The Art of First Impressions

Halekulani valet, FLUX Hawaii

Images by Jonas Maon

Want to know what the valets pictured think of their jobs? Pick up our print issue, which has quotes from each.

It’s not just about the tip. … Fine, it’s a little bit about the tip. We’re workin’ over here! But it’s not just that. What are we, waiters, or something? Plus, this is Hawai‘i, and our culture is one that prides itself on treating one another with respect. With courtesy. With decency. With aloha. Most of us in Hawai‘i have worked in the service or hospitality industry, and what’s that Golden Rule? Well, a good valet treats your car like you’d want to be treated; a great valet treats you like you’d want to be treated.

I was a valet parker in Hawai‘i on and off from ages 18 to 28. Full time, really, from 24 to 28. I worked for a local company contracted by a number of O‘ahu hotels, restaurants, private parties, events, shopping centers, hospitals, and beyond. I worked everywhere from the Ilikai to the Outrigger Reef to the New Otani to the Trump Hotel to Morton’s Steakhouse. Usually, valets are parking for just-off-the-jet tourists at hotels, local people at restaurants, and rich residents at private parties (say, a politician’s fundraiser in Mānoa or a private-school grad party around Diamond Head).

Often, at least in regards to tourists visiting Hawai‘i, valets are the first face beyond those in the sea of arrivals that they see—the first sweet (or bitter) encounter of a local person that sets the pace of their entire experience that follows. Whether it be the Hilton, the Marriott, the Royal Hawaiian, the Outrigger Waikiki, when we open up that car door, we’re all smiles, albeit a little sweaty from having run up and down that garage ramp for the last eight hours. Our “Aloha, and welcome to the [insert hotel here],” is the first “aloha” a visitor might hear. Clearly, hotel owner and tycoon J.W. Marriott knows that first impressions are everything, because we do.

Valet, FLUX Hawaii

Believe it or not, the gig is more lucrative than you’d think. Indeed, it is a minimum-wage, base-pay job, but haven’t you ever wondered how a valet can pull in over $60K a year? Tips, of course. But again, it’s not just about the tips. Sure, we can look a little rough around the edges at times, but don’t let the bad press fool you. Valets aren’t all like those two greaseballs from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The stories about valets copying your house key while you’re out to dinner, then burglarizing your home a week later? Well that’s just Fox News fear-mongering—classic “A Dingo Ate My Baby” tales.

A good valet is courteous; a great valet is an Oscar-worthy actor. No matter what the hell is going on in the garage below—a pileup of 40 rental cars, a Porsche T-boned by a Benz—the place where the client pulls up is known as “The Show.” This front lobby or entrance is a valet’s Broadway, with an equally hard-to-please audience: hotel guests arriving after hours-long flights and 45-minute drives through traffic, followed by the maze of eternally under construction Waikīkī, plus two kids in tow. All this hassle, before they pull up to those “Valet Parking Only” signs. Needless to say, they can be pretty damn perturbed.

But we, the valets, must put their cares at ease. We must quell their concerns. We must open up those rental car doors and usher them out not only onto their pre-booked hotel grounds but also into their entire Hawai‘i vacation experience. We open those rental car doors and welcome them into their idea of paradise. Thus, with the most sincere, warm-hearted, teeth-twinkling smiles, coupled with the tender surety of a Morgan Freeman voice-over, we greet them, “Aaaaa-loha, guys, welcome to the [insert hotel here]. So glad you could make it! Now let’s get unpacked and into that room so you can unwind, shall we?” Oh, we shall. Because a good valet makes you feel like your car is in good hands; a great valet makes you feel at home.

Royal Hawaiian valet, FLUX Hawaii

Of course, we can’t take all of the credit. There are a couple other key players in Hawai‘i within the hospitality business that can leave a mark as indelible as ours. The airport shuttle driver is one. The doorman is another. A good shuttle driver gets riders from point A to point B; a great shuttle driver is a historian with a wealth of knowledge, or a comedian showcasing his 40-minute set. The doorman – the gentleman at the hotel who tags baggage upon arrival, gives said bags to the bellmen, then points guests toward reception — can actually flex his charm a little more intimately than us valets. The doorman has repeat clients, guests and families he sees year after year; guests he watches grow, and guests he grows with. I’ve even seen a particular doorman at a local hotel keep a pocket journal with details about returning clientele, from ages of their children to their favorite cocktails at the pool bar. And where a good doorman says hello; a great doorman asks you how Grandma Ethel’s hip-replacement surgery went last May.

A valet’s relationship with the local community, however—specifically at nightclubs, restaurants, events, and private parties—is a different beast entirely. Sure, there’s an act, but the scene is altered. And there is always that pervading question of space. As in, “Wat, get space?”

Because the thing about space is that there’s always space. Space is an ambiguous noun that appears and grows exponentially with gratuity and demand. It’s science, or complex mathematics, and also a ruse. Regardless, a good valet fits another car in; a great valet puts it “up front.” Up front is the V.I.P. zone where we flaunt a client’s status and, in the process, make our operation look ballin’. What makes a valet an exceptional valet is how he can render said space by judging a driver’s sense of urgency or deeper sense of character.

I mean, the sign says, “Lot Full,” right?

Halekulani, FLUX Hawaii

A few freebies on how to manifest space for your ride when the “Lot Full” sign is posted: 1) Be of the opposite sex, with eyes that flirt and plead. 2) Know any one person from the valet company, then say he’s your cousin. For instance, “Is my cousin Ikaika working today?” Ikaika is a good valet name to bank on in Hawai‘i. It’s like New York pizza shop owners named Tony or Mainland congressmen named John. 3) Be an auntie or uncle, as in, 50-plus, male or female, but preferably female so we can say, “Auntie, we going take care you.” We love saying that. 4) Have an expensive car that we can put up front. No, not a new Prius. Like a new Benz or a Tesla. 5) Flash that green when you drop your car off, not after. Even if said car is a dinged-up Toyota Corolla, you’re guaranteed a place in our hearts and a spot on our lot.

Which brings up a very good question: What’s a good tip? Well, what’s the most you’re willing to part with? Now double that. Just sayin’. Seriously, though, when it comes down to it, this is at the core of our service: Doesn’t everyone deserve a little luxury? Doesn’t everyone deserve to be a little fabulous now and then? Greeted, schmoozed, helped out of their car like they are, well, somebody? ‘Cause aren’t we all somebodys? And every somebody deserves a little added class, and class is what valets give the world. Class is the first thing a venue or hotel wants you to see. We are Donald Trump’s and J.W. Marriott’s and Alan Wong’s first-date face, all dolled up, hair-did, winking you into paradise. Just make sure to stamp your ticket at the door, and remember, the first three hours are validated.

Because a good valet knows it’s more than the transaction—more than the act of parking a car, even if we are highly trained technicians with Ph.Ds in applied reverse parking. At the end of the night, a good valet brings your car back intact; a great valet leaves a sweet taste in your mouth and has you sleeping easy that night.

It’s not just about the tip. But you know, if you feel inclined and the service was stellar…

This story was featured in our Charm Issue.

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