What the concierge serves up

Want to be spoiled rotten? With the highest grade of plastic you can enjoy top-notch services from credit card operators

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 May, 2013, 4:18am

At the beginning of this month, American Express Platinum credit card holders in Hong Kong reluctantly bid adieu to the company's concierge services, sparking complaints. Cardholders were upset that Amex was cutting its service - but not its fees.

"The fact that they're yanking the concierge and given the extreme prices that they're charging … the overall service is diminishing," says Marco Vaccaro, an American Express Platinum credit card holder, who will cancel his card at the end of the month.

Clearly, Amex touched a nerve. But those Hongkongers not holding a high-end credit card might wonder: What on earth is a concierge service? We decided to investigate. Essentially, the service was conceived to satisfy the requirements of business travellers who need to quickly find their way in foreign cities. Just like a hotel concierge, a credit card concierge can help you book a hotel, a flight or a table at a restaurant. The service caught on and has expanded to help users with small tasks such as sending flowers or scoring tickets at sold-out concerts.

Andrew Long, co-founder of Ten Group, a global lifestyle concierge company that helps handle requests for corporate clients such as Citibank and several luxury houses, says the concierge is a Western concept but one that is moving up higher on the list of Asian consumer demands. "The Asian business world is becoming a lot more international and a lot more wealthy Asians are going to London, New York and Paris. English may not be their first language. They can be very vulnerable about moving out of their comfort zone," he says.

In Asia, luxury retail requests feature prominently. "We get a lot of requests for luxury watches and particularly the [Hermes] Birkin handbag," says Long. "If you were to walk into a store [to ask for the bag], they probably wouldn't accept you on the waiting list and it is a two-year wait. It depends on the bag [colour, edition and material] but we can generally source a bag within a week to 10 days."

The three main credit card firms - MasterCard, Visa and American Express - all insist that their concierge can secure exclusive discounts at hotel chains, tables at top-notch restaurants and tickets to sold-out events.

But at least when it comes to ease of access, there is a clear hierarchy. MasterCard concierge uses one global consolidated number that is printed on the back of the credit card and connects the caller to a live person.

American Express and Visa have separate numbers to call. Visa provides 134 hotlines for the Asia-Pacific region alone, depending on where you are calling from and what language you prefer.

This is a complication for users, particularly given that most people want the concierge service when they are travelling in an unfamiliar country. American Express says they design their service mainly to help frequent travellers.

The South China Morning Post called Visa's Hong Kong hotline in English and heard a lengthy automated disclaimer that the following conversations may be recorded, that Visa could not guarantee the products and services of third-party companies, and the cardholder's personal information may be forwarded to other countries. That was before reaching a phone menu from which the caller had to select depending on the level of service - Platinum, Signature or Infinite - they are entitled to.

There are also some boundaries for concierges across the board: they will not provide legal, financial or medical advice, although they can provide a list of qualified experts in the client's vicinity. They also won't do anything that lies within an ethical grey area either (no whale-hunting trips off the coast of Japan please), but Long says they rarely encounter those kinds of requests, anyway.

What a concierge can do really depends on how deep the client's pockets are. "If someone phones up and says, 'I really want to meet David Beckham,' well, we know his managing agents. What we try to establish is how serious is this request. If they say, 'I'm willing to invest quite significantly behind wanting to do that,' it's possible but sometimes at quite a high price, usually a charge or donation," says Long.

How the cards are stacked

Amex's service is headlined by the ultra-exclusive Centurion card, also known as the "black card" and the Platinum charge card, which are both on an invitation-only basis (the Platinum charge card, not to be confused with the Platinum credit card, has no pre-set spending limit and the balance must be paid in full every month).

American Express doesn't reveal its criteria for inviting people to use the Centurion or Platinum charge card but, according to a Wall Street Journal article in 2011, the average Centurion cardholder had US$16.3 million in assets and an annual household income of US$1.3 million. Previously, individuals with an annual salary of HK$300,000 could apply for a Platinum credit card and, if successful, enjoy concierge assistance.

So what do you get? Susanna Lee, vice-president and general manager of card services for American Express, tells the story of an Australian Centurion member who was once travelling in Hong Kong for about six months and he decided to bring his pet - a tropical fish. When he arrived at Hong Kong, he was unable to locate the rare fish food for his tropical fish, so he contacted Amex for assistance. "After we received his request, we tracked down over 80 small shops in Hong Kong trying to locate the rare fish food that he fed his pet fish. Finally, we were able to find the requested rare fish food for this card member and he was very happy with our service," says Lee.

Ruben Salazar, a regional head of consumer credit products at MasterCard, offers his own case study. He says that, recently, a Singaporean cardholder landed in Hong Kong on Friday for business and realised he had forgotten his daughter's birthday, which was the next day.

"He'd been travelling like crazy and had nothing prepared. We organised for his daughter and her friends to fly from Singapore to the Banyan Tree resort in Bintan Island, Indonesia, where a party was held," says Salazar.

Within two hours, he says MasterCard came back with options. They planned the entire celebration down to the cake, and all the extras for the teenager and her friends, says Salazar.

The Pos t's email to Visa's media relations team went unanswered. In a call as a customer (a Post staffer holds a Visa Platinum card), a Visa concierge said he could help with hotel bookings, restaurant reservations and car rentals, but declined to give examples of what he could do outside of such services.