Lifestyles of the rich and famous need a concierge who can keep the customer satisfied, anywhere, anytime and at any price. Gemma Champ talks to three men who can arrange anything from security for avoiding Somali pirates to dinner with an opera superstar.
If you've ever thought going on holiday is more trouble than it's worth - the packing, the planning, the stress of the travelling, the panic when things go pear-shaped - it's probably because you haven't engaged the services of the right concierge. Oh, and all the amazing contacts that he has on speed dial.
When you charter your yacht with the broker Robert Dubsky, for example, you don't just get a yacht: you get a direct line to some of the top fixers in the world. Whatever problem creases your brow, whether it's a burning desire to sail through the Gulf of Aden without being attacked by Somali pirates or the unquenchable urge to watch a particular DVD that you can't get hold of because you're somewhere off Barbados, Dubsky knows someone who can fix it fast.
He is part of an unofficial web of highly connected people - connected by trust, mutual favours and peerless expertise in their respective businesses - for whom no request is too challenging and no oligarch too intimidating. They provide the complex, efficient motors that keep glamorous lives gliding smoothly across untroubled waters.
Closest in Dubsky's extensive network are two similarly connected, supremely discreet characters: the maritime security expert James Howard-Higgins and the top concierge Concetto Marletta.
It would be hard to find a more varied threesome. Dubsky is all understated country attire and upper-crust accent. He was educated at one of Britain's top public schools, and his company, Yachtmasters - based in Britain, Singapore and Montenegro and soon to open in Monaco - prioritises lifestyle over the technical details of yachting. He knows those details intimately - he's worked in the industry for more than 10 years - but on top of finding the right yacht he aims to ensure that every aspect of the experience is perfect.
"Within reason, we'll do whatever is required," he says.
Howard-Higgins, meanwhile, is big, bluff and quietly authoritative, with military bearing. In the most genial way, he is someone you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. His company, Orchid, with an office in Dubai, supports the principals of ultra-wealthy families on matters of lifestyle, from interior design to choosing a prep school and training family drivers in advanced skills, and provides security and intelligence, whether yachting or on safari.
"More and more today, wealthy families want to do the unusual holiday, travel to the developing world, where the risk can be greater," he says. That's where the pirate attacks come in. Although this tends to be more of an issue for tankers, there have, he says, been some "suspicious approaches".
"To date all of those attacks have been successfully repelled," he says. "A yacht usually has the advantage of speed. And visibly it's quite easy to see an armed team aboard a yacht."
Marletta, meanwhile, is every inch the dapper Italian, sharp of suit, impeccable of manners, glamorous and engaging. With a background as head honcho at top London hotels including Claridges, the Mandarin Oriental and, until recently, The Dorchester (he left to lead the concierge service at the soon-to-open Bulgari hotel in Knightsbridge), he is the man who knows everyone, and now has his own concierge company, Indispensable, as well as providing training to the likes of Louis Vuitton, De Beers and Vertu.
What the three have in common are their enviable contact books, the importance they place on mutual trust, and their conviction that no demand is too great.
"I don't find requests difficult," says Marletta simply.
Howard-Higgins, 39, has a slightly different take on it: "There is the idea that a concierge is some exclusive club where anything is possible, but it's the opposite: if you go into the concierge world, the first rule is you have to be able to say no to your client; you've got to manage your client's expectations."
He doesn't have to say no very often, though, and neither does Dubsky - a good job in such a competitive business.
"Everybody will have somebody who wants to get that hottest ticket," says Dubsky, "and there must be hundreds of concierge individuals all around London, so it's only going to be who's best connected."
For those of us reduced to making our own restaurant bookings, it's hard to imagine the level of service the trio is talking about here. Howard-Higgins, whose clients can buy his services either as a subscription or on an ad hoc basis, puts it concretely: "I'll give you an example. We've got a very large global family coming into the Olympics, so we've facilitated accommodation and so on, but also having all their tickets for 200 events, having a table at three top restaurants every day in London, giving them options each night, so they've got option A, option B, option C, and that's what you're buying. Choices. Spontaneity."
Marletta is the person Dubsky and Howard-Higgins will turn to for some of those difficult requests. "He's a very professional, old-school character with his beliefs and attitudes about how to treat the client. He's a very reliable character to work with," says Dubsky, who is in his mid-30s.
Marletta charges an undisclosed fee as an annual subscription for his services, and then charges fees by request within that. For perfection achieved, his tales take some beating. Try the Greek family coming to London who had a yen to see a Placido Domingo recital at the Royal Opera House. It had been sold out for more than a year. He managed to get the tickets anyway - the best seats in the house. As he tells it:
"We said to them: 'We booked the tickets; however we can get you into the private reception on arrival, the reception in the interval, and then there is a dinner after the show in the Royal Opera House, with the patrons and the cast.' So the client ended up dining with Placido Domingo and eventually they were introduced."
