A day with Maria João Cunha

Head of Concierge at InterContinental Lisbon.

Maria João Cunha, head of concierge at InterContinental Lisbon.

Who are you and how did you get there?

My name is Maria João Cunha, born and raised in Lisbon. In 1985 I saw that the former Le Meridien Lisbon was recruiting staff for its opening. I sent my application and ended up speaking with the future head concierge. I was accepted and begun preparing the welcome of our first guests. I knew nothing about being a concierge back then. It was love at first sight. I became passioned with the job and knew at that time that it would be my future career. And now I am the head of concierge at the InterContinental Lisbon – the only female in that position in Lisbon.

How does a normal day at InterContinental Lisbon look for you?

The beauty of my job is that we never know what we will find ahead of us during the day. We have a lot of preparation in organising the requests that the guests make. But there are always surprises request wise that we need to fulfil and satisfy our guest expectations. We must deal with different kind of reservations, transfers, restaurants, tickets for all sort of events, shopping etc. The request diversity of our guests is amazing. Sometimes we need to “read” what the guest does not say but we feel that he wants. We never say “I do not know” instead “I will check it for you “. All days are different with a lot of challenges, it is really a must for me.

This year has been an unusual one, what have your biggest challenges been so far?

2020 will stay as one of the darkest years of the hospitality industry over the last 75 years. My work is mainly the result of personal interactions where we use our smile and body language to create a welcoming feeling towards our guests. Now everything has changed. The number of guests have reduced drastically and our interactions these days are based on caution and distance. The barriers that we build with the masks, markers and distancing make our work feel cold and short. Guests that were used to listen to our stories about recommendations in Lisbon or even in Portugal, now just want directions. But I am sure that the hospitality industry will prevail in the end.

What’s one of the most strange or peculiar requests you have ever received as a concierge?

Imagine that you are in the concierge lounge at Christmas eve with all its ambience and happy guests. Suddenly, a couple approaches me smiling and asks; “We want to get married tomorrow in São Jorge Castle in a white limousine with an English speaking priest”. Imagine how I am standing in front of the couple with such an unbelievable request. We moved mountains but we managed to make their day. They married and hopefully they still are. We were extremely happy with our efforts and so were the couple.

What’s the next big thing in hospitality according to you?

The pandemic brought a lot of new tech gadgets that are currently mandatory in all hotels to minimise contacts inside the hotel. There are apps to do almost anything these days, ordering food, restaurant reservations, opening your room, to call the lift etc. I think that as soon as the pandemic is under control and people travel again we need to challenge our old ways of working. We need to integrate some of the new features together with our will to relate with the guests. I do not know yet how future travellers will behave and what their expectations will be, it is an unknown ground that we will need to assess and learn. I am looking forward to the future times as I think it will be challenging but at the same time rewarding.

What advice would you give for young people who want to get into the hospitality industry?

Be perseverant, stay positive, always be willing to learn and teach, be available, do not stop studying and always have an open mind. Learn languages and travel a lot. Be aware of different cultures and respect others. Most of all, be patient, be ambitious and be true.

There’s this culture of exceeding guest expectations and this is in our DNA and company cultureMaria Joao Cunha

What makes InterContinental Lisbon the best luxury hotel in Lisbon?

I could say it’s the service but it’s not only that. What really makes us the best luxury hotel in Lisbon are our hotel staff and their team work. There’s this culture of exceeding guest expectations and this is in our DNA and company culture. The letters we receive, the feedback we collect and the fact guests keep returning are great ways of being recognised for what we do on our daily basis. This is our home and we love what we do. Luxury is all about quality, it’s about feeling safe, it’s about service, people and experiences and we are the perfect combination of all those key factors.

What inspires you the most?

I am inspired by accomplished guest expectations. In our daily job there’s nothing better than having satisfied guests. Working in a team that is focused on guests and that works together to achieve our goals is like heaven on earth.

Finally, what are some of your favourite places in Lisbon?

I could spend my day explaining all my favourite places in Lisboa. It is a wonderful town that allows us to discover a lot of different ambiences. I like to walk in Alfama in the narrow and historic streets full of tradition where you can find local food and small shops. You can also see the castle, the churches with a lot of stories. Finally you can use the tram to go to “feira da ladra” and eat grilled sardines and taste our wonderful wine.

At night you can find a fado place to connect with the music and feel the real soul of Lisbon. I could also pinpoint different places like Bairro Alto, Madragoa, Cais do Sodre. River bank restaurants to eat fish, amazing shellfish houses were you probably find the best ones in the world or you can just go shopping or go to museums all day around

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