It's lunchtime at busy City law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) and partner David Battiscombe is heading for the staff restaurant. On his way, he passes the firm's concierge desk, manned by Matthew Nash, which reminds him he promised his wife he would sort out the family holiday but, with his hectic timetable, it has slipped his mind.
So instead of eating a sandwich, he sits down with Nash, who is employed by concierge company Wizz2u but based at BLP, and chats through the kind of holiday he is after. He tells him where he'd like to go, what his budget is, what accommodation he would prefer and the fact the location has to be suitable for both an eight-year old and a 16-year old. By the following day, Nash has a range of options and, with Battiscombe's approval, he books a hotel, flight and car hire. "I have enormous pressures on my time and when I'm at home I want to see my family," says Battiscombe. "I don't want to spend 40 minutes surfing the net to find a car hire firm."
For top executives like Battiscombe, concierge services such as these are an invaluable staff benefit that goes some way to recompense them for their commitment to their jobs. He estimates he uses Wizz2u roughly once a fortnight for practical tasks he doesn't have time to do. Other services asked for include calling an emergency plumber to visit his home or organising shopping and laundry.
Offering concierge services to staff is an American benefit that is gaining popularity this side of the pond. Growth in the US, according to the Human Resource Management Survey, has been massive: in 1999, just 4% of organisations offered it. Today this has risen to 15% and, according to Claire Brynteson, managing director of UK concierge firm buy:time, the recession has actually led to a jump in enquiries from companies wanting to offer it here as a benefit to their staff.
"I wondered whether concierge services would be a luxury benefit and the first to be discarded in tough times," she says. "In reality, they seem to be needed twice as much so employees can knuckle down and do their work. More companies are coming to me, saying: 'We appreciate how hard our staff have worked, particularly over the past 18 months, and we want to give something useful back'."
Nothing, it seems, is too much to ask of a concierge if it leaves staff free to concentrate on their jobs. One provider reports how one client employee asked it to log on to Facebook at 3am, to help someone find a girlfriend and to track down a long lost friend (see below for other strange requests).
Compared with the US, the UK concierge industry is still very much in its infancy. Budget restraints, says Brynteson, previously affected the way the services were delivered with many companies offering them only as incentives or rewards or as a subsidised benefit, rather than the company footing the entire bill. While the bulk of concierge service providers still mostly deal with individuals (part-paid by their employers), rather than with companies outright, this is changing. Newer companies that buy their services tend to offer them to all employees, rather than just the most senior, says Brynteson. "HR directors often say they want to keep services available across the board because they don't want to highlight that they are giving more to the senior people," she says.
And those who do offer it realise its value. Steve Bevan, HR director at management consultants AT Kearney, for example, says he uses a concierge provider because it "caters for the everyday practical issues our employees face when juggling their busy lives". Meanwhile, Valerie Moncur, head of personnel at BLP, says the uniqueness of the benefit makes BLP's employee package stand out from the crowd.
"Law firms are very competitive when it comes to staff benefits but concierge services are a 'nice to have' rather than a standard benefit that executives expect," she says. BLP has used Wizz2u for seven years now, choosing the firm on the back of its ability to provide a full-time employee on-site. "We looked at what we already offered and what we could offer in addition that people would really value and that would address the work-life balance, which is a challenge in our industry," she says.
The fact some individuals are prepared to fork out for concierge services themselves proves it is a valued service. Ian McHoul, for example, is CFO at a FTSE 100 company, and employs Live More Life. He believes concierge services would make a good staff benefit, particularly for senior individuals like himself who are single, with children and need help with their personal to-do lists. "In a standard family unit, you might not need it so much but I need someone else to help so I can do other things at the weekend," he says.
Louise Hall, divisional director at Rensburg Sheppards Investment Management, and her husband have three children and both work full time. Hall hired buy:time to help her with household chores. Over time, she has built up a strong relationship with buy:time representative Deidre and particularly likes the fact that she is "proactive rather than reactive". "She comes to my house one morning every week and looks around and prompts me to do things, or chases me on outstanding things, which is very effective." For example, Deidre compiled a list of DIY jobs that needed to be done around the house and, when agreed, hired a handy man.
Although concierges are undoubtedly appreciated by employees, they are not a purely altruistic benefit: they make good business sense too. It is estimated the UK economy loses £180 billion each year as a result of staff organising their personal lives from work, according to the Arena21 Work-Life Survey. As such, 02 has offered a concierge service, 02 Concierge, through Ten Lifestyle for nearly five years. Staff use it primarily for booking entertainment and travel and gift sourcing.