His Versace story is a beauty, too, a classic of the magical arts of the concierge. A client in Monaco wanted to buy his wife a Valentine's Day gift. "She will call you," he told Marletta. She duly did, and said: "Concetto, there are these six dresses I want from Versace; I will send you photographs by email." His friends at the Versace showroom in London laughed - the collection was from five years ago: an impossible request. But as it happened, Donatella had been his client for years, and he has his contacts inside the house.
"So they went to the archive, they took the drawings and they made the dresses just for my client. Then the lady who looks after Europe for Versace, she put these dresses in the car, together with the historical seamstress who started with Gianni Versace, Paola, and they went to deliver the dresses in Monaco. Five of them were perfect, the sixth needed a bit of adjustment, so they took the measurements back to Versace, adjusted them and sent them back to her again."
For Dubsky, such details are, in the main, simply part of the service. He charges nothing but his commission, except for those extra costs in, for example, buying pricy tickets. He offers more examples, including that DVD story: "A British family took a yacht for two weeks; the wife had said there was a DVD she couldn't get out there, so we flew one of our girls out with the DVD and she delivered it in less than a day. "
That money-no-object approach might seem risky, but it's just the start of the lengths these men and their teams will go to in making sure their clients are not only delighted with the service but also will count them as trusted friends. Indeed, it is to some extent a mark of prestige to be able to employ them. Marletta works with only 20 clients at any one time. Howard-Higgins, meanwhile, tells the story of one of his clients who refuses to share his details with anyone.
"These guys at that level are quite competitive with each other," he says. "They like to say: 'I've got a guy who sorts it for me; you won't have heard of him, he's very exclusive.' I've got a client, one of the oldest shipping families. He likes people to ask him: 'Who do you use for security?' and he'll answer: 'I can't tell you.'"
Howard-Higgins puts it another way: "If there's a yacht deal to be had, the guy would go to Rob over another yacht broker not because he's used Robert for years but because he's a mate, he's been shooting with them, knows the names of his children and shares a passion for cars."
To this end, Dubsky and Howard-Higgins treat their clients to extraordinary private events. "We do a lot of country sports, a lot of motor racing, and we do some unusual things like going to Finland doing ice-driving and husky-racing," says Dubsky. "Everyone's flown out in private jets. We'll have a couple of like-minded friends and clients - no more than six to 10 or 12 people, so they all get on."
That sounds like a gamble, but Howard-Higgins says not: "We're offering something unique: go out to the Arctic Circle and race high-performance vehicles on a frozen lake. What you end up with is ambassadors who will represent your business around the world through their daily life. You can't go in with a short-term view. Sometimes they'll ring you up and say: 'Hey, finally, after three years... ' You may have taken them to the Grand Prix three times or the Arctic Circle, taken them on a supercar rally through the Amazon or Switzerland down to the Italian Lakes. The point is that your risk has paid off."
And, as risks often are, it's fun.
"That's why it's good if you can get the right characters," says Dubsky. "James and I are both into cars, for example, and so are lots of our clients. They're just normal characters: they smile when they see a nice car. Just because it sounds glamorous and you're driving an Aston Martin or whatever it may be, it doesn't mean it's all caviar and Gucci and diamonds - it's just a load of blokes talking about motor cars or Top Gear. The fact that one of them has a substantial bank account and one of them doesn't is irrelevant."
Still, it is a business. Howard-Higgins admits that "for me it's a good thing to come back and go down to the pub and talk to the plasterers and builders and whoever. It's a good tonic - because you're not one of these people".
Marletta concurs: "You've got to understand them. I try to think like they do. Of course, I don't lead their lives and there is always a limit. I always put myself on the level of the person who serves them, but I think like them."
"That's probably why we all get on so well," concludes Dubsky. "We always said that the type of business we're in could be perceived as being glamorous, as long as you don't think you're one of them. That would be a big mistake."
Yachtmasters, www.yachtmasters.com, +44 (0)20 7099 0941, email@example.com
Orchid family office (Dubai), www.orchidoffice.com, +971 (0)50 902 1642, firstname.lastname@example.org
Indispensable, www.totallyindispensable.com, +44 (0)20 7201 8348, email@example.com
Five rules of the concierge
1. Work only with those you trust completely. Dubsky and Howard-Higgins are both willing to drop their contacts at the first sign of unethical behaviour and Marcetta's black book is about quality, not quantity.
2. Know the luxury lifestyle. If you don't fully understand what luxury means to each of your clients, you cannot meet their needs. Marcetta's clients trust him to make the most personal choices, from where to buy a home to gifts for their loved ones.
3. Manage your clients' expectations. Howard-Higgins believes that many concierges are afraid to say no, risking disappointment for the client when their request is not satisfied.
4. Don't fear the oligarchs. Dubsky's experience shows that if you can find common ground, they're just normal guys with a big bank account, and Howard-Higgins says that many fearsome reputations are deliberately maintained to filter people out.
5. Don't take no for an answer. Even a seemingly impossible request can usually be resolved with a combination of persistence, contacts and, crucially, luck.