Personal assistant companies are springing up in the Emirates as clients look for that special touch.
Up close and very personal in the UAE
In an era of downsizing, those who are hired to shop, arrange and advise are in high demand because other people are working harder and longer. Rory Jones reports.
At 9am on a recent Saturday, Cava, a personal-assistance service, received a distressing phone call from a client.
He was lying on a road in Phuket, nursing a broken leg after crashing a scooter while riding around the idyllic island in Thailand.
The Cava consultant who took the call immediately sent an alert to all consultants for an emergency meeting.
"We created a task force which dealt with the medical, special travel requirements, insurance, financial and diplomatic issues in Thailand, as well as scooter retrieval and luggage collection," says Molly Vanden Bosch, a sales and marketing director at Cava, which was launched in November.
Most people think of a personal assistant as someone who frivolously offers fashion advice, picks up the dry cleaning, books travel plans or simply pays the utility bills.
But while Cava's request was unusual, it showed the depth and range of the services on offer.
The client was swiftly taken to a hospital, which was already busy as there had been a chemical explosion at a factory nearby.
"We even consulted with a top doctor in Dubai to get a second opinion on the surgery," says Ms Vanden Bosch. "Five consultants worked simultaneously on the different tasks and could manage a complicated situation within a few hours."
Prior to the client's return to the Emirates, Cava had made arrangements for all his medical and insurance documents to be attested, for his airport pick-up, for a local doctor and household requirements.
"All he needed to do was to mend and feel better," says Ms Vanden Bosch, who declines to name the client for confidentiality reasons.
Her story is part of a trend: more and more companies that sell lifestyle services are popping up in the UAE, with many willing to go to the ends of the earth for their clients.
And the service is not exclusive to the rich. While some companies try to attract a high-end clientele, others believe there is a market for less-affluent customers looking to save time and cut out the dull tasks in their lives.
Naturally, you would assume that personal assistance services would be popular in a booming and growing economy as wealthy individuals can afford to offload boring chores to experts. But new businesses say that the opposite is true. Because of the economic downturn of the past few years, people are now working harder, they are part of smaller companies and have less time on their hands.
"We have realised that the people in our lower bracket, these are people who are looking to get things done rather than wanting a luxury service," says Mohammed Kazim, a co-founder of Allinque, which launched its assistant service in January last year. "They use us like they would an assistant in the office."
Mr Kazim says business is strong because companies have been cutting workers, so remaining staff required the service for personal issues.
Allinque now has more than 100 customers, paying at least Dh700 (US$190) a month, for 10 hours of service.
One client asked that a Range Rover be gift-wrapped, and another requested that an injured cat be transported from Abu Dhabi to Dubai to receive medical treatment.
"As we go through our meetings and talk to potential clients, one thing we have found is that their lives have become more complex, many are entertaining more, working longer hours and many are part of much leaner companies," says Ms Vanden Bosch. "PAs have been downsized, so we help people to do their to-do list both professionally and personally. People need more help, and this is where we are coming in."
The level of service and the clientele of each company varies, but all believe there is a growing market for what they offer.
"Our market is not somebody who has unimaginable amount of wealth. We are also finding that a lot of our clients and potential clients are residents here in Dubai but they spend a huge amount of time somewhere else," says Ms Vanden Bosch.
Cava charges clients Dh120,000 a year for a 24-hour assistance service and has 12 clients and a staff of 20.
It aims to have a maximum of 100 clients at any one time and will offer an expert personal shopping service, financial and legal services, home maintenance, procurement and education.
Lifestyle services are not growing in the UAE just because people want convenience and to save time - clients also want expert advice on indulging themselves.
Kelly Lundberg, a fashion stylist and founder of Divine Personal Shopping, has seen a huge increase in the number of people seeking her services, particularly last year as retail sales boomed.
"Business has been really, really good," she says. "Although clients have had to pay for a service, they said they were still saving money in the long term because they didn't waste money on clothes they wouldn't wear."
Ms Lundberg has billed out 10,000 hours of personal shopping service in the past five years, at an average rate of Dh350 an hour.
She has clients in their 20s and some in their 50s. She dresses housewives with time on their hands and business executives with no time to shop.
"2012 has been a bit slow to start, but I think it could be even better than 2011," she says. "The growth in the market is gradual."