Element Lifestyle: The Ultimate Concierge

Posted: 02/20/2013 in Uncategorized

 The Element Team

NLJ    Neville Johnson

CJ       Cindy Johnson

JB       Joubin Bral

MA     Michael Albanese

            ELEMENT LIFESTYLE: THE ULTIMATE CONCIERGE

            Element Lifestyle, based in West Hollywood, California, is the ultimate concierge service. I had the good fortune to get to know the owners and was fascinated by their unusual business model. They smooth everything out for their clients. With my wife, Cindy Johnson and I sat with two of the owners, Joubin Bral and Michael Albanese in November 2012 for this interview.

NLJ:    What is Element Lifestyle?

JB:      We are lifestyle architects, a private lifestyle and travel concierge firm.  We charge an annual membership fee to high net worth families and we do everything, anywhere, anytime for them.  We are 24/7 and we design experiences. 80% of what we do is high-end, customized leisure travel, and there’s 20% of just off-the-wall, crazy. As long as it’s legal, the word “no” doesn’t exist in our vocabulary.

NLJ:    What’s your background that qualifies you for this?

MA:    I have a long background in the hospitality and service industry in New York City.  I opened three hotels, all of which at the time they were opened were the premier hotel in their locations in Tribeca and SoHo.  The very first hotel I worked for was Paramount with Ian Schraeger, known from the Studio 54 days and Steven Rubel had this idea of getting a hotel.  They bought this dilapidated building on 46th Street and they turned it into a 600-room hotel that was a rock and roll hotel in its heyday. It taught me an enormous amount with 300 demanding people, checking in and out every day.

The next hotelier I worked for was  Andre Belage who owns the Chateau Marmont.  Hewas opening a hotel called The Mercer in SoHo with 75 rooms.  I opened it  and became the concierge.  It was at that point where I basically had the keys to New York City.  I had access to anything and anyone I wanted on behalf of our clientele.

Paramount was a culture saying “no”.  It lacked of services, and was more about attitude.  It was more about image.  The Mercer was sit down and have a coffee with your guests while their room is getting ready, plan out their itinerary, get them into a restaurant that they can’t get in themselves.  When they’re there, arrange not only the best table, but complimentary champagne from me, and it was a culture of “yes.”  It was a culture of making the impossible happen, seamlessly.  I came into work one day and said, “This is really cool.”  The evolution of that is what we’re doing now but instead of the revolving door,  instead of clients who are mostly transient, we now have families that we work with every single day. We are very involved in their lives. For example, a client just came to us with their 16 year old daughter’s young adult fantasy novel they want to get published and because my other life as writer, they were picking my brain and asking a bunch of questions about the publishing world and agents, and the real world of getting art into those worlds.

My team and I are intellectually curious about many topics whether art or service or whatever so we can handle any request that comes.  I lived through 9/11.  My hotel was 10 blocks from Ground Zero so it transformed from a hotel to a refugee camp, handling the demands of people displaced who lost their homes.  I feel uniquely qualified to handle not only volume but demand.

NLJ:    Joubin, your background?

JB:      I have more of a business background, and am more of an entrepreneur, and I helped build the company in that regard.  I used to work for American Airlines, and I have much experience in ticketing for entertainment and sports events. Edgar Estrada is our  third partner.

MA:    Edgar and I met at Mint, where we were co-workers. Mint was a similar business to what we have, a private lifestyle and travel company.  At their height, they had about a 110 clients in all sectors of the business and creative industries with a huge, widespread demographic clientele.  they hired me to come in and be the people person to manage the company.  Edgar and I were the most senior people there – me by title and him by longevity.  Wehad a great working relationship because when it closed it was a very natural transition to continue servicing our clients.  Then we brought Joubin in and within a week we had a legal company.

NLJ:    How do you work, by retainer?

MA:    We charge $36,000 a year and we don’t lock clients into a contract.  It has to be the right fit so we ask for three months, initial $3,000 retainer fee, then four quarterly payments.    We have three clients who prefer to pay us yearly.

NLJ:    Did the Mint close because they ran into financial difficulties?

MA:    Financial difficulties and then a guy came in from New York and bought it and did things that didn’t make sense and.

NLJ:    And you took some of their clients?

