Monday, April 1, 2013

Old News - Rise of the Personal Concierge

Rise of the Personal Concierge

When my relatives and friends ask what I want for a birthday or a holiday, I remind myself that they can't afford to buy me a country house, and reply with a quip: What do I want?Staff. And lately, I want it more than ever. It's a function of envy. For two years, I've been writing a book, 740 Park,about a New York apartment building filled with the sort of people who have not just help, but lots of it: governesses, butlers, cooks, drivers, maids, and personal assistants who do everything from walking the dog to trip planning. Alas, I am my own assistant.
My staff-deprived life ended earlier this year when I heard about the latest phenomenon: the personal concierge. Once, only hotel guests and American Express Platinum cardholders had 24-hour, seven-day-a-week access to experts who could offer advice on shopping and travel, make restaurant reservations, find event tickets, and order gifts. One concierge executive says that when American Express [which owns Travel + Leisure] created the Platinum Card in 1984, it "invented our category."
When Ben Elliot, a photogenic nightclub proprietor and a nephew of Camilla Parker-Bowles's, cofounded Quintessentially in 2000, the attendant publicity was rocket fuel for this lucrative new niche, inspiring resourceful individuals like Manhattan-based Johanna London, who left the jewelry business that same year and launched JL Concierge, charging $50 to $200 per task. Then, in 2001, Serena Cook, formerly Jade Jagger's private chef, started Deliciously Sorted on Ibiza. "I was always being asked to get VIP tables, boats, masseurs," she says. So now she does the work for $618 a day, attracting clients like Calvin Klein, Simon and Yasmin LeBon, Elle Macpherson, and Hugh Grant, who "don't want to look as if they don't know what they're doing."
The latter-day girl (or boy) Friday is not just for celebrities: nowadays you'll find personal concierges at high-end apartment complexes, office buildings, and shopping centers. Rolls-Royce, BMW, British Airways, and Sun Microsystems offer customized services to attract and keep clients. The field has become so crowded that Scottish businessmen brothers Steven and Gordon MacGeachy avoided using the word concierge when they opened Mint Lifestyle in Los Angeles in 2003. They dubbed their company a "global luxury service" providing "access," Steven says. "Concierge services are popping up every week," explains Cairo-born, Los Angeles–based Emad Ghobrial, whose Preferred Group service is so exclusive you must be referred by a member. "There are a lot of people with a lot of money out there who want experiences and need help arranging them."
Personal concierges will arrange everything from the sublime (scoring third-row seats for the Rolling Stones; a table at Per Se in New York; access to the private London club Annabel's) to the mundane (scheduling doctor appointments, or finding perfectly tailored dinner jackets—wherever you are). So, too, they provide "inspiration, reassurance, advice, planning, research," promises Philip Woolff, director of global customer retention for the high-end cell phone maker Vertu, which offers a dedicated concierge button. (At the prices for its leather- and jewel-trimmed phones—$4,900 to $31,850 each—that's the least Vertu can do.)
Hotel concierges have had to adapt in response. The Kempinski chain now offers an invitation-only program that lets loyal clients use its concierge services even when they're not at the hotel. And individual concierges like Christine Grimm of the Raffles L'Ermitage, Beverly Hills also act on behalf of hotel regulars whether they are checked in or not. "I know them well," she says. "I offer consistency. I'm really persistent. I just do a little bit more."
That's what I wanted: someone consistent and persistent, doing a little bit more...for me. But which service to use?I asked three top providers to let me join for a brief trial. I made a list of tasks—tickets to events, restaurant reservations, entry to red-hot clubs, and help in planning trips to Turkey and Italy—to test them.
First, I called Vertu, which outsources its services to two different providers. Half the time, calls from my (borrowed) Vertu phone were routed to Ten, a London-based service. When that shut down for the night, calls bounced to San Francisco, where another company called Les Concierges fielded my requests. This call-center setup caused a glitch when my initial question—what airlines fly to Izmir in Turkey—wasn't answered, as promised, by morning. It turned out that when I'd registered, the call-center operator got my e-mail address wrong. A day after that was cleared up, the information finally arrived, but later, a different concierge would get me tickets at a better price on an airline Vertu didn't know about. To its credit, Vertu did snag a hard-to-get reservation on the terrace outside Dal Bolognese, one of the best restaurants in Rome.
Next, I contacted Personal Concierge International, owned by Pascal Riffaud, who as a teenage page in a Paris hotel dreamed of being a concierge. After stints at the Ritz, London's InterContinental, and New York's Stanhope and St. Regis, he went out on his own, in 1995, with a handful of clients and access to the Clefs d'Or, the international society of concierges. Riffaud runs a niche business with only 125 clients. Could he do anything?I decided to test him by asking for a table at Rao's in New York, the Italian restaurant where, notoriously, no one can get fed unless they know one of the regulars who "own" the tables. (A friend told me that Quintessentially failed to get her in there.) Riffaud sighed heavily. "Rao's is impossible," he said. "They don't care who you are. Nobody can get you in." So I issued a set of daunting, but possible, challenges. I wanted a table at 9 p.m. on a weekend night at the just-opened Modern, then the hardest reservation to get in New York (when I'd called myself, I'd been told the only available tables were at 6 p.m.); tickets forSpamalot, the sold-out-for-months-in-advance Monty Python musical; a private tour of "Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries," the new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History; and an invitation to the American Embassy's annual Fourth of July party in Rome.
