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 Barnett on Business Travel

chris CHICAGO'S BEST
BAG MAN


BY CHRIS BARNETT

August 12, 2004 -- Every time that ABC sportscaster John Madden pulls up to Chicago's Ritz-Carlton Hotel in his plush, cross-country bus, he roars, "Where's the Greek?" Teddy Psychogios is always curbside to greet him.

When an industrialist in the top ten of the Forbes 400 world's wealthiest people checks into the hotel, he asks Psychogios to dine with him, even though the invitation is politely declined. And when Jimmy Setas, the fruit-and-vegetable king of Lansing, Michigan, makes a reservation, he calls Teddy direct for his favorite room.

Is Teddy Psychogios the hotel's general manager or does he own the Ritz-Carlton, which in Chicago is actually a Four Seasons property? Neither. He has the poise and charm of a career diplomat, but he's actually the hotel's bell captain. He's been hefting bags at the Ritz for 26 consecutive years and lugging luggage in Chicago hotels for 44 years.

The 65-year-old bell chief, who could pass for 50, started at the bottom, as an elevator operator at the old, 23-story Sherman House in Chicago. "I spoke no English, so I'd read the numbers off the guests' keys and could say, 'third floor or seventh floor,' " he recalls. Switching to the 31-floor, 700-room LaSalle Hotel, now an office building, he was promoted to bellman and then bell captain at age 21, the youngest in the hotel's history.

The early 1960s were busy years for bellmen. Guests usually paid for their rooms with cash on arrival. A basic room at the LaSalle was $40 a night. Check-in was a slow, handwritten exercise. Front-desk lines were long and guests were often cranky from waiting. Business travelers carried a single hard-sided suitcase with no wheels or handle and they were tired of toting it around.

Overworked desk clerks would collect the room money, slap a bell and yell "Front!" Psychogios and nine other bellmen hustled nonstop, earning $5 a day plus tips. The tip was usually a quarter; 50 cents a bag was a financial windfall. "We smiled a lot and worked hard," he remembers.

Psychogios' career got a lift when his boss at the LaSalle joined the Ritz-Carlton Chicago in 1978 as guest-service manager and hired him. Suddenly, he was meeting a more sophisticated clientele and carrying fancier--and heavier--luggage. "My boss said, 'Teddy, this is not the LaSalle Hotel. We give service and a friendly smile to these guests. We greet them by their last name, make eye contact and say good morning.' "

Of course, Psychogios is hardly the first colorful bellman. The entire profession has a colorful ancestry.

The first hotel bellmen in the United States were coachmen and footmen who were often indentured and later freed slaves. So says a knowledgeable hospitality-industry historian, Jim Hewes, a longtime mixologist at the 157-year-old Willard Intercontinental Hotel in Washington, DC.

"A coachman hung on the back of the coach, often for a free ride. When it stopped at an 'ordinary,' as inns and some taverns were known, he'd help unload the bags so the driver didn't have to climb down," explains Hewes. "Eventually, innkeepers and hotel owners didn't want a dusty coachman in a long, dirty coat trekking in, so a servant in the hotel fetched the bags and greeted arriving guests. Travelers who could afford coaches had their own servants and they felt at home when given a genuinely warm welcome at the inn."

In the mid-1860s, according to Hewes, Charles Dickens was a guest at the Willard and he complained bitterly about the incessant clanging of bells. Seems that guests and staff alike would summon a servant to, say, the third floor by ringing a bell or triangle three times, or to the fifth floor with five rings. Dickens griped loudly that he couldn't concentrate on his writing or sleep with all the bells ringing.

Today, Psychogios oversees nine Ritz-Carlton bellmen, each of whom is hand-trained to coddle business travelers, vacationers and Michigan Avenue shoppers. Most of these customers are long on assets and short on time. "A guest will call on a cell phone and say, 'Teddy, I'm several blocks away.' I go downstairs, give them their room key, get their bags and they go off to their meeting."

Teddy often "partners" with special-services manager Jennifer Foster and the duo will double-team a regular guest with a curbside, "Welcome back Mr. or Ms. ... We have you in room 525." After a quarter of a century at the Ritz, he knows the worldly and wealthy love to hear the sound of their own names.

"I bypass the reservation desk, call Teddy direct and he takes care of everything," says Jimmy Setas, chief executive of Stan Setas Produce. He checks into the Ritz-Carlton four to five times a year, often with his family. "He never misses a detail," Setas says of Psychogios. "My son is a basketball fan and Teddy got him an autograph from a Philadelphia 76er and sent it to him. He introduced my kids to John Madden. He treats normal guests and celebrities the same way."

There is an unspoken etiquette among the hotel's bell staff. Besides addressing guests by their last name, they always strike up a pleasant conversation--but never in an elevator or within earshot of other guests. Bellmen never name-drop, either. I tried to wangle the name of the Forbes A-lister out of Teddy, but he wouldn't budge.

Another cardinal rule for bellmen at the Ritz-Carlton Chicago is "Don't wait to be asked." Unlike many luxury hotels, the Ritz has free, in-room high-speed Internet access and Teddy and his team volunteer to hook up the Ethernet cable to your laptop computer. That's a first. Plus, the hotel has a troubleshooting 800 line linked directly to the Internet equipment provider that actually works. It picked up at midnight after just three rings and someone patiently walked me through my connection glitches at no cost.

Bellmen at the Ritz-Carlton Chicago are like roaming concierges, says Psychogios. I'm an early riser and, on a recent visit, I went downstairs to buy some newspapers. A bellman got me a pile of dailies, gave me a muffin and brought in a full pot of coffee while I was working in the business center. It wasn't charged to my room.

Checking out is pretty smooth, too. Teddy picked up my bags, swept through the room to make sure I hadn't left any treasures or socks behind, then rolled my bags downstairs. Instead of just handing me off to the doorman, however, he took the bags out to the sidewalk and loaded everything into a taxi. "Come back soon" was his sayonara.

But Teddy Psychogios probably won't be there. Next summer, he plans to hang up his brass baggage cart and spend time with his three daughters, all Chicago-area schoolteachers, and his grandkids. He'll also spend time at his apartment in Athens, which his career as a bellman underwrote.

"I hate to retire, but I have to do it," he says with a smile, without a trace of weariness. "I'm like a quarterback and my legs are giving out."

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright 2001-2004 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.