Oh, I'll kill myself. I don't like this one bit."
It's a Friday afternoon and John Powell, the romance concierge at Manhattan's 70 Park Avenue Hotel, is painstakingly readying room No. 1615 for guests who'll be celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary. "Actually," he tells me, "they call me a romance sommelier." Powell has just spent 40 minutes adorning the couple's bed with hundreds of rose petals he has carefully layered in the shape of a heart, and now he reworks his design: bigger, rounder, more heart-shaped.
Then comes the real work. He makes a border of rose petals around the edge of the bed. He goes into the bathroom and sprinkles several hundred more petals around the sink, on the toilet tank, and in the bathtub. He goes back into the beige, minimalist, Jeffrey Bilhuberdesigned bedroom, fluffs the dozen long-stemmed roses, and beside them on the nightstand places a fact sheet detailing news events from the year the couple were married. He sets up a martini-making station, spearing two kinds of olives with a precision reminiscent of William Tell's. The phone rings. It's the front desk: the guests have arrived. Powell asks that they wait in the lobby for a few moments—check-in isn't for 45 minutes.
Suddenly the rose-petal sprinkling goes into DEFCON 1 mode: Powell lays down a winding, 10-foot-long trail of rosy splendor that stretches from door to bed ("I'm going for Yellow Brick Road here"). Then we rush down to his small office for the coup de grâce: former singer-dancer-actor Powell calls the voice mail in the couple's room and warbles the Rodgers and Hart song "My Romance."
My romance doesn't have to have a moon in the sky
My romance doesn't need a blue lagoon standing by
No month of May
No twinkling stars
No soft guitars
... My romance doesn't need a thing but you
"That song says it all," he tells me when he hangs up. "You don't need the fancy stuff. Romance is about two people, and that's all you need."
Fourteen flights up, a thousand rose petals rustle in the gale-force winds of irony.
Powell looks at his watch and smiles: project completed. A job well done.
"Uh, John," I break the silence. "Should you maybe call the front desk and tell them to let the couple into the room?"
"Thank God you're here."
The advent of the romance concierge—a hotel employee who, in addition to performing roughly amorous concierge duties like making dinner reservations and procuring tickets, oversees all special requests pertaining to anniversaries and proposals of marriage—is predicated on two truths: (1) ours is the age of the service industries; and (2) love is never easy.
When, in the 1990's, upscale hotels started offering guests the use of technology butlers to help with their computers, the road was paved for a noisome armada of helpers—tanning butlers, fireplace butlers, and golf butlers, not to mention specialist concierges devoted to the pursuit of skiing, citrus, cheese, soap, and wildlife. You could die from the encouragement.
"Sometimes we men are clumsy," explains Powell, who fields 70 percent of his requests from male guests. "We love our wife or girlfriend or mistress or companion, but we don't know how to please her or him." In a world in which people are employing increasingly impersonal methods to find mates, from the Internet to reality TV shows, maybe it makes sense that people would farm out their romancing duties to a stranger too. When it comes to proposing marriage or marking an anniversary, the fluttery or beleaguered heart is not unlike a nation with a fluttery or beleaguered economy: it is inclined to outsource. In turn, romance workers, eager to prove their viability in the marketplace, sally forth with a level of enthusiasm that puts the grr into vigor. Powell—who says, "I'll do anything as long as it's legal"— recounts something "sneaky" he sometimes does for couples celebrating anniversaries. He'll call the couple's house, surreptitiously speak to their children, and have them stealthily remove photos from their parents' wedding album and FedEx them to Powell so he can place them on the bureau in the room prior to their arrival. The director of romance at Las Ventanas al Paraíso, in Los Cabos, Mexico, once organized a romantic dinner for two on the beach, during which a rider on a white horse rode in bearing a ring; the chief romance officer at Couples Resorts in Jamaica has arranged for the words marry me to be carved into ice. "You're a confidante," says Rachel Deol, lead honeymoon concierge for Ritz-Carlton nationally; the married Deol sometimes fields questions about marriage, such as "Is it all worth it?" Indeed, even if the average guest request tends toward the $150 dozen-long-stemmeds-and-a-strafe-of-petals combo, that's no reason why a toiler in the love industries can't help important questions get answered from time to time. As the romance concierge at the Royal Palms in Scottsdale says (in what could easily be the credo for the entire profession), "Sometimes I put the ring right on top of the crème brûlée."
Je t'aime, cherie—just don't choke on your dessert.
Powell is showing me some photographs he has stored on his computer. We're in 70 Park's warm, living room-like lobby, seated at the wooden table where the Sacramento-raised, self-described mama's boy sits when he's on duty. Powell's father died when he was eight; Powell chalks up his desire to serve people to his early years taking care of his mother and sisters. He made all his own greeting cards as a child—"Valentine's Day was huge to me." As with greeting cards, the services a romance concierge can provide benefit both their recipient and their purchaser: the individual who has had dozens of roses denuded in her honor is delighted, and the instigator of the denuding can coast for the next year.
Powell clicks his cursor on a photo of a bed bearing the words Happy Anniversary that he decorated in his favorite floral pattern last year. "Some people dive into their petals," he says. "The housekeeper will tell me she can see the imprint on the bed." Next he shows me some pictures of Central Park—a bench in a secluded nook, a gracefully arching bridge—that he sometimes shows to a guest to inspire this electricity-making. "You could propose on that bridge," he muses. "You could read her a poem that you wrote for her...or that I wrote for her."
Then Powell clicks on a picture that a grateful guest sent him last spring. Taken in a 70 Park room, the picture shows the guest—a lovely-looking woman in her 20's—holding up her hand, displaying a newly placed ring; in the background we can see a hint of petal-based fantasia. But it's the woman's expression that one's eyes go to: tears of joy stream down her face. "Every time I see this I get chills," Powell says. "I hope one day she and her husband say to their grandkids, 'We were staying at this hotel, and this concierge—John, I think his name was?—helped us propose.'" I look at Powell's eyes; they have welled with tears.
Cupid's labor force is nothing if not human. Indeed, seldom does the service industry get this personal.