Inside the business of personal concierges, where no request is too strange

Kate Wilkinson 0 Premium content image
(Nikki Ormerod)

(Nikki Ormerod)

It’s a quiet weekday morning at the Jacadi children’s store in Hazelton Lanes, a premier shopping centre on the edge of Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood. A high-end perfume line for kids sits on display near the shop front, while a salesperson stocks the shelves with autumn-ready infant outerwear in the $200-plus range.

Among the racks of $50 onesies, the store’s lone customer, Christina Sutherland, is stewing over two potential baby gifts—one, a tiny nautical-themed dress, and the other, a soft, striped one-piece romper. She arranges the items for a quick iPhone photo shoot and starts to text.

Sutherland, a decisive and confident Rotman MBA grad who previously worked in institutional equities in Los Angeles, wouldn’t normally struggle to pick out something as simple as a baby outfit. But this purchase isn’t for her—it’s for a client of My Stewards, the concierge service Sutherland co-founded a year ago with her mother, Sherry, an interior designer and former teacher.

“Sometimes people give me a look like, ‘You and your mom are in business?’ ” the 28-year-old says with a laugh. “But she’s the best business partner somebody could have. I’m running a business with my best friend.”

A minute passes at Jacadi, and Sutherland’s phone chimes with the client’s decision—one striped romper, please.

Jacadi is one of several stops I’ll be making with Sutherland, who has allowed me to shadow her for a day to experience the daily life of a personal concierge. The morning of our introduction, the mother-daughter duo, both blond and clad in black dresses, greet me with wide smiles at the door of the spacious Yorkville condo that serves as My Stewards HQ. Sherry’s dog, Perla—a white, toy-sized ball of fur with a sharp bark and pink rhinestone collar—sniffs at me eagerly as I make my way inside. The condo is beautiful—12-foot-high ceilings, black and white furniture and decor throughout, and a panoramic view of the Toronto skyline.

When I arrive, Christina is already fielding a request from a client with a broken doorbell. She does so from behind her MacBook, seated at a large mirrored desk. An orderly stack of books occupies a corner of the table including a sleek boxed set of volumes entitled Chanel, a tip as to where the pair’s penchant for black and white originates.

Sherry works in the next room, looking into a request to have some furniture reupholstered. Today’s agenda also includes delivering flower arrangements for a client, and a multi-store search for a Plexiglas coffee table.

But gift-hunting and decorating aren’t the only things that occupy the Sutherlands’ days. My Stewards positions itself as a one-stop shop for time-constrained individuals and families. On an average day, they’ll happily search the city to recommend the best plumbers, landscapers, moving companies, babysitters, restaurants or even hunt down a rare bottle of wine, so that their intended clientele of working professionals can spend more time relaxing with family and friends. The Sutherlands aim to be a remedy for the common complaint: “There’s not enough hours in the day.”

 

Concierge services are not a new concept. Many higher-end hotels employ concierges tasked with solving guests’ problems, whatever they may be, and several credit card companies and airlines are increasingly offering courtesy concierge services to higher-net-worth customers as a loyalty perk. What many of these complimentary amenities lack, says Sutherland, is consistency—the ability to make requests to the same person at a trusted company, and to have your needs seen to in a timely manner.

The Sutherlands’ foray into the private, independently owned concierge business seems to be an ambition shared by an increasing number of entrepreneurs. Last year, a report from market research firm IBISWorld noted that the concierge services industry has been growing steadily over the past decade in the United States. Moreover, the research firm expects industry revenue to rise at an average annual rate of 3.7%, reaching $264.4 million by 2017. Canadian figures are harder to come by, but it’s worth noting that the country added 46,000 new millionaires in the past 12 months. Exactly the sort of clientele the Sutherlands hope to reach.

When doing her own market research, Sutherland found a few concierge firms were already serving the Toronto market, but she was certain it wasn’t yet saturated. Plus, she felt that My Stewards could introduce added convenience to the mix: the My Stewards desktop and mobile web app acts as an online request system for its services.

“You could really be doing anything anywhere—in a dog park, in a restaurant, in a meeting—and you submit a request and it’s taken care of,” Sutherland explains.