Then, I called Quintessentially, which—thanks to its heavily hyped celebrity clientele (Madonna! Gwyneth! P. Diddy!) and its offices around the globe, from London to New York to Johannesburg—has become the best-known of all the concierge firms. I asked Rebecca, the cheerful, chirpy Brit assigned to me, to get me tickets and backstage passes for a sold-out Coldplay concert, a laissez-passer to swim in the rooftop pool at the private club Soho House, a reservation for six at the Spotted Pig gastro-pub in Greenwich Village (reportedly co-owned by Mario Batali, Michael Stipe, Fatboy Slim, Jay-Z, and Bono; it doesn't take reservations), a table at the velvet-rope nightclub Bungalow 8, and, finally, those Turkish plane tickets and a knowledgeable guide to the ancient ruined city of Ephesus. "We'd really like to see something special," I added—like closed areas of the excavation. Could Quintessentially do all that?
Once upon a time, people had wives or secretaries who performed concierge-style tasks. The end of sexism is a compelling explanation for the concierge explosion, but hardly the only one. Baby boomers, known for their sense of entitlement and lust for instant gratification, are also pushing the trend. However, those attitudes aren't confined to one generation. "People want to be recognized," says Vertu's Woolff. "They like to reward themselves. It feels good to have people do something for you."
A staffed life will cost you. Quintessentially and Personal Concierge International both charge annual fees—the former costs from $1,500 for a basic membership up to an invitation-only $3,500-a-month elite hand-holding service; the latter will set you back $4,000 a year. Preferred Group, where memberships start at $2,000 a month, is even more exclusive. "Some people pay more than that," says Ghobrial, who started his service in 1999 while working as a concierge at the Peninsula Beverly Hills. Like Riffaud, he has only four employees, who focus on 30 clients with a net worth of $100 million and up. "I tried the mass thing, but I don't speak that language." At the other end of the spectrum are mom-and-pop shops and more mainstream operations like Ten, which charges monthly fees starting at $130 for basic call-center service. Some private concierges take a commission on the transactions they handle. Others live on fees. Regardless, the best all say they aren't in it for money alone, and add that they pick and choose their clients with care. Mint Lifestyle "exited" a number of its initial clients, says Steven MacGeachy: "The 'Do you know who I am?' crowd who thump their fists and curse at the desk at restaurants."
"There are people you cannot make happy," Riffaud notes. But some things are just hard, like my request to be invited to the Fourth of July party in Rome. "That's a good one," Riffaud said when I asked. "I can get you into opening night at La Scala, if you'll pay. But not the embassy." And as things turned out, he couldn't get me into the party. "I blew it," he told me two weeks later, sounding devastated. I found myself trying to cheer him up. I had reason: He'd done a great job, snaring second-row balcony seats for Spamalot on a Saturday night (albeit for $150 above face value); a private guided tour of the dinosaur exhibit ($138); and a 9 p.m. table at the Modern on a Friday night.
Quintessentially, too, triumphed over and over. The Coldplay tickets were easy (and at $83 each, reasonable), though backstage was a no-go. Swimming at Soho House?"When would you like to go?" Rebecca asked. Bungalow 8 was a breeze, too—we were on the list, and once inside, we felt so taken care of that we didn't need the services of the club's in-house concierge. For a moment, it looked as if the table for six at 8 p.m. at the Spotted Pig wasn't going to happen. "Not likely," Rebecca muttered at first, but two days later, it was done. On arrival, though, Tim, the maître d', balked. "We don't take reservations—that was explained to the person who called," he said. "It could be 45 minutes." I went outside, oddly pleased that my concierge had failed. But through the window, I could see Tim talking on the phone, staring at us. And a moment later, he was outside. If the six of us would squeeze into a table for four, we could sit right away. Well into our meal, I asked what had changed. Was it Quintessentially? "Yes," Tim said. "They're friends of the house."
It somehow came as no surprise that the restaurant's managing partner later denied that any of this had happened, insisting that nobody ever gets preferred service, which goes to show that Quintessentially can make the impossible happen.
But it was the tour of Ephesus—orchestrated by Quintessentially—that did it for me. After our tour guide had shepherded us through the turnstiles, he told us to wait a moment, and returned with the chief archaeologist of Ephesus, who has worked at the Greco-Roman site for a quarter-century. He led us up a road past a panoramic view of the ruins, to what looked like a shed. He unlocked a door and we found ourselves standing within a vast enclosure, looking down on the sprawling hillside where the aristocrats of Ephesus once lived. The Terrace Houses, as they are called, are still undergoing excavation—and it will likely continue for years. What we saw—a hillside of splendid ancient homes, complete with fountains and in situmosaics, carvings, and frescoes—will stay hidden, awaiting the day when there's enough money to protect the ancient tessellated passages. On the way back to Izmir our guide explained that a portion of the fee we'd paid for the tour ($700) would help finance the ongoing preservation efforts. "Money can do many things," our guide said.
Certainly, it can buy what I want for my next birthday. A private concierge, thank you. And maybe somehow I'll manage to get that dinner at Rao's too.
MICHAEL GROSS is a contributing editor for T+L. His latest book, 740 Park: The Story of the World's Richest Apartment Building (Broadway)

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