When a Merrill Lynch businesswoman called at 3 p.m. on the Friday of Labor Day weekend wanting to charter a sailboat to entertain a client the next morning, the networking skills of Charm City Concierge Inc. were put to the test.
An hour and a half later, the Baltimore company, which has grown from 300 to 10,000 customers in five years, had lined up a 34-foot sloop, complete with captain, wine and cheese, and James Taylor on compact disc.
"We get things done," said Christina Urquhart, president of Charm City. "But the time given us to do it is so short, and the mayhem behind the scenes is amazing."
Whether it's helping a zoo-keeper find a run-away vulture, securing hard-to-find theater tickets or finding the perfect gift for an executive's spouse, the concierge is there to help.
An executive standing in the lobby of a downtown building recently quipped that he wouldn't have a girlfriend if it weren't for the help of the office concierge at 250 W. Pratt St.
"The market for corporate concierges is exploding," said Sara-Ann Kasner, president of the National Concierge Association, which was formed last year. "The whole concept of fulfilling unusual requests is something that just about every class A property employs in one manner or another. A personal assistant in the workplace is a necessity."
Kasner has a file cabinet containing the names of 5,000 concierges nationwide but does not know how many more there are or how much money the industry represents annually. Assessing those numbers is one of the new association's first projects, she said.
The American version of an "office" concierge started in Dallas about 10 years ago, and the idea has blossomed nationwide in the past five years, Kasner said.
Urquhart and her business partner, Nancy L. Green, found it a tough sell when they brought the idea to Baltimore's real estate market in 1993, opening in the B&O; Building.
"At first we had to educate them on how to say the word concierge, much less what it does," Urquhart said.
But the idea caught on, and with 15 employees the service operates in 11 downtown office buildings, Harborplace and the Gallery. It is an amenity purchased by real estate or management companies for their customers as a form of tenant relations.
"Sarah [Rio Lange] has helped with all aspects of our lives from tickets to flowers to dry cleaning," said Jason Gaarder, an attorney at Semmes, Bowen & Semmes, referring to the concierge in his office building at 250 W. Pratt St. "If we need something for a client, she's the one we call."
Employees do call, especially when they get in a pinch. In 1994, a female executive phoned at 8: 30 a.m. She had a presentation to give in half an hour and had forgotten her navy blue pumps to match her suit. She had only the sneakers she had worn for the commute.
Quickly, Urquhart tracked down a shoe vendor and negotiated an early opening of the store so she could scoop up several pairs of shoes for the distraught businesswoman.
It's all in a day's work for employees at Charm City Concierge, which fields thousands of requests each month and, in the past five years, has helped dry clean more than 20,000 shirts and ordered more than 5,000 gifts. Their motto is: "a partner in your success."
"We might be a partner in their success with a client or with their wife or girlfriend," said Urquhart, 33, whose background is in marketing. The concierge keeps lists of birthdays and anniversaries for thousands of people in Baltimore, tracking past gifts to avoid duplication.
Last spring, the service saved the day for a local attorney who came to the concierge desk about 10: 30 a.m. seeking help. He had just realized that he was having lunch with someone who years earlier had given him a print that he hadn't framed.
"We did it," said Green, vice president of Charm City Concierge, who spent three years as a social worker before starting the business.
"We had it framed and hanging on the wall when his 12: 30 p.m. lunch date arrived," she said.
In November, when a woman carrying a large net walked up to the concierge in the Gallery and asked for help tracking down a vulture that had escaped from the zoo. A few phone calls later, the concierge had pinpointed the vulture's location.
The owners of Charm City Concierge don't want to say how much they charge for their service or reveal their annual revenue. The next step for the company is to expand with ExecuTime, a service designed to save time for busy executives.
The program will provide staff to do such things as shop, pick up dinner, pay parking tickets, do car repairs, wait for the cable man and pet-sit. Corporations pay a fee, and employees cover the hourly charge of $5 to $10 for specific services.
"Corporations are looking for ways to attract and retain good employees," Urquhart said. "When they are competing with other companies, they need to do more than just offer higher salaries."
Pub Date: 2/12/99