"The fact it makes business sense is not the only reason behind using the service," says national soft services manager Sara Burton, "but you can't help but appreciate that, in theory, your employees have to make only one phone call and the concierge does all the hunting around for the best deal."
As 02's reward manager, Ian Grimshaw, explains, 02's concierge service is part of its wider strategy as a brand to make employees its 'fans' (See the HRD Ann Pickering interview in HR magazine last month). "As a company, we expect a lot of our people," he says, "so it's nice we can take some stress out of their lives. People who use it love it and tell all their friends about it and those good stories fit well with our brand."
NOTHING IS TOO MUCH TO ASK OF A CONCIERGE SERVICE PROVIDER
Just hearing the word 'concierge' conjures up images of uber-wealthy individuals buying helicopters and yachts but this stereotype does not strictly ring true (although it does at some providers - see Quintessentially p50). Most providers are finding their growth is coming from corporates that want to be able to help staff with the everyday, practical tasks of running a household. So where can you go for these service providers? We've listed some of the best below. And, as individuals become more comfortable with using a concierge service, it appears they will make all manner of requests.
PROVIDER: The Fixer, www.the-fixer.co.uk
Services offered personal and corporate concierge: events; relocations; business trips; organising handymen
Costs: £30 per hour or fixed rates for corporates with minimum 25 employees
Clients: HSBC Premier, Club 29, directors, entrepreneurs, business owners
Most unusual requests: to vacuum clean a gravel driveway; to source an original Pink Lady jacket and get it signed by the original members of Grease for a charity event; to find an English butler for a gentleman in Holland
PROVIDER: LiveMoreLife, www.livemorelife.co.uk
Services offered: personal errands; travel booking; sourcing and organising contractors; event management
Costs per hour on a sliding scale: a one-off hour is £40; a block of 10 hours costs £27.50 per hour. All corporate rates are negotiable (with a minimum number of people in the scheme). There is a guide price on the internet but each client receives an individual quote
Clients: from City board directors to busy mums
Most unusual requests: to have 100 mini pots of Haagen Dazs ice cream delivered to a client's hotel room
PROVIDER: Bee's Knees Lifestyle, www.beeskneeslifestyle.com
Services offered: personal shopping; image consultancy; gift buying; personal errands; house-running; ticket-buying; sourcing staff incentives
Clients: cannot divulge corporate client names but tends to be hired by solicitors and diplomats
Most unusual requests: once asked to wait at a specific location in St James Park in London at 7am, with a banner, with specific wording from a client, professing his undying love for his girlfriend, because the lady in question would jog around that area around that time- it was in the middle of February
PROVIDER: Zentime Living, www.zentime.co.uk
Services offered: errand running; luxury eco-friendly home cleaning services; pet care; business support
Costs: some clients pay per hour, others opt for corporate packages based on a minimum number of people. Prices are usually around £35 per hour with blocks of 10 hours working out at £29 per hour
Clients: busy corporate professionals and executives, particularly in banking, accountancy and the law
Most unusual requests: to take care of a pet bunny rabbit; to queue for a book signing; and queue to buy the latest iPhone
PROVIDER: Ten Lifestyle, www.tenlifestyle.com
Services offered: personal errands; holiday research and booking; gift buying; vetting and managing tradesmen; buying tickets; restaurant booking. Has just launched a green concierge service called G-Ten, which advises members how to live in a more sustainable way
Costs: can be tailored to suit budgets but are either set at a fixed price or calculated per request with steep volume discounts
Clients: a global soft drinks manufacturer; a major mobile phone network provider (02); and an international TV channel. It also has more than 300,000 private individuals on its books
Most unusual requests - questions include: 'Can I meet Andrea Bocelli? Can I have a monkey as a pet in London? Can you tell me the name of the restaurant that does "that sauce" in Paris?'
PROVIDER: Quintessentially, www.quintessentially.com
Services offered: all aspects of lifestyle management from sourcing tickets for events to last-minute hotel reservations, travel deals and booking restaurants. Membership also offers access to preferential rates and bespoke services
Costs: general membership starts at £1,000; the Dedicated membership is £2,500; Bespoke Elite £10,000; the Elite (by invitation only) £24,000 per year. There is also a joining fee that ranges from £150 to £650
Clients: successful international businessmen and women; entrepreneurs; actors; musicians; politicians; sporting personalities; celebrities etc. Corporate clients include HSBC Private Bank, 3 Mobile, Jaguar, British Airways, Pan Peninsula and UBS
Most unusual requests: to rescue a member from his snowed-under chalet in the mountains; to trace a digital camera left in a taxi in Shanghai; to arrange the services of a published author to tutor a member's child; and to track down a long-lost friend.