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Need barbed wire? Try the concierge.

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John Dowd remembers the time he was asked to help a man propose to his girlfriend in a busy Chicago shopping mall. It was a tall order: The suitor had planned his proposal for the day before Christmas, and he wanted his overture to be accompanied by an opera singer and a pianist.

With just three days to make arrangements, Mr. Dowd managed to negotiate permission, run an electrical chord to a mike for the singer, and help the man, a guest at the hotel where Dowd worked, pen his proposal. At the time, Dowd was a concierge at the Park Hyatt; now he's the head concierge at Chicago's majestic Drake Hotel. During his 15 years working in luxury hotels, Dowd says he has orchestrated close to a hundred engagements – without a single rejection.

In an effort to lure wealthy patrons and differentiate themselves from competitors, hotels are offering unusually specialized services. There are now "concierges" who attend to romance, beds, even baths. But the old-fashioned concierge, a fixture in the lobby of any grand hotel, has remained a constant. Everyone knows a concierge can secure a difficult dinner reservation. Beyond that, though, there remains some mystery around the exact parameters of the job and a mystique about the men and women who perform it.

So what exactly can a concierge do?

Just about anything, it turns out, and always with a courteous and self-effacing mien.

At the Drake Hotel, there is a saying: "The answer is yes. Now what's the question?" That sort of willing attitude can open a Pandora's box, says Dowd, who was born in Ireland and raised in London. But rather than sound concerned, he seems to delight in the job's challenges. His colleagues say it keeps their days interesting.

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