Personal concierge services are helping new arrivals settle in faster. Tiffany Tan reports.
For Liu Yu, a typical workday involves going to the Beijing police to ask for a Certificate of No Criminal Record for a client. Or accompanying someone souvenir shopping and getting a full-body massage. A more unusual day would be buying a pack of playing cards, fishing out the Queen of Hearts and hand delivering it to a client's girlfriend without asking questions. This is Liu's world as a personal concierge at Jasmine Beijing, a company that helps its busy foreign clients run an assortment of errands in person, over the phone and online.
Ordering food from restaurants and having it delivered to your door, making doctor's appointments, paying utility bills at the bank, picking up tailored suits, walking dogs – they are all services offered on Jasmine's website, along with a list of fees ranging from 150 – 300 yuan ($25 – $50) an hour.
"My Chinese friends say it's strange," says Liu, 32, who has been in the job for two years.
"They say about some of my tasks – for instance, helping people buy stuff, going to the supermarket – 'Aren't these jobs for a maid?' I say of course not! It's as easy as raising your hand."
Having stayed in London for more than a month in 2008, the native of Anhui province knows how difficult it can be to adapt to a foreign land. She also found out how much easier things can be with the help of a local who knows the language, the city and the culture – another major job description of a personal concierge.
Glenn Gibbins, a British advertising executive in Shanghai, is grateful for such help in both language and culture. He arrived in China from London six months ago and hired a personal concierge from At Your Side during the initial months.
"You're able to understand a lot of things a lot faster, and you'll see the inner city that you wouldn't normally see as a tourist – you're limited. So it opens the city up to you, gives you a lot of potential," says the 39-year-old.
Senior executives at multinational companies, like Gibbins, as well as business travelers, are typical clients for China's personal concierge companies.
"People who are used to a high level of lifestyle," explains David Ronald, the Briton who owns Jasmine Beijing.
Most personal concierge companies, found in first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai, offer translators, tour guides, drivers, shopping assistants and relocation advisers. Those like Jasmine and At Your Side, which take care of odds and ends more often associated with personal assistants, are rare.
These services "are not the norm", says Sara-Ann Kasner, founder and chief executive of the National Concierge Association, which is headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and has members in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Europe.
But not too long ago, it was actually these "small tasks" that created space for the personal concierge industry to take root.
"Personal concierge services began in the US about 20 years ago in response to the growing number of families in which both parents were working full time and experienced a true lack of time to complete errands, satisfy entertainment arrangements and more," Kasner says.
The errand services faded into the background, she says, since they were not the "money makers" in the business.
This was the experience of Our Man in Beijing. The consulting company offered these services when it started in 2007 but eventually stopped because they did not prove to be profitable.
"I believe there is a niche for it," says Richard Collett, the company's British managing director.
"But I found there is not enough consistency of need from our clients. Most people coming to China come willingly. They might be anxious, but they want to quickly step into the cultural challenge of China so only really need our help for the first few days or weeks."
At Your Side, in contrast, is taking its personal concierge business farther. The company, which charges a minimum of 1,000 yuan a day for personal concierges, plans to open new offices in Shaanxi's provincial capital Xi'an, Shenzhen in Guangdong province, Sanya in Hainan province, Guilin in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region and Hong Kong in the next couple of years.
"For us, it's a new concept," says chief operating officer An Jingwen.
"You know, somebody 'at your side' to help you explore the city."


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