#myWeekend - Claudio Caser

The key to Ticino

From osterias in Ticino to exotic islands

Claudio Caser, for whom no distance is too long when it comes to his guests, talks about how one propagates carriages and how one deals with invisible luggage.

Claudio Caser is an experienced concierge and he always begins each morning with a cup of coffee at the hotel. Today he does what he always does: 20% work according to plan and 80% improvisation. Each guest that approaches him comes to him with a special request or concern. Claudio's day can very quickly take a turn for the worse, and his improvisations are sought-after in order to fulfil the guests' requests. From a hand-rolled cigarette that Claudio fetched from the locker of one of the kitchen staff without further ado, to an old milk can with 500 roses to a decorated cow in the middle of the hotel's garden for a Japanese tour group – Claudio makes everything happen.

Discretion and aplomb are the hallmarks of a good concierge. However, according to Claudio the most important quality is: "He likes people!" His goal: to find the best solution in the event of extraordinary requests and in challenging situations. His weapon: friendliness. "It is the most elegant way to, for example, mollify an upset guest", says Claudio with a grin. A few memories probably just shot through his head.

Claudio Caser, 57, is a very passionate concierge at the 5-star Hotel Giardino in Ascona in the sunny region of Switzerland.

Hospitality is in his blood

Claudio grew up knowing two languages in Bolzano in Italian South Tyrol: German and Italian. At the tender age of 14, Claudio had his first job interview at a Tyrolean 4-star hotel. From then on, he cleaned windows and silverware in black trousers, a white jacket and a bow tie. "Piccolo", as the others called him, enjoyed the work and was fascinated by the prominent guests that came and went. Room service was his favourite task because he could thereby catch glimpses of the hotel's luxurious suites. His enthusiasm attracted the attention of the manager of the reception desk. Thus, Claudio was promoted and allowed to give the valuable hotel keys to the guests himself, at the time unaware that later two golden keys would permanently adorn his jacket.

Hotel management school was his next goal. The school was in Lausanne, so Claudio travelled to Switzerland without speaking a word of French. While he spent more than half a year diligently learning the new language in order to be admitted, the lira, the Italian currency at the time, lost a lot of its value and he was unable to overcome the financial hurdle that arose. But his knowledge of German and Italian paid off when he was able to interview for a job in Ticino. His new employer, whom he has stuck with to this day: the Hotel Giardino in Ascona.

Ticino has become his home. More than 20 years later, Claudio also unexpectedly became a Swiss citizen. He had to go see the mayor of Brissago, whom he had befriended and who was eager to naturalise Claudio. Thus, he was asked the most important questions about Switzerland and the Federal Council. It was child's play for Claudio, who only a few days earlier had welcomed Ms Dreifuss at the hotel and had been invited to Kandersteg by Federal Councillor Ogi.

Visible and invisible luggage

The concierge profession garnered increasing attention after the Second World War. Back then the concierges organised the guests' onward journey to the next European metropolis in the style of the film "The Grand Budapest Hotel". But the profession finds its origin much before then, derived from "comte des cierges", the count in a castle who was responsible for the lighting. A time-consuming and responsible task when one considers how big such a building was and how risky illuminating it with candles was. The big bunch of keys opened every door for him. Because he was in close contact with the inhabitants of the house, he knew about every affair.

That remains the case to this day: Claudio knows a few private details about his guests. Upon arrival, there is always some "invisible luggage" as well, which is what Claudio calls discrete stories or burdens from everyday life. They must be handled with discretion. "When one deals with the concerns, one cannot get heavily involved." Claudio has learned this over time.  After all, we are not psychologists, says Claudio with a laugh. He has not been able to save any company from bankruptcy or any marriage. Of course, it was exciting to be invited by a guest to use his villa in San Tropez, for example, or to ride around on his expensive toboggan. But it is important to know his place – always there behind the desk when a guest comes looking for him, always committed to improving his stay at the hotel.

The more beautiful the place, the more extravagant the request

Claudio knows Ticino inside and out.  As we visit his favourite places, he has a story to tell about each one. At Osteria Borei, the guests even arrive in a helicopter at lunchtime in order to taste the risotto, the secret recipe for which has been handed down for three generations. The osteria's guestbook preserves these extraordinary visits. Claudio once accompanied a heiress of a jewellery company who wanted to drive up the narrow curves to the osteria in her Ford Thunderbird and the car nearly broke down because the motor overheated. In the end, after too much wine and grappa, Claudio had to rearrange the drive home, and the beautiful car got to enjoy the enchanting view of Lake Maggiore for a night.

