From the August 1998 issue of Entrepreneur

Sometimes it seems there just aren't enough hours in the day. Exhausted from the ever-increasing demands of the workplace and the daily commute, we drag ourselves home to give only sleepy-eyed attention to our families.

According to a recent study of the U.S. work force released by the Families and Work Institute, the average worker spends 44 hours per week on the job, and 36 percent of workers say they often feel completely used up at the end of the workday. And there is certainly no rest for the weary at home: Eighty-five percent of workers have daily family responsibilities to go home to, while 78 percent of married workers have spouses who are also employed. Weekends are consumed by errands and housekeeping; 70 percent of all parents feel they don't spend enough time with their children. Leisure time? Never heard of it.

This nationwide drought of spare time has a bright side for entrepreneurs, however. It has encouraged the emergence of concierge services, small businesses staffed by resourceful people who do anything and everything from getting clients the best seat in the house at a Broadway production to designing resumes--all for a price.

Lending A Hand

"Time has become the commodity of the '90s," says Holly Stiel, owner of Holly Speaks, a Mill Valley, California, concierge consulting business, and author of Ultimate Service: The Complete Handbook to the World of the Concierge (Delta Collins). "The popularity of concierge services stems from the fact that people are stressed, overworked, and need help dealing with life. These are busy people who need to spend free time nurturing themselves instead of running errands."

Stiel, who served as a concierge at the Grand Hyatt hotel in San Francisco for 16 years, says that concierges first appeared in European luxury hotels in the 1930s. While many entrepreneurs who go into the concierge business today gained skills and contacts from working as hotel concierges, Stiel believes that anyone who has the desire can become a successful concierge.

"One of the great things about being a concierge is that you don't really need a background in it," says Stiel, 49. "People I know in the business have been engineers, biologists, geologists, homemakers and teachers. It's really more about heart and soul than it is about experience. You should want to take care of people and help them. You should be savvy, worldly and able to multitask. You should love to do many things at once."

A Potpourri Of Services

For consumers, the main selling point of a concierge business is the convenience offered by its range of services. Entrepreneur Cynthia Adkins knows this well: After working for eight years as a concierge, the owner of Concierge@Large in San Diego has fulfilled her share of oddball requests. One client asked Adkins to find a used golf-green mower because he wanted to turn his backyard into a putting green. She did locate such a mower, but it wasn't easy. "It's not something you can just open up the phone book and find," says Adkins, 39. "The key to being a good locator is being resourceful to begin with and then having resources to draw on."

Adkins also capitalizes on the tremendous growth in the number of telecommuters and homebased businesses by offering clients what she calls "a virtual assistant service," in which one of her employees performs the duties of a personal assistant or secretary. "There are so many people telecommuting and working at home, and they don't have staffs to call on," says Adkins. "What we offer is an executive assistant you talk to via the Internet or the phone. They do things such as set up meetings and make follow-up calls. As long as everyone is comfortable using the technology, it's something that can be easily arranged."

Another service Adkins offers is posing as a "mystery shopper." A client, usually a retail or service business, will arrange for Adkins or one of her employees to go to a store, act like an average customer and report back to the client on the quality of their treatment by employees.

Be Our Guest

A very popular niche for concierge services is entertainment and hospitality. Gary Stein, 38, founder of West Port, Connecticut, Your Personal Concierge, specializes in obtaining hot tickets to Broadway plays and reservations at popular New York City restaurants and hotels. "Our best clients are from out of town; they require concierge services far more than someone who lives in New York City," says Stein, who worked for the Shubert Theater for four years before opening his business in the late 1980s. "While a certain number of our clients are individuals who use us for their personal needs, a majority of the people we serve are business executives with busy schedules."

Stein says keeping up with New York City's thriving cultural life so he can make the appropriate recommendations to clients isn't as difficult as it sounds. "Once something becomes a hit, it's not much of a secret anymore," he says.

Many concierge businesses also offer event-planning services, which they market to corporate clients. The ongoing downsizing trend in large corporations seems to have much to do with the increasing popularity of this type of service, says Garrett Seaverns, 42, co-founder of Suburban Concierge in Essex, Massachusetts. "We noticed about four years ago when we were going into business that as companies were cutting their staffing levels back and making employees more productive, those employees had much less time to order flowers or make things happen for the holidays," he says.

Seaverns believes that reliability and dedication are important qualities in an event-planning team. "You have to be very attentive to details and know whom you can count on," says Seaverns, who runs the business with his wife, Lauren, 39, a former executive administration manager. "We use an extensive database of vendors who are really into good customer service. You've got to be able to deliver what you tell people you're going to, and you've got to care."

Start Me Up

As a service-based business, starting a concierge service doesn't require a large capital investment. If you have access to information, you already have the business's most vital asset. "Start-up is not very expensive," says Stein. "[Costs] really depend on how elaborate you want to get. We have a computer network and a lot of information we've gathered over a number of years that would take time and money to build from scratch. For less than $20,000, you could set yourself up quite nicely."

Adkins agrees. "While you need to purchase the basics, such as a phone line, stationery and business cards, most of what you really need to run the business you get from established relationships," she says. "The key to being a good concierge is having contacts. I was developing my contact base for years before I started my business. It gives me a distinct advantage because I can call in a lot of favors."

Concierge services, both personal and corporate, have a strong potential for growth, particularly outside the big cities, says Stiel. "In smaller places, concierge [services] may still be an unfamiliar concept, but the need for these services is certainly not limited to big cities," she says.

Located 30 miles north of Boston, Seaverns' Suburban Concierge combines a big-city concept with small-town friendliness to distinguish itself. "What sets us apart from the other services is that we are outside the city," says Seaverns. "Unlike city services, we offer a very personalized service."

Corporate concierge services also have plenty of room to grow. As good workers become harder to find, businesses are looking to concierge services as perks to keep valuable employees happy. "I see large corporations wanting to give that extra benefit to their executives and other employees, says Patty Dreiseszun, founder of three-year-old Phoenix-based World Class Concierge and a former concierge at the Phoenix Hyatt Regency Hotel. "They do this by either bringing a concierge into their lobby or offering access to an off-site concierge service via a toll-free number."

Driven by time constraints, a desire for prestige or just plain convenience, more and more consumers are using concierge services to improve the quality of their lives. Although no official estimates are available, an Internet search reveals only a handful of independent concierge services in business, leaving a profitable market wide open to anyone who can provide service with a smile.

Next Step

The National Concierge Association (NCA), which provides networking opportunities and information resources for members, will hold its annual conference this month. For more information, contact the NCA at P.O. Box 2860, Chicago, IL 60690-2860.

Contact Sources

Concierge@Large, (800) 964-6887, http://www.concierge-at-large.com

Holly Speaks, 728 Bay Rd., Mill Valley, CA 94941, http://www.hollyspeaks.com

National Concierge Association, concierge@lpconcierge.com

Suburban Concierge, (978) 768-7659, http://www.suburbanconcierge.com

World Class Concierge, (800) 863-5727, http://www.conciergeservices.com

Your Personal Concierge, (800) 428-2633, fax: (203) 221-9154.