Masks off in the office please!

By Rhonda Dredge

Dance floors were being created, doors were being flung open, art openings were being scheduled and gigs booked to celebrate the end of masks in the CBD.

Garden State on Flinders Lane was expecting a surge for their dance floor and FortyFiveDownstairs a crowd for their opening. 

But nearby, concierge Fernando Rehan had a more modest aim, to fire up office workers as they returned.

He’d booked a guitarist for a lunchtime gig at 8 Exhibition St to create just the right mood for conviviality in the rather large, empty foyer of his workplace. 

While other employees have crept out of the lockdown desperate to change their jobs, Fernando is staying on, keen to catch up with workers in the 35-storey office tower. 

He was so excited about having them in the building that he’d selected a performer from a list of 30 buskers and the talent for Friday, the first day the city’s workforce was unmasked, was Seb Szabo. 

Fernando was greeting workers at the door as if they were arriving for a function. He knows half of them by name. There were 2500 prior to the lockdown. Now it’s down to 30 per cent. 

The major tenants at 8 Exhibition St are Ernst & Young and CBRE, mostly finance and real estate but they’re fun people, according to Fernando. “Law firms are very serious. You couldn’t have buskers there. Are you crazy?”

He is similarly scathing of tech geeks. He said three IT firms are not coming back until 2022. “They’re geniuses but you can’t start conversations with them. Everything is set up for them at home with five or six screens.”
Fernando’s convivial approach to being a concierge was quite novel when he began three years ago, determined to define his performance against the image of dour security guards checking your credentials. 

“I don’t sit behind a computer,” he said. “I was in hospitality. Instead, it’s about offering a type of hotel service in a corporate building from nine to five, Monday to Friday.” 

He arranges transport, tickets to theatres, flowers and functions, just like a hotel concierge. There are free cocktails on a Thursday. 

“The secret is personality,” Fernando said. “You can’t buy that. You can’t teach it.” 

Concierges have had one of the most difficult gigs during the lockdown, allowed to remain at the desk as essential workers, but hardly seeing a soul for days on end.

Large cavernous spaces can seem creepy at the best of times but when there are fears of a virus passing through the air-conditioning, they are particularly other-worldly.

Seb was grateful for the work. He, too, was ready to go with the lifting of the bans on gigs with the release of a new single at the Night Cat on Thursday.

He recorded an entire record last year and released it in July, but this lockdown has been harder, he said.

“The experience was so different. Last year there was a lot of writing and online performances then the novelty wore off. This year there was a lot of fatigue.”

In retrospect, he said that July wasn’t a good time to do a release. “In an ideal world I would have waited. The songs were about travelling down the Great Ocean Road.”  •

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