Barbara Michel was the first person to greet Audrey Hepburn, Bill Cosby, Lucille Ball, former President Bill Clinton and former first lady Barbara Bush when they walked through the Longboat Key Club and Resort’s doors.
Her former colleagues don’t remember the specifics of each encounter, but they’re sure of this: She warmly welcomed them, told them they were in paradise and that she was at their service.
Each celebrity got the royal treatment, not because of who they were — but because of who Michel was. And to Michel, everyone was a VIP.
Michel, who rose to the title of chef concierge during her 28 years with the Key Club, died Thursday, July 26, after a 20-month battle with cancer. She was 79.
She was a member of the prestigious Les Clefs d’Or, which currently includes just 550 members nationwide.
More important to Michel was another membership, one that was technically honorary: The guests who returned to the Key Club year after year considered Michel a member of their family.
She called elderly couples, who wintered at the resort, each morning to make sure they had milk and orange juice in their refrigerators. She visited them in the hospital if they became sick, knowing they were far from home.
She knew the names of their children and grandchildren, along with their favorite foods and flowers.
She took snapshots of guests as they checked in and out, got them developed and sent them with notes written in her perfect penmanship, thanking them for their stay.
“To Barbara, every single one of them was such a VIP,” said Kimberly Dyer, who worked alongside Michel from the time the resort opened in October 1982.
Michel shared one of her secrets for being a successful concierge with the Longboat Observer in 2007, when she celebrated her 25th year with the Key Club.
It went beyond a “hello.”
“You have to have a great understanding for the guest,” she said. “There’s an art to it.”
Born in Detroit, Michel lived in Cincinnati before moving, in 1980, to Sarasota with her husband, William, and three children. She fell into the art of being a concierge almost by chance in 1982, when a chance drive to the grocery store brought her past the Key Club, which was preparing to open.
Her children were high-school age, and she had thought of looking for a job to fill her time. Right away, she knew she wanted to be part of the Key Club.
Michel was hired as a concierge and began her new position Oct. 4, 1982 — the first day of resort operations.
Longtime resort guest Catherine Rowan met Michel for the first time that month. Her group, Catholic Purchasing Service, was holding its first meeting there.
In their first conversation, Michel asked Rowan what she needed to make the meeting a success. From that point on, they were old friends. Rowan’s organization is now preparing for its 38th meeting at the Key Club.
“She could have 50 people in a room, but you would come in, she would hug you, and she would talk to you as if you were the only person in the room,” Rowan said.
David Michael Schuster first met Michel in 1990 while visiting his parents, William and Barbara Schuster, who are members of the Key Club. Somehow, Michel remembered everything, according to Schuster.
Schuster’s mother was about to celebrate her 70th birthday but never mentioned it to Michel. But when they arrived in their room, she had balloons and chocolate-covered strawberries waiting.
“My mother suspected me,” Schuster said. “In this case, I said, ‘I’m innocent. I didn’t do this.’”
Michel extended her VIP treatment beyond resort guests.
“There probably wasn’t a baby born to a Key Club employee that didn’t get a little blanket or something from Barbara to welcome that baby into the world,” said Mary Kay Ryan, director of marketing, who also began working at the Key Club in 1982.
According to Key Club General Manager Michael Welly, 40% of the resort’s business comes from repeat customers.
“Many of those repeats,” he said, “are because Barbara was involved in their visit.”
Michel told the Longboat Observer that making the leap from motherhood to guest services was an easy one because she was used to caring for people. Additionally, she had worked previously as an interior designer. As a concierge, that background helped her to walk into a room and visualize the scene.
Welly first met Michel in 2003 right after he was hired. She introduced himself after a meeting.
“Oh, dear,” she told him. “You’re going to do just wonderful.”
She started just about every conversation with an affectionate “Oh, dear.”
But Welly eventually nicknamed her the “Velvet Hammer” — i.e. soft but tough.
She had a way of letting an employee know if he or she wasn’t carrying his or her weight.
But, mostly, she offered encouragement.
“She would attend operations meetings with about 40 managers,” Welly said. “The room would have to be silent because she wouldn’t raise her voice. But she would compliment people and let them know how well they were doing.”
Welly estimates that in his office desk drawer, he has 50 handwritten notes from Michel offering encouragement. Several were written during the course of the 22 public hearings leading up to the Key Club’s Islandside project approval.
She also had little sayings that came to be her co-worker’s mantras.
She told them things such as, “Stay strong,” and “You can never do wrong by doing right.”
Another one of her favorites: “Honey, just do it.”
She told Dyer that about 15 years ago.
Dyer was 19 when she was hired in 1982 as audiovisual director of the Key Club. But she realized that photography was her passion. At Michel’s encouragement, Dyer approached management about becoming a photographer and eventually started her own company, Kimberly Dyer Photography.
“She was the one who coaxed me on and told me to do what I was passionate about,” Dyer said. “She believed in following your dreams and passion.”
Michel followed her own advice, working through November 2010, when she became sick, for a total of 28 years at the Key Club.
Reflecting on her first 25 years in 2007, she described her career to the Longboat Observer, saying:
“It’s a passion. It’s a wonderful feeling being in this profession. To know that I can make each day better and making a change in the world is truly a blessing.”
Michel was preceded in her death by her husband, William.
She is survived by her daughter, Treanne; sons, Bill and Geoffrey; sister, Jean Garrison; and five grandchildren.
A service took place Tuesday, July 31, at Church of the Redeemer, in Sarasota. In lieu of flowers, contributions to a memorial scholarship in Michel’s name can be made to: Fidelity — Barbara Michel Scholarship Fund, c/o Williams Wealth Management, Wildwood Professional Park, 3639 Cortez Road W., Suite 225, Bradenton, Fla., 34210.
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