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Firms Add 'Concierge Services' to Benefit Packages

AP
Thursday, 25 Oct 2007 | 2:26 PM ET

Memorial Healthcare Systems' employees can get an oil change and their clothes dry cleaned without leaving work. General Mills workers can skip traffic and long lines when they mail packages or get jewelry repaired. And Ernst & Young staffers need only pick up a phone to have someone plan their vacation or research nursing homes for an elderly parent.

These workplaces are part of a growing number that are embellishing their benefits packages with "concierge services" -- everything from flower deliveries and car detailing to restaurant reservations and clothes alterations.

Perhaps no company pampers its employees as much as Internet search leader Google .The Mountain View, Calif.-based company offers a diverse menu of perquisites that include free car washes, oil changes, massages, haircuts, dry cleaning, child care and on-site medical care.

About 5 percent of the nation's companies, according to one survey, have hired personal assistance firms to handle at least some services for their workers -- whether that means arranging for a car wash or searching for airfare deals, for example. The employer pays the concierge's fee, while staffers pay the cost of the wash or tickets.

Perks like this cropped up during the high-tech heyday in the 1990s, when companies were competing for the same talent, but dwindled when that bubble burst. Now these benefits are more commonly seen at Fortune 500 companies and places that angle for the "employer of choice" label. Experts say a tight labor market for nurses and other medical staff explains why some hospitals -- traditionally low-frill workplaces -- have started joining, too.

"It helps the employee not to have to burn up all their personal time doing all these chores," said Wayne Wallace, director of the Career Resource Center at the University of Florida. And while Wallace doesn't dispute that many people wouldn't mind a bump in their paycheck, "it isn't all about the money," he said. "The extras are nice."

Erin Dunn, corporate services director for General Mills , said of the cereal company's largesse for staff at its Minneapolis headquarters: "Anything we can do to make life easier (for employees) is something we're interested in doing."

At Memorial Healthcare, the concierge service has helped admissions director Jean Romano-Clark, who has been a frequent user of the perk ever since the Hollywood, Fla., hospital introduced it this spring. Memorial Healthcare Systems, which employs more than 10,500 people, pays $399,500 annually for the service. Chicago-based ErrandSolutions runs the benefit for them.

'My Clothes Would Sit There for Three Weeks."

Romano-Clark uses it to get her Honda Pilot scrubbed -- she leaves it at a designated parking space in the hospital garage and finds it gleaming at the end of the day. She goes to the service's onsite office to buy gift cards, develop photos and even get a watch fixed -- leaving more time to spend with her 11-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.

"Instead of doing all of (those errands) on Saturday, I can go with them to a football game or soccer game," Romano-Clark said. "It's hard to balance work and children, and this has helped put balance back."

Romano-Clark also appreciates not having to rush to her dry cleaner anymore. "My clothes would sit there for three weeks," she said of her old vendor. Now she drops it off at the concierge office and picks it up there a few days later.

Errand Solutions founder and CEO Marsha McVicker said she started her company "because I wanted somebody to do my errands... I didn't want to spend my time in line at the Jiffy Lube."

McVicker predicts that concierge services are going to become a must-have at companies. "Our lives are not slowing down, they continue to accelerate," she said. "This is going to become a necessity."

Errand Solutions and several similar companies said they don't collect commission from the vendors they use, and if customers prefer to use another vendor, the companies will use them as long as they meet standards.

So what's the most popular concierge service? It depends on what part of the country you're in, McVicker said.

In Orange County, Calif., Errand Solutions can coordinate 40 car washes a day at one company. It takes a month to get that many car wash customers in the Midwest, where Errand Solutions mails up to 30 care packages to Iraq in a similar period.

Some of the more unusual requests involve customers' pets. Errand Solutions helped find a vet who specialized in reptiles and could save a choking iguana. Circles, another personal assistance company, searched for a chiropractor who could treat a cat's back problem, since the vet wasn't doing the trick.

"Concierge can apply to everyone at some point," said Circles co-founder and chief executive Janet Kraus.

The Boston-based company differs from Errand Solutions in that it offers the concierge services virtually -- customers make requests by calling a number or going online. Kraus said this setup -- also the way Ernst & Young handles its concierge services -- allows for more than one customer to be helped at one time. Fans of the onsite providers -- including General Mills -- say they prefer the personal interaction.

For some, the structure doesn't matter as much as the services themselves. Sandhya Ganesha, a risk management specialist at Ernst & Young, said she has used the concierge perk offered by the accounting and business services company "for a million different things."

Not a fan of shopping around, Ganesha has outsourced the tasks of finding a kickboxing class, booking a trip to Belize and procuring tickets to a concert.

"It saved a lot of time," Ganesha said, adding that it's difficult to dedicate several hours to scouring for deals online. "I love it."

Employers benefit by increased productivity since their workers aren't distracted by their uncompleted errands, said Peter Ronza, compensation and benefits manager at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.

Staffers need to make sure, though, that the availability of the perk isn't used to compel them to spend even longer hours at work, said Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute.

"Do you stay later because you're not running to the store to get your husband's birthday present or get your car serviced?" Galinsky said.

Wallace, the University of Florida expert, half-jokingly said he can see another potential problem with offering this perk, which devotees have described as addictive.

"Once you start these things," he said, "it's kind of hard to stop."

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