Get My Batsuit, Alfred!
Think you want to be a personal concierge? Clients will probably ask you to plan meetings, schedule tee-times, or even locate and pre-screen child-care centers.
You're OK with that? They may also ask you to purchase a piece of jewelry for their anniversary with their mistress, plan a birthday party for their cat (complete with cake and party hats), hire an Elvis imper-sonator for a bachelor party, or move a batch of horse sperm through customs without proper documentation. And don't be surprised if they inquire as to whether you perform "unprintable acts."
Personal concierges have encountered these situations and many--yes, very many--more. If you're a true professional, you do it all (except for the unprintable acts), you do it pronto, and you do it with a smile.
"You have to be a bit of an actress," says 32-year-old Cheryl Lentz, owner and sole proprietor of Concierge Corporate Services in Albuquerque, New Mexico. "You must be willing to bend over backwards and stay professional when you hear outlandish requests."
If you've got the kind of personality that loves people no matter how loony they are and you enjoy the challenge of fulfilling every imaginable request, then you've got the tough part down. The rest is chocolate cake.
First, the market is waiting for you. The ranks of the desperately time-starved are growing faster than you can say "Fetch me a cab." More American women are working outside the home than ever before--about 78 percent, according to the Families and Work Institute. This is putting a greater strain on the free time families have together. In addition, everyone else seems to be working longer hours; most spend 44 hours a week on the job. And people putting in 10- to 12-hour days are eager for anything that makes their lives easier.
That means they're eager to pay for the services of a personal concierge. Personal concierges charge by the hour or by the service, and those who specialize in corporate services often charge a retainer fee. Annual income for a concierge can range from $50,000 to $125,000 or more, depending on the type of business, its location, the services offered and other factors, says Sara Ann Kasner, president of the National Concierge Association (NCA) in Chicago.
Capitol Concierge in Washington, DC, one of the oldest personal concierge services, generated revenues of $5.2 million from cli-ents nationwide in 1999. Founder Mary Naylor, now 36, started the business in 1987 with just $2,000.
Pamela Rohland, a time-starved writer in Bernville, Pennsylvania, wonders if she could hire a personal concierge to write magazine articles for her.
While harried individuals are finding they need personal concierges, even more businesses are hiring them to help ease busy employees' loads. A pampered employee is a happy employee who will want to stay with the company--an important consideration in today's tight labor market. Consulting firms, high-tech companies, accounting firms, advertising agencies, law firms, hospitals and other businesses where employees work long hours are providing plenty of opportunities for corporate concierge services, according to Janet Kraus, 33-year-old CEO and co-founder of Circles Inc., a 3-year-old corporate concierge service in Boston. Some college campuses are hiring concierges to perform services for students and professors, such as scheduling car repairs or buying concert tickets.
Many concierges find the corporate market is their best bet, as big businesses welcome them with open arms--and open checkbooks. Stephen Filing, 31-year-old president of Corporate Concierge Services in Minneapolis and a former concierge for Pillsbury Corp. and Dayton Hudson department stores, concentrates on providing concierge services to office buildings, office parks and corporations. Started in August 1998, his company garnered $125,000 in sales in 1999 and provided suite management for the Minnesota Vikings.
Jeanne Clarey, 34, owner of Concierge Atelier, also in Minneapolis, was a teacher and day-care center director when she decided she wanted a profession that would allow for more personal growth. Her company, launched in 1996, assists other companies in putting together concierge programs for their staffs and even provides concierge services itself.
While the personal concierge service industry is very new--most current businesses were launched in the mid- to late-1990s--its ranks are growing rapidly as the public becomes more familiar with the services a concierge can provide. That means concierges spend less time educating potential clients.
"In the past three years, the market has exploded. We've had requests on how to start a concierge business from as far away as London and Brazil," says Kasner. No one is sure exactly how many personal concierge services exist, but Kasner says the NCA's membership has quintupled in the past year and is now up to 100.
Not only is the market ready, willing and able to accept personal concierges, but the business doesn't require a great deal of start-up capital. Clarey launched her business with $200 spent on brochures and direct mail. The average start-up costs, however, are $2,000 to $5,000, which covers basic office equipment (computer, printer, business phone line, fax machine, basic software) and marketing tools.
