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Published: 02/06/2012 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2012 » June 2012 » Special Reports »

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Lining up at the hotel concierge desk or calling your PA about a hitch with your trip is so last century. Nowadays, savvy business people are turning to virtual concierges and lifestyle managers to solve their problems. 

At the drop of an e-mail, text or phone call, such services can make almost anything happen – be it retrieving the smartphone you left in the lounge, getting tickets for the Eurostar during an ash-cloud crisis or arranging a meeting with Bill Clinton. 

While restaurant reservations and hotel bookings are some of the more common requests made to concierge services, almost any business or lifestyle requirement can be accommodated – so long as it is legal and ethical – to save you time and give you access to things you would not be able to attain normally.

Over the past few years, experiential travel has become the new luxury, and this is something that many companies – from airlines to mobile phone providers – are tapping into. American Express Platinum and Centurion cardholders have access to a personal concierge who can fulfill just about any request over the phone, while Vertu, the manufacturer of an ultra-bling smartphone, provides clients with a concierge at the touch of a button. 

Most Intercontinental hotels have a cyber equivalent of the traditional hotel concierge on their homepage – a “concierge video tour” with an interactive map displaying authentic places to sightsee, shop, eat and drink – while Air New Zealand’s in-flight concierge helps long-haul passengers select flights with onward travel and itinerary ideas.

But for the time-pressed traveler, a recommendation often isn’t enough. Launched in 2000, Quintessentially (quintessentially.com) is a membership concierge service with 62 offices worldwide. It attracts “ultra-high and high net-worth individuals looking to enrich their lives,” according to chief executive Emma Sherrard Matthew. “We have built up a community of like-minded, international and entrepreneurial people who all want to get connected. They are CEOs, MDs, celebrities, royal families and politicians.” 

Sherrard Matthew explains that people join for different reasons but access to exclusive nightclubs, restaurants, bars, sporting events and fashion shows are the most popular benefits. Bespoke experiences such as afternoon tea with Nelson Mandela or shopping with Christian Louboutin are examples of things Quintessentially can also arrange.

Alex Cheatle, chief executive of Ten Group (tengroup.com), which has been building relationships with eateries, hotels, theatres and sporting and music venues around the world for 15 years and has more than 350 staff, says its services are aimed at the business traveler. “We have access to things that you could not organize on your iPad. We know thousands of maître d’s whom we can get tables from that are otherwise booked up.

“When you call us to reserve a table in Paris or New York, the person you are dealing with not only knows those restaurants but can talk to you intelligently about whether you want to go for a romantic meal, a business dinner or simply sample the best local food. Likewise, if you want to see a Broadway show that is sold out, we should be able to negotiate better rates than a hotel concierge, who would usually be paying tout prices.”

The cost of membership and the application process varies widely. Quintessentially, for example, charges annual fees starting at £2,500 (about $4,000). However, its bespoke Elite membership costs between £12,000 and £24,000 ($19,000 to $38,000) and everyone requires a face-to-face interview. Sherrard says: “We don’t do credit checks and you don’t need to give us a printout of your bank balance, but we will gauge your net worth in the interview with pointed questions about how you travel, where you like to go on holiday and how many children you have.”

Quintessentially also caps the number of members it has in each region – in Hong Kong it is 2,000 and in London it is 5,000 (Sherrard says it has nearly reached this limit) – to maintain the prestige of belonging.

Membership of Red Butler (redbutler.com) is more democratic, with an initial fee of $99 and monthly prices starting from $10 for five requests, up to $1,000 for unlimited requests. Entry-level membership encompasses simple requests such as dinner and hotel bookings, while top-tier programs include a full-time assistant, document creation and “genius” requests that require in-depth research and knowledge to fulfill.

However, chief executive Daniel Abas notes that everything has to be conducted by phone or email, as Red Butler is a virtual concierge. “We can’t come to your house and pick up your cleaning or walk your dog,” he says.

