concierge team at Capella receives "large-scale requests once or twice a month".
Mr Hussain Khan Omar Khan, head butler of the Shangri-La Hotel's exclusive Valley Wing, says he receives unique requests monthly.
"The frequency may be higher if we are hosting VIPs in the Valley Wing," he adds.
He adds that it is important to remain unfazed in the face of such unexpected requests.
"I remain neutral and listen carefully to the details so that I do not miss the guest's requirements," he says.
MR Ali Alsagoff, chief concierge of the Four Seasons hotel here, adds experience helps when dealing with a guest with an unusual request.
"It will be overwhelming when you are new to the job, but with a veteran concierge, you know to just take a deep breath, focus and get ready to work on those requests," he says.
Concierges from all hotels approached say they draw the line at requests that are illegal, immoral or unethical.
While most say that they have not had any questionable requests yet, one five-star hotel here revealed that its concierges had been approached for "exotic drugs", which they refused to help procure.
While the requests are becoming more challenging to meet, concierges here say the pay-off is the guests' delight and their own satisfaction at completing a request well.
Adds Mr Ali: "It validates your career as a concierge - the magician who can pull rabbits out of the hats."
SundayLife! talks to seven high-end hotels and rounds up 10 of the most unusual requests concierges here have been asked to fulfil.
SAND PIT IN THE BALCONY
Early last year, a Mongolian family of five staying in the Penthouse - part of The Club, Capella Singapore's long-stay serviced residences - called the hotel's concierge with a baffling request.
Despite being minutes away from the beach, the couple wanted a sand pit constructed in the balcony of their two-storey, three-bedroom unit for their three children - aged between two and five years old - to play in.
"They did not want to expose their children to direct sunlight for very long," says a spokesman for the hotel.
The hotel's concierge team got to work immediately, working closely with the hotel's landscapers to transport two big bags of sand to the apartment. There, they constructed a 100 sq ft sand pit in the balcony so the couple could watch their children build sandcastles while sitting in the living room.
The hotel spokesman adds that the family was not charged for the sand or the construction of the sand pit.
While they had originally planned to stay for a month, the family ended up extending their stay to three months. Monthly rates at The Penthouse start from $29,000 a month.
4KG OF DRY ICE
Last month, the concierge team at Resorts World Sentosa's Festive Hotel received an e-mail from a guest a week before her arrival.
She asked if they could procure 4kg of dry ice for her, to be ready on the day she arrived for a one night stopover in Singapore.
The Indonesian guest was travelling with her husband and three children - including a newborn - to Hong Kong, wanted the dry ice to keep her breast milk cold during her flight to Hong Kong.
Despite the unusual request, concierge Zain Salleh says he did not bat an eyelid. "I just treated it as a normal e-mail request and started making calls," he says.
Seven companies he called refused to deliver the ice to the hotel, but the eighth agreed, provided the order was for a minimum of 5kg.
The company had the dry ice delivered to the hotel's front desk the morning of the guests' departure to Hong Kong. A maxicab helped transport the dry ice to the airport.
This was the first time the hotel has received such a request, says Mr Zain. The dry ice cost $10 a kilogram, including delivery, and the guest paid for it.
"She was quite grateful that we managed to get it done and wrote us a complimentary letter after she returned home," he adds.
TABLE-TENNIS TABLE AND A PLAYER
A last-minute booking of the $15,000 a night presidential suite at the St Regis Singapore came with an additional request - the Russian guest wanted to be able to play table tennis during his stay in Singapore.
The hotel's concierge had a tabletennis table set up in the hotel's indoor tennis court, and went an extra step - the hotel engaged one of Singapore's top table-tennis players to play with the guest during his visit three years ago.
While the hotel declined to name the player or how much the guest paid for the player's time, it revealed that the guest was so happy with the arrangement that he decided to make it permanent.
"After his stay, he went on to engage the Singapore table-tennis player as his personal coach. Today, this personal coach travels with the guest around the world, just to be his table-tennis partner," says a hotel spokesman.
A Russian couple spending their honeymoon in Asia stopped in Singapore and wanted "a unique way to view the city".
They wanted a helicopter ride, but informed the hotel's concierge of the Four Seasons Hotel Singapore just two days before they were scheduled to leave.
The concierge team sprang into action, contacting an aerospace academy in Seletar to see if a helicopter ride over the city could be possible.
Setting it up within 48 hours, the hotel also arranged for the couple to be taken by limousine to and from Seletar Airport for the 45-minute aerial tour.
The tour cost the couple $2,000.
BYPASS WAITLIST FOR DESIGNER BAG
A guest from the Middle East who stayed at Capella Singapore two years ago wanted to bring back a very specific gift for his wife.
The guest, who worked for a government body and was in his 30s, asked the hotel's concierge for a particular handbag from an exclusive brand. While the hotel declined to name the brand of the bag, a hotel spokesman called the request "very challenging".
"The particular brand he requested required at least a two- to four-year wait to purchase its products," says the spokesman.
