x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

How Dubai concierge companies offer ad hoc personal assistance

Need a personal assistant? Turn to these pay-by-the-hour concierge services in Dubai.

Zuzana Kalsi, the founder of Assist.ae, lives to help others - for a fee.
Zuzana Kalsi, the founder of Assist.ae, lives to help others - for a fee.

A good personal assistant needs to be inventive, punctual, far more organised than his or her client and able to think a little laterally when occasion demands.

But, of course, like the majority, we can only speculate on this. The sorts of jobs and salaries that warrant a dedicated personal assistant are fairly few.

Yet, continuing in the vein of the UAE's vast service industry - known for its remarkably lower rates for live-in maids and live-in nannies, for instance, than those found in the West - Assist.ae offers a flexible PA service at a price that's a little more accessible.

Founder and director Zuzana Kalsi says that while there are a lot of companies catering to top executives here in the UAE, she wanted to provide a more affordable option.

"I used to work 12 hours a day in the corporate world, and just didn't have time for myself," says Kalsi, who is originally from the US. "I thought that those who are struggling with striking a balance between work and personal life is a good place to start."

Assist.ae has a dizzying array of services, ranging from the obvious to the highly nuanced. For instance, its website offers examples including setting up a post office box or picking up the children from school, tracking down hard-to-find ingredients or providing orientation tours for those new to an area of the city. Midnight cravings for a mana'oushe from some backstreet bakery that doesn't deliver? A quick call to an assistant will have it whisking its way across the city to you.

"Anything to do with cars is definitely a popular request," Kalsi continues. "Registration and servicing as well as picking up visiting guests from the airport. Other popular tasks are coordinating maid's services or babysitters.

"Not everybody needs 100 hours of help a month. Some need just five or 10 hours and that's who we're trying to target."

The service is very much about handing over a problem, and each of Kalsi's five-strong team offers their problem-solving time for a flexible rate: It's Dh100 minimum for the first hour, then Dh25 for every additional 15 minutes. There are also packages of blocked time available, ranging from five to 20 hours with increment discounts. Alternatively, an assistant can be hired for 24 hours, seven days a week, in the manner of an actual PA.

Hanan Nagi is the chief executive of HNI Training and Coaching, which helps to build skills in executives across the region. She's been ordering a 10-hour package monthly from Assist.ae and says that the service has already made an impact.

"It's still a small company and keen to do a good job, and I like that. I also like how they think and the close attention you get as a customer.

"For me, it's quite irregular - last week I called them two or three times, but this week a bit less. But it does take care of smaller jobs and has meant I have a bit more time with my family."

Kalsi also has plenty of options for those under pressure to pull off something spectacular for Valentine's Day tomorrow. "We can definitely give gift ideas, and also do the shopping for you. But a lot of people like to get out of town, so we can research countries they can visit on a short break. Maybe you want to rent a luxury car for the weekend, or get specific flowers delivered that are hard to find.

"In Dubai we can arrange a romantic meal on the beach, particularly in terms of finding and setting up a location for a secluded spot or, alternatively, making reservations with a hotel."

But the crux of Assist.ae's quick-fix PA service is a little more domestic. With that in mind, we decided to throw a couple of tasks at the team to see what they came back with.

First up: a fairly new flat, and two framed prints that had been leaning against the wall for the past month. Living alone, there's no one around to assist with positioning or to help prevent a potential catastrophe when I begin drilling holes in the wall.

Second, the beige tiled floor needs a bit of softening up, so a couple of rugs are in order. But given the numerous, somewhat harrowing trips I've already made to Ikea in recent months, it would take some persuading to get me back there.

One of Kalsi's team quickly came back to me with a good price for a handyman to get the pictures up and tentatively secured a time for later that afternoon. Meanwhile, I sent Kalsi a snapshot of the flat and a price range for the rugs. Fifteen minutes later, she came back to me with a selection of options in various colours from Ikea. She also told me that once I had made my decision, someone from the Assist team would then collect and deliver the goods to me. She also suggested that one of the team could head up to Dragon Mart and come back with a selection of photographs and suggestions to meet my limited budget.

Yet Assist.ae has faced some rather more taxing requests since its launch. Kalsi tells of a European client looking for a particular item of gold jewellery.

"He wanted the best price," she says. "So we went down to the gold souq in Deira, found exactly the piece and bartered it down for him."

He was saved the trip and, consequently, the potential loss of face over his haggling skills.

Allinque, a similar Dubai-based concierge service that opened in January last year, reports some even more unusual requests.

"We've had it all," says Alan Pinto, Allinque's business development manager. "One client wanted to find a plastic ring that he'd found in a cereal box a few years ago. It had some sentimental value for him, but he didn't even know the name of the cereal. In the end we got something similar, by having it manufactured exactly according to his description."

Pinto says that uptake on Allinque's service has been good, but reliant on word of mouth. It offers more of a membership-based, monthly service than the one-off hourly rates offered by Assist.ae. "We've not done aggressive marketing because we like to take it slow. In this part of the world, people are not that familiar with a concept like this, nor are they comfortable delegating their work.

"There is a client base of between 70 and 80, however, and we're seeing that grow."

The success of services like these is a strange phenomenon. It's a sign of trying times when managing the day-to-day is so demanding that it's desirable to have someone on hand just to give you some time out.

But in the lead-up to Valentine's Day, a few hours of assistance really can help out. Romance may or may not be dead, but it can be hard to come up with something heart-racing when you're balancing work, family and getting a broken shower fixed.

Assist.ae can take the pressure off, even if it's just getting rid of the kids for a few hours or coming up with gift ideas. After all, nothing says "I'm running on empty" like flowers from the petrol station.


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