Features

Who runs your life?

29 Jun 2006 by business traveller

Type "concierge" or "lifestyle management" into Google and you will be presented with page after page of companies with names like Leg Work, One Call 4 All and Chase it Up. These services promise to save you time and hassle by taking on tasks that you lack either the time or the inclination to do yourself. Some also boast the ability to get you the best seat at an exclusive restaurant, an upgrade at your favourite hotel, or tickets to premieres and sell-out concerts. This may sound tempting, but do we really need a PA for our personal life, or is it wiser to listen to the adage: "If you want something done properly, do it yourself?"

The idea of a concierge service outside of the traditional hotel concept is relatively new in the UK, but has been in the US for some years. Cushion the Impact, a London-based lifestyle management company, began five years ago, as founder Andrea Osborne explains: "I had been travelling and read about the concierge service offered in the US. I realised that effectively it was what I was doing for my bosses at work anyway, so myself and a friend put an ad up in a local gym and by the end of the day we had a customer, who has now been with us for six years."

Cushion the Impact charges customers on an ad hoc basis at £30 per hour, with discounts for those buying blocks of time which are valid for 12 months. Osborne says that while the lifestyle management service in the UK is in its infancy compared with the US model, it has nevertheless come a long way in a short time.

"In the beginning, when companies like Ten UK and ourselves were just starting out, nobody knew what we did, and we would have to go into huge detail about our service. But now if we approach, say, a builder to be one of our suppliers, they will understand the concept. As far as being called a concierge or lifestyle management company goes, we tend to use both phrases. To some people, concierge conjures up images of a man who sits behind a desk at a hotel, but in the US, lifestyle management is historically linked to the world of health. To be honest, these phrases just get made up along the way – I've been called a 'virtual wife' before and, more scarily, a 'virtual husband' by one of my clients!"

The range of tasks that Cushion the Impact and others like it are willing to fulfil is seemingly endless, from arranging plumbers to getting a pair of broken Gucci shoes fixed and compiling a client's expenses. And there doesn't seem to be a typical age of user either.

Osborne says: "Our oldest client is 85, and we have been helping him with bits and pieces since his partner died. He was threatened with being taken to court because he hadn't paid his council tax bill, but what he needed was for the council to come and reassess him. He still ended up having to pay the bills, but we got the summons removed for him."

It is this idea of helping clients with the unknown that Stuart Butler, corporate development director of concierge service Ten UK, believes is of particular use.

"There are many times when someone will be doing something for the first time, and we can be there at their shoulder giving them advice. Examples of this are advice on divorce, or staging a stag or hen night. Trust is also a key principle – the more our members use us, the more they trust us and learn to delegate their tasks to us."

Set up in 1998, Ten UK was one of the first concierge services to appear in the UK. It was launched by Alex Cheatle, then brand manager for Oil of Olay at Procter and Gamble. Last year the company "solved" more than 80,000 requests from their customers, many of them travel-related, taking the total since it launched to over 300,000. It is this experience, believes Butler, that gives Ten UK the edge in the concierge market.
He says: "One of the secrets of our success has been the bespoke system that we built (costing E11 million) called Ten Maid, which stores every job we have ever done. As a result, if a customer rings up with a request, we don't Google it, we search our own system, and the chances are we will already have solved it."

Butler adds that Ten UK has strict rules to ensure the quality of its product offering. Lifestyle managers (ie: the people you will call and speak to if you're a member) have an average of four years' experience, and their salaries are equivalent to professional graduate pay scales. All lifestyle managers are able to deal with general enquiries, but are also encouraged to specialise in certain areas – one employee, for instance, is an expert at arranging luxury UK breaks for customers. The Ten UK service costs from £75 per month (£199 per month for a dedicated lifestyle manager).

The company also employs dedicated supplier managers with experience in a trade such as building, who will then vet potential third-party suppliers and put in place a contract to agree pricing and service. Ten UK guarantees not to mark up tickets or charge a booking fee to its members, and also operates a price promise. For air fares this means members would not be able to find the same flight cheaper elsewhere – not that they have the time to look anyway.

It is this promise of time saving on which most of the companies advertise their service, with names like Tick Tock Time Management and Buy Time. So it's slightly ironic that of the 10 or so firms that I tried to contact, six went straight to answerphone and one forwarded the call to a remote switchboard with no one available to answer my queries. Indeed, I spent the equivalent of a lunch hour trying to make initial contact – hardly an advert for time saving.

One obvious problem is that there is no regulation of the industry, and the barriers of entry for firms are relatively low – pretty much anyone with a phone line and website can set themselves up as a concierge service.

One company that did answer my call was Life's 2 Short, founded by ex-investment banker Mark Timberlake. Timberlake admits that there is a dual challenge in both making people aware of the Life's 2 Short service, and then retaining their custom by offering value for money.