Claudio very fondly remembers one of his regular guests. The lady, who stays at the hotel for longer visits time and again, knows all of Ascona and Locarno. Over time, Claudio nearly ran out of ideas for things he could arrange for her to do. And so, one day on the spot he recommended to her a confessional visit to the friar at the Madonna del Sasso, a place of pilgrimage with a monastery and a magnificent view of all of Locarno. When in the late afternoon the lady still had not returned, Claudio began to worry and called the friar. All-clear: After visiting the private library, which we also were allowed to visit that day, the lady discovered the wine cellar, had a few glasses with the friar and got slightly drunk. This story clearly shows that Claudio's excursion tips have a certain appeal. Another example?

The stately wedding in Ronco is the best example that the word "impossible" does not exist in Claudio's vocabulary. Initially the cost of the wedding was within acceptable bounds, and then it took a different turn. With a call from the father of the bride, a new request reached Claudio: Instead of driving in cars to the church in Ronco, he wanted carriages for the entire wedding party. Claudio, completely in character as concierge, remained polite and confirmed that this would be possible, fully aware that in Ticino there was only one carriage. How then could he get more? But one carriage was better than none, and he called the coachman. The one led to the next one. In the end, at the wedding reception 25 decorated carriages stood ready on the old flight route to Ronco. The horses and carriages were transported in circus wagons from all over Switzerland to Ticino. Escorted by the police, the carriages made their way to Ronco, where the whole village was in turmoil and a number of television stations had already arrived.

Also, but not only in the course of this wedding: Claudio always fondly recalls the many hotel guests who have come and gone through the doors of the Giardino. And many of them have left something behind: other stories worth telling.

One's own tree on the Brissago Islands

Claudio used to run riot on the lake in a pink wooden boat, the Aphrodite, but nowadays he casts off in a modern black ship from the harbour and goes out on the deep blue Lake Maggiore. There are two small islands in the middle of the lake that, depending on the perspective, also appear to be one island. During the trip, Claudio and our skipper, Claude, an experienced and skilful sailor from Lago Maggiore, tell me about the old days. How Ascona and Locarno have developed, who lived where and how the two islands have changed over the past 100 years. Claudio used to chauffeur his guests to the island in the old "tanker" and spoiled them with delicious set meals on the ship. When the excursion ship went by, one had to skilfully dodge the waves. Otherwise the dishes fell to the floor. They were adventurous trips that the hotel guests still talk about in the hotel lobby. When the motor broke down, and that happened every now and then, the grappa was especially delicious and bridged the time until help arrived.

The Brissago Islands are quite special for Claudio. Both islands can be seen rather well from his favourite places in Ticino and his small house above Brissago very near the Italian border. There are many stories that connect him to these two patches of green, which even served as a location for a gunpowder factory during the Second World War. One of these stories is about an unforgettable wedding: As concierge, Claudio has organised a great number of weddings – one of them on the "Piemonte", an old paddle steamer, with a stop off one of the islands. Since the bridal couple did not find a suitable suggestion among the many proposals as to who should conduct the ceremony, the groom's mother suggested on the spot that Claudio was best suited to do it. And that's how Claudio came to marry these two young people on the beautifully lit steamboat in front of the whole wedding party. In his speech, he talked about Baroness Antoinette de Saint Léger, who spent a long time beautifying the islands, and he took the guests along on the trip to the two islands, which together have much to tell.

The Brissago Islands are renowned for their exotic gardens. Plants from around the world can be found there. One of them thanks to Claudio. Claudio once bought a sack of wood for an open fire. As he was emptying it, two coffee beans also fell out of the jute sack. Claudio carefully planted and nurtured them. And lo and behold – a big coffee tree grew. At some point it became too big and too rich in flavour for his flat, so Claudio offered the tree to a gardener on the Brissago Islands, and so it was shipped to the island. As we reach the island and dock the ship, we are eager to see if we will find the «Café Arabica tree». And sure enough there it is, and it conjures up a broad grin on Claudio's face.

