Masters of Your Tasks

How the rise of one-stop, can-do concierge services may give you back your time.

General Motors wants to be your butler.

In order to attract and retain top talent in a tight labor market, a handful of companies - including Deloitte & Touche, Mercer Management Consulting, and Freddie Mac - have been offering concierge services to their employees.

These benefits are designed to meet various at-home needs - dry cleaning, vacation planning, home renovations, etc. - while workers put in time at the office.

Now these big companies - eager to diversify - are taking this perk one step further, joining a growing number of Web sites in offering concierge services to consumers as well.

A new, parallel development: the consolidation of such services into single sites. No more surfing to one site for groceries and another for tickets.

What the convergence of these trends should mean for consumers: a broader range of choices in one-stop concierge services - including offerings from some familiar and trusted brand names.

Access is already easy. It's sometimes as simple as just having a credit-card account.

Most platinum cards provide free virtual concierge services to their customers to keep them loyal.

"This is definitely one of the main things consumers should watch for," says Mary Naylor, CEO of VIPdesk, which provides an online referral service to consumers and a full-service concierge to corporate customers, including large credit-card providers.

She expects 51 million people will have access to her service by 2003, compared with an estimated 3 million to 4 million in the whole industry today.

And users are requesting more and more types of services from these virtual concierges, from legal assistance to financial services to adoption and eldercare.

Anthony Arena, an autoworker from Austintown, Ohio, knows the value of a virtual concierge. He decided to sign up for GM's OnStar service before buying a new Chevy Blazer last March. Besides helping drivers track their vehicles in case they get lost, OnStar helps users find local merchants, make reservations, and place orders.

For Mr. Arena, the service came in particularly handy while planning a trip to New York earlier this year. He wanted to see the Yankees play ball, but the team's games were sold out. So he dialed an OnStar concierge. Two days later, tickets to a Yankees game arrived in the mail.

For $39.95 per month, Arena gets unlimited use of the service. (Once Onstar located the Yankees tickets, he had to pay separately for them.)

Arena doubts he would use the service if he had to pay per call, but says he gets his money's worth, using the service every time he wants to book dinner at his favorite restaurant. "It's fantastic," he says.

Most of the services are not cost effective for most consumers to pay for themselves, says Ann Vincola, senior partner at Corporate Work-Life Consulting in Boston, who has been advising corporations about such services for 20 years. So companies are underwriting them in other ways - by offering them to businesses to be used as customer- or employee-loyalty rewards, for example.

Others virtual concierges work like price clubs, getting merchants to pay for customer referrals. A few, like OnStar, charge monthly subscription fees.

To be sure, these services reflect good economic times. "When the economy's good, there's a lot of interest in this stuff," says Ms. Vincola. "But in recession, we're struggling."

Concierge services started as corporate benefits that helped baby-boomer executives balance work-family issues in the 1980s, as more women entered the workforce.

Now more than 50 percent of women work, so these needs are unlikely to go away. With technology increasing the flow of information, activity, and choices to an often mind-boggling degree, says Ms. Naylor, people don't have time to sort through all the options.

To these time-strapped consumers, she says, time is more valuable than money.

"People don't feel they have time to do all the things they want to do," says Vincola. So they want to off-load daily necessities that aren't personally fulfilling.

Circles, a Boston company that provides concierge services to employers, estimates that people spend 37 percent of their time every week working and commuting, 31 percent sleeping and taking care of other bodily needs, 22 percent on household chores, and only 10 percent on "personal priorities."

By delegating some of the household chores to a concierge, they can devote more time to their personal priorities.

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