"Most of our clients come to us by word of mouth so we have been recommended by someone the client trusts," he says. "Our business is about trust and quality and we continually strive to exceed clients' expectations on both. Concierge firms that fail to deliver have a higher turnover of clients and, at the end of the day, their venture fails, something that has happened to several companies. The market is still in its infancy, and there are currently lots of small players in the industry. As some of these disappear or get swallowed up by larger companies, there will be space for more."

He points out that while Life's 2 Short does operate office hours of 9am to 6pm for new client enquiries, existing clients are also given the direct number of their consultant so that they can call them out of office hours if they need to. The company's ad hoc pricing model costs £53 per hour, with discounts for first-time users, blocks of hours and monthly retainer rates also available (£150 per month for six hours, subject to a minimum usage of three months).

While companies such as Life's 2 Short are happy to "get our hands dirty with whatever our members request" as Timberlake puts it, others like Quintessentially act more like a private members' club. Founded by film producer Aaron Simpson and restaurant/nightclub entrepreneur Ben Elliott, the company now operates in 22 countries, with customers ranging from heads of state and royalty to sports people, CEOs and young artists and actors.

"We look after people's needs and manage their lifestyles," says Simpson. "We help them with what they see, where they stay, eat, sleep and so on. Our locations include cities where people land for business such as London, Hong Kong and New York, and places where they play, like Cape Town, Brazil and Athens."

Quintessentially's claims include being able to obtain upgrades at partner hotels, VIP access at nightclubs, reservations for sell-out theatre productions and tickets for film premieres and sporting events. The company runs a 24-hour call centre (as does Ten UK), which is particularly useful for the forgetful frequent traveller.

Says Simpson: "We had one guy who was on his way to Hamburg and had left his luggage behind. One quick call to us, and by the time he landed we had bought him three suits and some underwear and got them to him."

Rates start at £750 per year for general membership (plus a £150 joining fee), rising to £2,500 (plus £250) for access to a dedicated account manager, and £24,000 per annum for the by-invitation-only elite membership, which includes a team of personal account managers across the globe.

Quintessentially works closely with groups such as The Leading Hotels of the World, but Ten UK has gone one step further by providing a concierge service for members of the Leaders Club (the group's loyalty programme).

Says Butler: "Anyone who is a member of the Leaders Club also receives Ten UK membership. What is great for us is that as part of this agreement we have been given direct lines to the head concierges at each of the hotels in the group, meaning that effectively we have access to another 420 lifestyle managers overnight."

Ten UK has also teamed up with Vertu, the luxury mobile phone product by Nokia. Decked out in yellow gold or white platinum, with diamond-encrusted buttons and a sapphire crystal screen, there is a button on the side of the phone which blings, sorry, rings straight through to Ten UK – a hotline to the helpline if you like.

The Vertu may be reserved for the likes of football players and pop stars (it costs from £3,000), but Butler believes it won't be long before regular mobile phone providers are offering a concierge package to their customers, extending the bundled service concept that is already provided by Ten UK and others with several premium credit cards (see "Play your cards right", Business Traveller, March 2006).

"In the near future I see people having access to lifestyle management services as part of their primary relationship with their bank account or mobile phone," says Butler. "This will provide benefits both to the consumer and company alike, as we can provide reports in the way of lifestyle segmentation – ie: this person has taken so many trips to such a place, or spent X pounds on restaurants. I firmly believe that in the future the bank account or credit card at the front of wallet will be the one with the concierge service included."

So are these lifestyle management services worth the fees? Well according to a recent survey on businesstraveller.com, 77 per cent of you think not. Partly this may be because it's not immediately transparent what these companies are doing for our money.

Says Andrea Osborne: "On the face of it, [being a] concierge looks like a very easy job, but it really isn't. You have to be able to juggle tasks, relate to people and have the right contacts. By that I mean a group of third-party contacts that our members can trust – there's no point in getting someone into the Ivy if we then send them a plumber who can't do the job."

Osborne invites members to give her their "to do list", and Cushion the Impact will take care of it, but also warns that they are not miracle workers – if something cannot be done it cannot be done.

"A client insisted that we get a tree surgeon to quote over the phone for the removal of a tree, which they simply don't do, but the customer thought this was unreasonable."

There are still many sceptics out there as to whether these services really represent value for money and, more importantly, whether the company they are using is reputable. But as organisations begin to bundle them within everyday services and customers get used to delegating their personal life in the same way they might do with their workload, there is every chance they will become as normal as calling directory enquiries or consulting the Yellow Pages.

For more details about concierge services contact: Ten UK, tenuk.com, tel +44 (0)20 7479 3300; Quintessentially, quintessentially.com, tel +44 (0)870 850 8585; Life's 2 Short, lifes2short.co.uk, tel +44 (0)20 7371 0444; Cushion the Impact, cushiontheimpact.co.uk, tel +44 (0)20 7704 6922.

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