When money is no object, concierge services can get almost anything

Orange County RegisterJuly 7, 2014 

BIZ PERSONALCONCIERGE-BIZPLUS OC

Element Lifestyle's Manny Estrada, left, Chad St. Cyr, Michael Albanese, Noel Peterson, and Joubin Bral gathered in their Los Angeles office. Element's growth is steady despite a $36,000 price tag for annual membership.

ED CRISOSTOMO, — MCT

  • WHAT MONEY CAN BUY

    Here are some of the wacky requests fielded by two concierge services with operations in Los Angeles:

    1. Life-sized bronze statue of three friends (with their exact facial expressions) riding a horse; then to have three replicas delivered to each friend within three weeks.

    2. World-first opportunity to climb the Sydney Opera House and watch the fireworks from the top of the sails at midnight on New Year's Eve.

    3. Delivery of a metal detector to find lost house keys in the snow in the French Alps.

    4. Booking a sold-out screening of a Harry Potter movie within two hours. Normal paying customers were transferred to another cinema.

    5. Staging a "stranded on a desert island" birthday weekend on an island off Fiji.

    6. Sourcing and securing the most expensive and elaborate RV for the Burning Man festival.

    7. Arranging to have real penguins in a hotel room for an animal-fanatic girlfriend.

    8. Private tennis lesson and luncheon with tennis champion Pete Sampras.

    9. Securing a barge in France.

    10. Help in purchasing a private island.

    SOURCE: Quintessentially, Element Lifestyle

An annual membership to Element Lifestyle's luxury concierge services will set you back $36,000. But for that sum, a member — or his or her executive assistant — can get 24-7 support for any and all (legal) requests.

On Element's fulfilled list: organizing a custom 10-day version of The Amazing Race across nine European countries; finding a rare Faberge golden egg; and producing a Sweet 16 party with hip hop duo LMFAO.

For the 1 percent, that fee might even seem like a bargain. In fact, some pay for memberships with more than one concierge service, to increase chances that a request will be completed, said Element co-founder Joubin Bral. Members are kept anonymous, but the industry is clearly expanding in Los Angeles, given Element's steady growth and a recent push into the area by Quintessentially, a globally recognized concierge service.

"Someone who's extremely wealthy just wants it to get done, and one place may have better access than the other for certain things."

Bral, a former premium ticket broker, started the company in November 2009 with Edgar Estrada, who took care of elite passengers for American Airlines, and Michael Albanese, a former concierge at high-end hotels in New York City. Through their relationships with premier hoteliers and restaurateurs and other luxury-minded businesses around the globe, the eight-person team fields and fulfills requests for its nearly 100 members — on average, 10 to 20 requests per hour.

In the end, the value proposition is just human empathy and old-fashioned customer service, Albanese said. Element has hired an accounting manager, travel coordinator, director of client management and director of business development. Most of Element's team is under 35 and paid on salary or as independent contractors.

"Say a client is getting off a safari in Africa and wants fish and chips in England. A traditional travel agency will just book and send a confirmation, but I'll be up making sure their suite is ready for a 6 a.m. arrival." Starting at an extra $5,000 a day, Element team members also will travel with the client to ensure a seamless experience.

"Luxury concierge is an interesting company category that makes a lot of sense," said Eric Johnson, founder of marketing agency Ignited and co-president of media, marketing, and advertising collaborative ThinkLA.

At their core, concierge services guarantee VIP treatment anywhere in the world — particularly in an unfamiliar city where the client has no contacts.

"These services are ultra-exclusive, ultra-unique, and come at an ultra cost," Johnson said. "There have always been people who want to have the best, and if these companies can deliver experiences that (the wealthy) can't get on their own, the fee structure seems quite reasonable."

A recent survey of Travel Leaders Group agents reported nearly 30 percent of luxury clients listed either "unique activities" and "exclusivity" of experiences as the most important component when spending money on travel.

L.A., of course, doesn't lack for wealth. In 2012, Capgemini ranked the city second-highest in millionaires — meaning people who have at least $1 million to invest — with more than 255,000 calling the city home.

That's one reason why U.K.-based Quintessentially, a 1,500-person luxury lifestyle group known globally for its "lifestyle management" services, has made L.A. the foothold for its West Coast expansion. The company offers several tiers of membership, from virtual assistant-like "dedicated" memberships ($5,500), to "global elite" memberships (up to $60,000 per year) that offer an entire on-call team.

The company also works with hundreds of brand partners to take care of clients from major corporations such as HSBC and Jaguar. It recently announced a partnership with Ferrari.

The company moved in November from a tiny, four-person satellite office into 4,000 square feet on Sunset Boulevard. Membership, though capped in any one city at 5,000, has grown 200 percent to 300 percent in the past three months.

Although the lifestyle concierge business is core to Quintessentially's West Coast expansion, the company has also begun operating standalone sister businesses, as they do in Europe, where they boast more than 30 divisions spanning high-end publishing, real estate, hotels, wine, florists — even a sourcing service for butlers, nannies and executive assistants.

Later this summer, L.A. members will be able to partake in a new retail business that Quintessentially is working on in partnership with Fred Segal, which will facilitate high-end gifting among agencies and studios, and source hard-to-find luxury items for personal shopping requests.

In April, Element Lifestyle purchased a loft space in the Arts District in downtown L.A., where the plan is to partner with independent travel agents and contractors, as 80 percent of the company's business revolves around luxury travel.

Growth shouldn't be too challenging.

Capgemini and the Royal Bank of Canada released its annual World Wealth Report earlier this month and reported that the number of "high net worth individuals," or people with $1 million or more to invest, grew by 15 percent.

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