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Rise of the Personal Concierge

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), is out this month.

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