New members get a welcome call from a representative, who then creates an online profile for them, storing their frequent flyer numbers, contacts, Amazon logins in case they want something ordered online, and even where they prefer to be seated on a plane. Abas says: “We want to relieve people of the monotonous tasks that are bogging down their free time – we get things done on the personal side of your life so that you can be more productive in your business life.”

Red Butler, which has worked with organizations such as Shell Oil USA and TED, also offers corporate plans for between ten and 25 employees, costing from $500 to $1,000 a month. Everyone except those with entry-level Nano membership also receive a privilege card that provides upgrades, discounts and freebies at select hotels, bars and restaurants.

Individual members of Ten Group, which has worked with “almost every multinational,” according to Cheatle, typically pay £300 ($480) a month plus the subsequent cost of requests – such as theatre tickets – by credit card. But unlike a travel agent, it does not take commission.

“Business travelers from a large corporate employer will tend to use us for the special stuff because their company will sort out the hotel and flights, whereas a lot of our entrepreneurs use us for everything,” Cheatle says. “Recently, we had a member who was in San Francisco to raise venture capital for his business but he lost his laptop and left his phone in his room on the same day. We had to source an emergency laptop, get it to him so he could download his presentation, and get his phone to him at the same time.”

He adds: “We have helped people from the Middle East to buy Premiership football clubs, and during the ash-cloud crisis we were able to get people on the Eurostar after the web site had shut down because we have travel industry access to its booking system. We also organized coaches from all over Europe to bring them back to the UK by Eurotunnel and ferry. A travel management company may have been able to organize this but would not have arranged luxury coaches that stopped in France for a Michelin-starred meal.”

Founded in 2009, Bon Vivant (bonvivant.co.uk) describes itself as a “luxury concierge service for people with insufficient time to manage their lives.” Its corporate program assists with itineraries, private jet bookings, client entertainment, employee relocation, and professional advice through its network of accountants, tax and legal advisers. Membership costs between £100 ($160) per month and £2,000 ($3,200) a year.

For those looking for some of the lifestyle benefits associated with concierge services but who don’t need someone to make the bookings for them, VIP privilege provider Key-2Luxury (key2luxury.com) is an interesting option. Founded in 2004 and designed as a corporate gift, beneficiaries are given a key ring and access to a database of personal contacts for hundreds of luxury restaurants, bars, clubs, hotels, villas and retailers so that they can get in touch with them directly and take advantage of special offers.

“We remove the middle man to empower you,” says David Johnstone, chief executive and founder. “We are a luxury accessory that adds value to your life and recommends places to visit across the world where you will be treated as a VIP. Once you are a keyholder, you have it for life, with no annual fee.”

Johnstone says the £5,000 ($8,000) key ring has been given as a gift by companies such as Lamborghini, Jaeger-Le Coultre, Hugo Boss, Reuters, Krug and Trump and, today, there are about 100,000 in the marketplace across 40 countries. “Ultimately, the wealthier you are, the more applicable the privileges. If you took Necker Island for a week, for example, you would get a free helicopter there and back. It’s all relative to how much you spend,” he says.

Other examples include 25 per cent off Prestige car rental, late check-out, best available rate and a bottle of champagne at the Shangri-La Paris, welcome drinks for up to eight diners at the Bed Supperclub in Bangkok, and $30 for every $160 spent in Thomas Pink stores.

Johnstone set up a similar privilege club last year exclusively for women. Champagne for Life (champagneforlife.com) costs £500 ($800) for lifetime membership and the privileges only apply to bars. “We are attracting influential women, whether they are in PR, marketing, media, fashion, luxury or banking,” he says.

After signing up and downloading the $15 iPhone/Blackberry app, which doubles as a membership card with their photo on it, members not only have access to contacts at more than 100 bars, such as London’s Sushinho and Club Travolta in Frankfurt, but can get free champagne at each of them, every day, for life.

As an added philanthropic bonus, if members of either plan use their smartphone to photograph their bill, up to 10 percent of the total will be donated by the venue to the Global Charity Trust, which supports projects worldwide such as Tusk and Keep a Child Alive. So reap the benefits of your success guilt-free.  

— Jenny Southan


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