For Quintessentially Group founder, luxury is all about having the time to reflect
Ben Elliot started the bespoke concierge company in 2000, and 17 years on, he talks about the definition of luxury and how Chinese tastes are changing
Ben Elliot, the co-founder of concierge company Quintessentially Group, explains why technology is not the height of luxury, and what the elite in China are really looking for.
You wake up in the morning to emails from East Asia and stay up late for phone calls from the US. How long are your working hours?
I don’t actually count them. I tend to wake up very early, probably because I like to exercise first thing in the morning. My day usually starts at 5.30am, and I go to bed around midnight. My hours are long, but I don’t know anything different. My family helps to keep me grounded, especially my two children who are under the age of four. I have been doing this for most of my adult life, so my schedule feels normal.
When Quintessentially started in 2000, there were just three in your team. What was one of the hardest challenges you faced?
Everything was hard, because nobody knew who we were. The idea of a concierge at that time was a totally novel concept. Some people used to make huge requests just to challenge us, such as having tea with the queen on the same day. The funny thing is that the more Quintessentially has developed, the more normal all of this has become.
The business really shifted for us when people started to take us seriously. That moment came when other people, especially famous figures, started talking about our services and telling everyone how brilliant we were. That is when we started expanding internationally, and we opened a branch in New York in 2003.
How has luxury evolved from that time?
Luxury has shifted with a clear emphasis on health and experiences. People buy fewer products. The world has become a much smaller place, and people around the world will save more money to have extraordinary experiences.
Getting older has changed my own definition of luxury. Initially, luxury for me was about staying in opulent places, and going to an ostentatious over-the-top banquet. Now when I look at those sorts of activities, I think how tiring they must be. In contrast, I see luxury as having the time to reflect, to be quiet, and to not have people or technology around me. Going for a swim on a beach where there is nobody else, riding a bicycle in the countryside – these are activities that I really enjoy.
What are some key trends that you are seeing in the Chinese elite?
We have been doing business in China since 2008, and our clientele have let us know what is important for them. One trend that we see is people wanting to make money while spending money during their leisure time. It is up to us to find a way to help them find a synergy and build a custom programme around that – not only enabling them to see and explore the world, but also how to help them extend their business internationally.
We are also recognising China’s love of mobile internet, and finding new ways to distribute our content to an audience through WeChat, Weibo and our Quintessentially app. But while technology enables people to do things, in the end, sophisticated and discerning people want somebody to look after them.
We live in a world that says everything will be done through technology. However, we all want human relationships. We want to know that somebody is going the extra mile for us. When you have good service, whatever that is, you don’t think about the company, but the individual.
What career milestone are you most proud of, and what’s one goal you’d like to achieve?
I am very proud of the establishment of the Quintessentially foundation, which will have raised £10 million (HK$99.3 million) by the end of this year. I am also proud of the development of the people that work for us. The lady who now runs our service in London was a 19-year-old university student eight years ago.
One goal I hope to achieve is that when people think about excellent service, they will think of Quintessentially. I would like our company to become the benchmark of excellence.
How do you like to spend time during your weekends and holidays?
I live in London during the working week, and on the weekends I go to the Cotswolds in the west of England. My father-in-law, who is a musician, moved there 50 years ago, and my wife and family live about seven kilometres away from him. Living in the countryside allows us time to be together as a family, and I just love it. It is very beautiful.
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The book Cider with Rosie, written by Laurie Lee, was set in the Cotswolds in the 1920s and ’30s. And I really like the fact that not much has changed there. There is something to be said for the world not changing. While I like certain things to move very fast, I also like some things to stay very slow.
Is there an upcoming trip you are excited about?
In November, I am taking 120 people with me from all over the world to the Indian countryside to do a rickshaw race. We did one two years ago for five days and raised nearly £5 million for a conservation charity called Elephant Family, by getting artists to paint motorised rickshaws and sell them. The race was so much fun, and there were only a few injuries.
However, the surprising thing was that everyone, including those who had hurt themselves, enjoyed it so much that they all want to come back again this year. To me, this shows that people want unique experiences that they can share with their family and friends.