The concierge team tapped into their network of contacts, and found a personal shopper who was able to procure some bags from that brand within just one day. She brought a selection of bags to the hotel. The hotel declined to reveal where the personal shopper found the bags.
"The guest was so delighted that he bought two handbags," says the hotel spokesman, who adds that the guest paid more than $40,000 for both bags.
BLOOD-RED POCKET SQUARE
A foreign dignitary staying at the Shangri-La Hotel Singapore discovered he needed a new pocket square - just three hours before a function he was here to attend. His personal assistant had forgotten to pack the right one in his suitcase.
He sent his personal assistant to ask the hotel's Valley Wing's head butler Hussain Khan Omar Khan for a silk pocket square in a specific blood-red shade.
A customised pocket square takes three days to produce typically, so Mr Hussain set off immediately for Orchard Road to scour the men's tailor shops there.
After two hours of searching, he found a ready-made pocket square - in the exact shade and material that the minister had requested - in a shop at the Centrepoint mall, and purchased it for $185. He made it back to the hotel in time for the function.
"The minister was very pleased with it and wore it to the function. His son, who was with him, loved it so much that he requested the exact same design and Hussain happily obliged with the request, even managing to secure it for him on the same day," says a hotel spokesman.
RARE LAMBORGHINI TO BUY
Two years ago, a Malaysian guest at the Shangri-La Hotel Singapore had his eye on the Lamborghini Sesto Elemento and let the hotel's concierge know that he wanted to buy one.
The challenge was immediately obvious - the lightweight, two-door, two-seater was a limitededition model, and there were only 20 such cars in the world, says a hotel spokesman. When the car was launched in 2010, it cost more than US$2 million (S$2.5 million).
The chief concierge, Mr Yusoff Omar, then contacted a friend who worked at a local distributor of luxury cars, as well as several local luxury car owners for leads on on how to get hold of the car.
His friend managed to find four potential overseas sellers.
Despite the difficulties in contacting these sellers scattered around the world, Mr Yusoff persisted for five days. He was finally able to get in touch with a Lamborghini owner in Abu Dhabi.
He then connected him with the Malaysian, a regular guest at the hotel who had since returned to Malaysia. The guest bought the car for an undisclosed sum.
The first few requests of a Dubai couple staying at the Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore were easy for the concierge team - where the man could get his limited-edition Audemars Piguet watch strap replaced, where they could find shops that sold specific Japanese kitchenware and where they could book luxurious spa treatments.
It was their final request that nearly stumped the hotel's concierge team. The couple wanted to buy a Noddy toy for their six-year-old daughter, who had not joined them on their five-day trip. The toy was not available in Dubai, and the couple had been told that toys from that particular children's TV show had long been out of production.
Noddy is a wooden boy with blue shorts, a red shirt and a tinkly hat created by English children's author Enid Blyton. Following the popularity of the books, television shows about Noddy started airing in the 1950s.
The hotel's concierge called several toy stores here and took the search online. He found out that a Noddy toy used to be part of the collection of the now-defunct Toy Museum here, and managed to track down the owner of the toy from an online ad she had posted. She replied the next day that she was still selling it, and a member of the concierge team met the seller that day, right before the couple were due to return to Dubai.
The toy, which took four days to track down, cost $55, and the hotel paid for it.
A MISSING PIECE OF HISTORY
Last September, a 75-year-old Japanese woman who spoke little English was in Singapore for one reason - she wanted to find a particular building she had been told her father had built, that she had been born in and that her mother had died in. Conveying this to the Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore's concierge through limited English and hand gestures, the concierge guessed that the building she kept calling "Doh-jin Byo-in" might have been a hospital.
Armed with an old photograph from the guest of the building, the hotel's concierge searched the Internet and the National Archives' oral transcripts of people who had lived during World War II.
He found out that the building was formerly the British Middle Road Hospital, but now houses a private school. With the help of a Japanese guest relations officer from the hotel, he compiled snippets of information about the old building into a scrapbook and sought permission from the building's current tenants to let the guest have a look inside.
When they got to the building, the Japanese guest, who was travelling with her daughter during her four-day trip here, broke down in tears and almost fainted, says a hotel spokesman.
ORANG UTAN FOR A PARTY
A multinational company here planning a party at the hotel wanted to surprise its employees with a special guest, and enlisted the help of the Four Seasons Hotel's concierge.
The requested guest? An orang utan.
"The company wanted a special animal to make a guest appearance, to make the company tea party more unique," says the hotel's chief concierge, Mr Ali Alsagoff.
He recalls this request that was made almost five years ago as one of the most unusual of his career.
"Thankfully, we had more time to work on this one - we had a month's notice, which gave us enough time to liaise with the Singapore Zoo," he says.
He successfully booked the ape's time and the orang utan and his trainer made a surprise appearance for 15 minutes at the party, to the amusement of the company's employees.
According to a representative of the Singapore Zoo, it costs about $900 to hire an orang utan for 30 minutes, but the zoo does not typically allow its animals to be taken off its grounds