Filing says he spent about $25,000, which also included a two-line phone with voice mail, a car, a cell phone, presentation materials for clients and the media, and six types of insurance (general liability, auto, worker's compensation, employer's liability, umbrella liability, and employee crime and property coverage).
Concierges are famous for their resourcefulness. So when Catherine Tabor, the 29-year-old owner of Atlanta's My Gal Friday Inc., squandered much of her $5,000 of start-up capital on unneeded consulting services, the budget-challenged young entrepreneur knew she needed to be creative in her marketing campaign.
"I bought a book that lists the top 25 women-owned businesses in Atlanta and wrote letters to the CEOs," she says. "I figured, They're busy." The response? "People wrote back and said `Where have you been all my life?' " Tabor recalls with a laugh. For a while, she performed services for individuals, such as gift wrapping, grocery shopping and taking pets to the vet. That all stopped when a dream client, Coca-Cola, based in Atlanta, knocked on her door. Tabor's business, which brings in $350,000 a year, now provides concierge services to major corporations such as Delta Technology Inc. and Cox Enterprises.
It's helpful, but not necessary, to have previous industry experience before starting a personal concierge business. But, the pros say, it's essential to be skilled at online research, since many client requests--such as planning an affordable romantic weekend on Martha's Vineyard in the middle of summer or locating the best dog walker in a particular town--can be fulfilled by performing a Web search. Aspiring concierges must also be resourceful, energetic, efficient and extremely committed to providing great customer service.
Location is another important consideration when starting a personal concierge business. It should be situated in or near an urban area where both individuals and businesses have disposable income. Lentz admits she's struggling to get her business off the ground in Albuquerque, the 40th poorest city in the United States.
Because the industry is so young, there are few places one can go to learn the trade. Filing believes a good concierge is born, not made. Many of today's successful personal concierges had to learn the ropes from talking to other concierges.
Naylor is about to fill the concierge education niche. With 12 years as a concierge entrepreneur under her belt, she's a grandmother in this fledgling industry. Now that Capitol Concierge has established its services nationally, she's in the process of rolling out a program that will help her link partners with concierge businesses in their cities. Called VIP Desk.com, it's the first online concierge service.
One of its components is City Concierge Network, which provides links to concierges in local areas. Partners receive the support of a sales force and management team, plus a weekly update on what's hot in their markets. Naylor has counted 150 inquiries so far, and offices are being established in Atlanta, Dallas and New York City. "Our biggest challenge is finding great people who can execute consistently," she says.
Kraus admits there isn't a lot of mystery in figuring out what it takes to be a personal concierge. "A lot of what we do is everyday stuff," she acknowledges, "but having a concierge is like having a really smart person working on your behalf."
Get The Scoop
The following resources can give you more information on starting a concierge business:
- National Concierge Association (http://www.conciergeassoc.org, 312-782-6710)
- Ultimate Service: The Complete Handbook of the World of the Concierge ($40, 800-78-HOLLY), self-published by Holly Stiel, founder of the Mill Valley, California, concierge services firm Holly Speaks
As You Wish
Below, just a few of the things personal concierges have done in the name of customer service:
Planning something for a family to do during its "bonding time" (They couldn't come up with anything on their own?)
- Finding a plumber to fix a leaky washer on a weekend
- Getting tickets to a sold-out Elton John benefit concert
- Finding a new location for a full-scale wedding in two days after a hurricane put a damper on an outdoor tent idea
- Finding a way to transfer 10 tons of salt to Brazil
- Planning a trekking trip to Nepal
- Arranging a wedding ceremony in the Bahamas
- Searching out the best hot sauce in Texas
- Buying nutritious pet food for a tarantula
Circles Inc., (617) 464-3535, http://www.circles.com
Concierge Atelier, (612 988-9439, http://www.conciergeatelier.com
Concierge Corporate Services, (505) 260-1839
Corporate Concierge Services, (612) 987-2456, http://www.mnconcierge.com
My Gal Friday Inc., (404) 892-6069
For reprints and licensing questions, click here.