Service With A Smile

November 26, 1993|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Staff Writer

Tina Hughes figures it's about time her business took Baltimore by storm. After all, when you're a partner in a concierge business, time is what your business is all about.

Ms. Hughes is a partner in Charm City Concierge Inc. one of two companies battling to introduce the Baltimore office-building market to concierge services usually associated with hotels.

"It's all about time," said the Towson State graduate, whose firm takes over its first assignment at the B&O Building on Dec. 1. "We think time is people's most valuable commodity, and Charm City Concierge can give people back their time."

That's the pitch as Ms. Hughes and her partner Nancy Green join Washington-based Intercontinental Concierge Corp. in trying to convince Baltimore building owners that what downtown offices need is a good concierge.

In two years, they could redefine the expected level of service in Baltimore office buildings. But they will have to overcome some resistance to succeed.

"If we were in the marketing phase of our buildings, it would be something we would more [seriously] look into and go with," said Andrew J. A. Chriss, a broker for Manekin Corp. downtown. "The question [is], are people going to utilize the service? . . . I don't think we thought it would benefit the building or the tenants to any particular degree."

The concierge concept, nearly standard in Washington office buildings and common in larger cities like New York and Chicago, is making headway here despite skepticism. Charm City has lined up the B&O Building, and Intercontinental in September began work across the street at the Blaustein Building at 1 N. Charles St.

Two other buildings have employees of their management companies serve as concierges, rather than hire an outside service: 100 E. Pratt St. and 201 N. Charles St. But the manager of the B&O Building says the future of contract concierge services among Baltimore's 25 Class A buildings looks bright.

"In two years, if they're smart, all of them [will have a concierge]. At least 50 percent," said Tom Murphy, manager of the B&O Building.

Ms. Hughes and Intercontinental Vice President Marcia Foote said the office concierges do what people would expect from watching concierges at a good hotel -- line up tickets, buy gifts and arrange anything from dry cleaning to golf lessons -- but also organize civic and social events to build a sense of community within the building.

People from different companies can go from ignoring each other on the elevator to working on building-wide blood drives or food drives for homeless shelters, or they can get together for building holiday events, ice cream socials or Annapolis trips.

"I even helped someone with a wedding proposal," said Wendy Whitridge, the concierge at 100 E. Pratt.

Ms. Foote said raising a building's level of service can strengthen tenants' ties to the building, helping landlords keep existing tenants when leases run out. "It's much cheaper to keep someone you have than find someone new," she said.

That may be one reason why three of the four buildings that have signed up concierges are older buildings that are close to the borderline between the Class A sector and Class B, which has a higher vacancy rate and much worse tenant-retention problems.

"Owners are seeing concierge service as a way to differentiate their building," Ms. Hughes said. She and Ms. Foote declined to say what they charge but insist it's only marginally more expensive to the landlord (services are usually free to tenants) than having an unarmed security guard in the lobby.

Keeping the cost low could be critical, said one tenant at 100 E. Pratt, even though he thinks concierge service is "tremendous.

"My guess is that a lot of what concierge people offer is definitely economics-sensitive," said Richard Barbarita, manager of PaineWebber Inc.'s downtown office.

Each of the two concierge companies said they ideally would like to sign up 10 buildings or more, and between them they have feelers out to nearly every Class A building in town.

"We're going to do everything we can," Ms. Hughes said, "that's within reason and legal."

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