The classy network  

"Concierges invented networking", says Claudio with a laugh. Only thus can the job be mastered and the impossible made possible. Claudio has contacts at various jewellery shops, boutiques and flower shops in the region who he may call at any time day or night. It could happen that a frantic guest almost forgot the 30th anniversary of the day he married his wife. So, at night the perfect gift has to be arranged. Whether it be gifts, forgotten items or medicinal products, his contacts make it happen. Accordingly diverse: from the friar to the greengrocer to the forwarding agency. Claudio's attitude when someone helps him with a guest's concern: "I always assume that someday I can return the favour – in some way or another." Honesty and reliability are always important; that's how Claudio keeps the good reputation that he thoroughly enjoys in Ticino.

Claudio's dedication to and love of the job has impressed many guests. So, it came to pass that one of the regular guests, an elderly lady from Istanbul, suggested to him that since he was a concierge, he should apply to become a member of the Clefs d’Or (the Golden Keys). She had noticed that Claudio did not wear the two crossed golden keys on his lapel as do all members of the most important network of concierges who work at luxury hotels. The lady took the matter into her own hands and informed Mr Ostertag at the Baur au Lac in Zurich about the young candidate. Claudio had to go to Zurich, where the members inspected him from head to toe. Now they are close friends, but it was not so easy at the beginning: A few guests arrived at the Giardino in order to grill the young candidate. Claudio proved himself and was accepted into the organisation as one of 140 members in Switzerland. Shortly thereafter he became the fourth president of the Swiss association and represented Switzerland at a meeting of the international association, which has 4000 members

The Clefs d’Or is an association whose members greatly benefit from its network and thus foster a close relationship amongst themselves. They always help each other, for example when someone is looking for a Gucci handbag that can no longer be had anywhere, but a concierge in New York knows where he can get hold of one and finally sends it to Switzerland. Elite service personnel can always rely on their partners. Regarding mobility, for example, Hertz is available anytime and regularly helps fulfil guests' exclusive requests. Except for horse-drawn carriages, Hertz offers everything the guests desire.

Thanks to the Clefs d’Or association, Claudio has seen the world from an exclusive perspective. And so there is a list of experiences, each better than the others, such as the helicopter flight over Niagara Falls, the walk down the red carpet at the Parliament in Budapest, the ride in the VIP lift in the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the stroll through the White House and the audience with the pope.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade

When Claudio is not in his small house stirring his own polenta in a copper pot or tending to his sage, then he is travelling around the wide world. Travelling is his drug and the lifeblood of his job. He can only do it well when he himself goes on a discovery tour and expands his network. Only then can he give his guests advice regarding excursions or get them into exclusive places.

When travelling, Claudio especially enjoys Hertz's offer and once in a while he takes an extra turn with the rental car. "Detours are the most beautiful things in the world", says Claudio with a sparkle in his eyes as he talks about his adventures in a car and on foot. In cities he likes best to put away his mobile phone and just take off, get his bearings and in this way discover the most beautiful corners. But what Claudio likes best is to get lost in Venice. "In today's world we have forgotten something important", says Claudio: to ask other people questions! We orient ourselves according to various apps and guidebooks and as a result are so focused on our mobile phone that we forget we could talk to someone and ask questions.

Of course, Claudio also has an anecdote: He was riding on scooters south of Naples with a concierge friend when they decided to take a detour in order to get to a hill. Along the way they met a local person who on the spot invited them for a drink. Thus, the two concierges enjoyed two divine lemon granitas made from freshly squeezed Sorrento lemons. They talked to each other over cool drinks and the elderly gentleman turned out to be a bartender who had mixed drinks in the grandest palaces in Europe. With this story and his others, Claudio once again made clear to us that detours are worth taking and are the real sense behind travelling.


Switzerland Tourism recommends


Ticino is the gateway to the south and delights visitors with its charm, fascinating lifestyle and Italian culture. Holiday destinations such as Ascona or Lugano exude Mediterranean flair, and the mild climate makes Ticino a popular travel destination, and not only for Swiss guests. But the Alps are never far away: the wonderfully wild nature of Ticino’s side valleys, such as the Maggia Valley or the Centovalli, offers a whole host of opportunities for excursions, hiking and biking. Finally, Ticino also offers a world heritage site: the “Tre Castelli”, a group of three mediaeval castles, are an iconic landmark of Bellinzona, Ticino’s capital, and have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since the year 2000.

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