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A service for those with too much money and not enough time

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Gareth Smith, left, at a special shopping event for Quintessentially members at the National Jean Company in Manhattan. (Photo by Zachary Goelman)

Gareth Smith needed a kilt. And the kilt wasn’t for just anyone. His boss had phoned and said “‘Gareth, go buy a kilt, get on a plane, and get down here, and bring it to Rod Stewart.” Stewart and Smith’s boss were waiting to get on a boat and the rock musician wanted the Scottish garment before they left harbor.

Smith was in London. His boss and Rod Stewart were in Cannes, in southern France. Glancing at his watch, Smith reasoned that even if he caught the next flight he wouldn’t make it.

“I only had three hours, not enough time,” he said. Shipping a kilt from London was out of the question; the flight could take three hours. His only option was to find one closer to Stewart.

“I had to phone around the south of France trying to explain what a kilt is,” Smith recalled. Through a combination of clever thinking and sheer luck, he pulled it off.

“I found a Scottish dancing troupe in Monaco, who happened to have a selection of kilts and I managed to have one couriered to Stewart before he got on the boat.”

This was in 2003, when Smith worked as a member assistant at Quintessentially, a London-based concierge firm. His job was to provide clients with everything from restaurant, hotel and flight reservations to specialized personal items. The requests were sometimes bizarre.

Smith, 26, is now the managing director of the New York office of Quintessentially, and no longer plays step-and-fetch for the company’s clients. He’s held almost every position in the company, and confidently explained the whole concept.

“Concierge goes back as old as the hospitality industry, which is almost as old as prostitution, I expect,” he said, sitting in his office on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Quintessentially, and businesses like it, cater to the needs of “high net worth” clients who want an extra level of personal luxury.

Concierge services run errands, book reservations, plan parties and shop for rare and expensive items.

And while many firms are based in one major city, they do their utmost to provide their services wherever their clients may roam. If clients are dissatisfied with the service, they can find another provider easily.

“In 1997 there were only about 10 concierge companies in the U.S.,” said Katharine Giovanni, chairman of the board of the International Concierge and Errand Association, based in Wake Forest, N.C. “We started ICEA about seven years ago, when there were only 50 groups. Now we have over 600 members in 20 countries. Today there are thousands in the U.S.”

James Hart, 27, founded Royale Concierge in New York City only three years ago, and says he already has over 1,000 high-net-worth clients. He also provides concierge services a residential apartment building and a corporate office building.

Scott Graeme, the president of Xtreme Personal Assistant Concierge Services, based just south of Long Beach, Calif., has been in the business for seven years, and has watched the competition grow.

“I signed up for other services under an alias, to see what they were doing, and figure out a way to do it better,” Graeme said.

The market is expanding as well. The Chicago-based Corporate Concierge Services wants to partner with hospitals, an increasing number of which are looking for a competitive edge in their patient care.

Services like Quintessentially, which work with extremely wealthy clients, try to give their clients an extra dose of personal care.

“We do an actual profile of the client,” said Lucia DeSimon, Director of Concierge Services for Luxury Attache in New York. “Whether they like boutique hotels as opposed to classics or modern; if they like orchids, if like a window or an aisle seat when they fly.”

When Brijmohan Lal Munjal, the millionaire owner of Honda motors manufacturing in India, came to visit New York with his family Royale Concierge found him a mansion in Manhattan. “Getting them that was not an easy task. But they didn’t want to stay in a hotel,” Hart said. They rented it for two weeks, and paid $40,000.

Other requests are more simple, but sometimes puzzling.

“We have an individual who, quote-unquote, lives in New York City,” Hart said in hushed, conspiratorial tones. “Every day he has fresh fruit and flowers delivered, but he has yet to set foot in the residence. He hasn’t been here yet. Every day for six months.”

While concierge services will indulge nearly any service at all, some draw the line at anything sexual, like exotic dancers.

“I can recommend a club, I’ll get a limo to take you there, but I won’t get involved with what happens inside,” Hart said, though, “the request comes up a lot.”

But Smith said Quintessentially has no qualms about supplying adult entertainment.

“We work with agencies that are reputable,” he said. “Whether it’s a car service or an exotic dancer, we make sure everything is above board.”

The owner of one company providing concierge services acknowledged that while he’d never directly provide drugs for a client, arrangements could be made. “Through our drivers,” he said.

Katharine Giovanni, chairman of the ICEA, expressed shock when told that a concierge might acknowledge accommodating illegal activity. “Ninty-nine point nine-nine-nine percent of concierges will not do that,” she said emphatically.

What concierge really comes down to, Giovanni said, is that “everybody’s trying to squeeze 36 hours into a 24-hour day.”

“Even millionaires have to get a lot of stuff done in a very short time. You get your assistant to this, and hire a concierge firm to do other work,” she said.

“Concierges give people more time. We’re selling time. We’re giving people their lives.”

E-mail: zlg2103@columbia.edu