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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 for Spamalot, 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.

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