Alexandre Besombes is not the concierge of Paris legend, and is indeed as far from the image of the silver-haired building minder as it is possible to be. He is one of the new breed of concierge, most commonly found in top-class hotels, who help wealthy clients with their daily tasks and leisure activities.
He heads Unique Paris with partner Carine Beauvisage, a company that aims to offer personalised concierge services to residents and tourists in Paris. The market is in constant expansion, but what is the underside of the business for those providing the services and how do they interact with the city?
Although Paris is said to be a city that likes its sleep, for Alexandre and his team this is a luxury that can be disturbed at any time. “We have a constant flow of requests at night such as delivering some groceries, calling a taxi or getting some medicine” says Alexandre Besombes. “This constant pressure of priority requests is very tiring in the long run and as we are open twenty four hours a day, you need to stay on alert most of the time” he adds.
His company decided at the beginning that a true 24 hour service with a nominated concierge would be an important differentiator for the brand, and it is a service that his clients appreciate. Fortunately for Alexandre though, his services don’t stop at simple late-night shopping missions.
“It really is an really job” he points out, before listing the aspects that lead him to a career in this industry in the first place. “We meet thousands of interesting people every year, working in all kinds of industries. We have to know and understand Paris from the inside and be aware of every single event, each new restaurant and all the concept stores that open in the city.”
Competition is very fierce in the concierge business. According to an internal market study carried out by the company, there were more than 500 concierge companies in France in 2010 - “some more professionals than others” adds Alexandre. Why has this industry grown so quickly though and who are typical clients?
Simply summarised, it would seem that the entire industry can be in encapsulated in one word – time. “We work mostly for people who put more value on their time than the average” explains Alexandre. “Both Parisians and tourists who use our services want to save time and maximise their pleasure in their activities, without the trouble of organising them. We deliver them more freedom. Since everything is planned to avoid wasting time - people do not queue for monuments, do not wait to get a table, do not wait for a taxi to show up - they just spend the time doing what they want to do.”
The purchasing of time naturally comes with a price tag, so who can afford such services? Most of the company’s clients would be described as wealthy, but others, particularly amongst the visitors to Paris, may simply be more concerned about making the most of a rare trip abroad. As Alexandre points out, “having someone say you saved our vacation is the most rewarding part of the job."
The basic services offered can be broken down into four sectors; daily life management, lifestyle management, travel planning and event planning, but are there any limits to exactly what a client can ask for and what the concierge can provide? When asked the strangest thing he has been asked to do, he replies mysteriously that “we are bound to a very strict confidentiality agreement with our clients and I’m afraid I can’t answer that question.”
He is equally cagey when I ask about clients asking for illegal services. It is easy to imagine the rich but stressed businessman calling up his concierge and asking him to find him women or drugs. “We have a very strict corporate policy about these kinds of requests” he says. “We never accept any request involving prostitution or drugs or indeed anything that is illegal. But we still of course try to be polite when we do refuse!”
Finally, the relationship between concierge and client seems to be based entirely on trust. Alexandre denies any links to inducement-offering prefered suppliers, and points out that in any case this would be extremely prejudicial to his company in the long term. When I ask if he feels any sensation of servitude in his job, he turns this around and says that he feels more like a friend or an advisor to his clients. “Serve the customers with quality and attention, trust and reward will follow” he says. A sentiment that would seem to be the perfect conclusion!
For more information on the services offered by Alexandre and his team, see http://www.myguideinparis.com/