My Stewards offers “à la carte” services at a rate of $70 an hour, as well as subscriptions on a monthly ($150) or yearly ($1,600) basis. When a Steward physically completes a task, as opposed to co-ordinating services via phone or e-mail, the client is charged $55 for each “Steward hour.” Sutherland remains mum on specific numbers, but says her company is already profitable and gearing up to add three new employees.

Most concierge requests are fairly mundane—dry-cleaning pickups and package drop-offs are popular tasks. But occasionally they can border on the surreal.

Over lunch at Whole Foods, the My Stewards system alerts the Sutherlands of a potential new client, one looking to plan a birthday party for a two-year-old French bulldog. A “Parisian picnic theme” is in order, as is a quote for hiring an accordion player for the first hour of the party.

It’s a luxury request that My Stewards will happily accommodate, but Christina Sutherland notes that she has her eye on the middle rung of Toronto’s concierge market, catering to those who are looking for higher-end, personal services—as opposed to one-off hires from Kijiji—but at a more “affordable” rate. (The party featured a variety of Gallic-themed dog treats and was “a great success,” she says.)

If My Stewards is closer to the middle, then who exactly is at the top of the concierge ladder in Canada’s largest city?

“There’s a high-end service in Toronto called Zebrano,” says Sutherland. “It’s on that very high end of the market.”

 

Wendy Davis, a former sales and marketing rep for Hallmark Cards, Sears Travel, and Carnival Cruise Lines, founded Zebrano in 1999 upon discovering she wanted to use a private concierge service but couldn’t find one that suited her needs. She named it Zebrano after the African striped wood, because it was luxurious and because the layers would represent the variety of services she planned to offer. More than a decade in business and with eight employees, Zebrano is an established player in the sector.

There are just two employees in the loft-like office on the day I arrive. One sits quietly near the entrance, organizing a luxury kayaking trip for a family to see orcas and humpback whales in British Columbia. The accommodations include heated tents and four-poster beds. The rest of Davis’s team checks in with her at regular intervals with e-mails and texts from their respective concierge duties around the city. The back wall of the office is lined with hundreds of coloured folders, each representing a request in the throes of completion. Davis admits she designed the office to resemble a trading floor.

“Everybody can hear everything, and we bat things around, so it’s very collaborative,” she says. In the hours I spend following her around, Davis’s phone never sits quiet for more than a few minutes.

“My cellphone works in the Andes,” Davis tells me over lunch at a bagel shop in Forest Hill. It’s a fact representative of Davis’s work-life balance—relatively non-existent, she admits with a laugh. Athletic and tanned, she applies the same level of intensity and precision required during her days as a member of the national lightweight rowing team to her work as a concierge.

On the day Apple’s newest iPhone became available, her entire team rose at 3 a.m. to be first in line for online orders for clients, and to get around the two-item limit on purchases of new models. “We were on the phone with each other, and we’d e-mail going, ‘I got my two,’” she recounts with a grin. For another memorable request, she and her team managed to fill an overnight order for 5,000 Timbits so that a client could make a splash at the office.

Beyond resourcefulness, the concierge business is ruled by attention to detail. Davis keeps a folder of clients’ travel itineraries next to her bedside. When clients are on trips planned by Zebrano, her staff calls ahead to hotels and service providers to ensure arrangements are in place. The goal: solve problems before the clients become aware of them.

During my visit, Davis takes me to a client’s new home in Bedford Park, where one of her employees, Angela, is overseeing construction of a new storage space. The room will house floor-to-ceiling shelving and a wine fridge, which Angela photographs to note the make and model. The details will be filed away in a “household manual” for the homeowner, a woman named Mariam. That way Zebrano can easily access all of the relevant information should Mariam or her husband ever have a problem with their appliances—or even their TV remote. The house is also kept on a regular maintenance schedule: eaves are cleared seasonally, and furnace filters are replaced every three months.

With the storage space on track, Davis can sit back and breathe for a moment—she seems to have thought of everything. But instead she’s down the hall in Mariam’s laundry room, concerned that the small space won’t have a suitable place to hang wet clothes to dry.

“What if we get a hanging bar, on a string?” Davis wonders aloud.

A concierge’s work is never done.

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