MA:    We went to the first nine clients that invested in the old company – who had their guarantee of a lifetime membership and told them they had lost their money, which to them was a nominal amount because of the net worth, but the principle mattered. They said, “What are you going to do?”  I said, “Well, we’re starting a new company and we want you to be our client,” and everyone came with us. We just celebrated our third anniversary. We now have 30 clients, some of whom don’t pay annual fees because they were grandfathered from the old company.

NLJ:    How often are your clients in touch with you?  Do you go for long stretches, or is it a daily, weekly?

JB:      Sometimes you hear three or four times a year, and sometimes daily, and everything in between.

MA:    There is a client who will call in four times a year, but when he does it’s significant.  It’s – “I’m landing a plane.  I can’t find a landing strip in Africa.” In that case, Edgar was able to figure out where to land.  Another case in point is the hurricane that hit New York where we had a well-heeled client whoe can get anything done himself.  But every decent hotel in New York was sold out.  You couldn’t get anything, yet we booked him a suite at the Carlyle. He was thrilled, called me up and said, “You guys are gods.”  When you get a call like that, it justifies and affirms why they pay us.  Hemay not call us again for two months.  So when they call us and need something, it’s not they’re calling just to chit chat, they’re calling because they need something, and they either can’t accomplish it themselves,  they don’t want to, or they don’t know how to.  Sowe bring a level of creativity and tenacity to what we do.

NLJ:    Give me an idea of the kinds of clients you have that are, I take it they’re all multi-millionaires or billionaires?

MA:    In the beginning the average net worth was $200 million.  We had a couple of billionaires and we found that the billionaires were probably the least demanding and they proved the 80/20 rule.  We have a couple of clients who are in the $30-40 million dollar range – they spend more than the billionaires do.

NLJ:    What is the age demographics for your clients generally?

MA:    35 to 70.

NLJ:    Are they all Americans in North America?

JB:      They’re mostly in California, a great collection here in Southern California, San Diego, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago.  Our clients are generally located in cities with affluence.

NLJ:    Do you meet with your clients in person?

MA:    Yes.  Face-to-face is really important to us.  What they’re getting from us they’re not getting from automatons, they want to meet and deal with us.  So, in addition to meeting with them, we developed a 16-page questionnaire that we give to them.  In one case, we sat in the board room with all of their staff and spent three hours going page by page and question by question.  Theirlearned stuff about their bosses they didn’t even know.  It was very beneficial.

NLJ:    That brings up an interesting point, that most of these people have personal assistants.

JB:      Ninety five percent  of them have personal assistants and multiple personal assistants. We are another tool for the personal assistant, and a lot of times they come to us when they’ve reached a point that they couldn’t get something done.

MA:    We realize all of the assistants or all our clients are where they are because they have multiple resources.  They’re resourceful themselves but we don’t want to replace the assistant.  Rather, we want to augment what they have, and we want to position ourselves to be their most favorite resource.  We want to be an escape valve.  We want to say, “Look, when something needs to get done ….”

NLJ:    Let’s talk about the broad strokes of the categories and type of work you do.  I take it one type is planning vacations and travel.  What do you for your clients in terms of setting up travel?

MA:    Whether they’re going on a holiday weekend in New York to see some shows, eat some great food, or if they’re going on a 6-week safari in Africa, our goal is that the minute they leave their home to the minute they get back, everything is taken care of,  from the moment they get in the car and their favorite beverage is waiting and their driver hands them their boarding pass, to somebody meeting them at an international airport to expedite the security.  It runs the gamu

NLJ:    How do you know where to send your client?

MA:    First, it’s because we’ve all been there ourselves and we tend not to recommend places that one of us hasn’t been to and experienced.  Secondly, we attend international travel conventions where we meet with the hotel owners, the director of sales, and the general manager.  For example, we meet with people who have a specialty that only handles a safari in India. Our network is very vast.

NLJ:    Are your clients disappointed often?  Does that happen?

JB:      We’re human beings.  We make mistakes, but there’s been no attrition in three year

NLJ:    Are any of your clients celebrities?

JB:      We have one client who is a global name.  We tend not to work with celebrities. Some want everything for free.

NLJ:    You don’t advertise your client roster, do you?

MA:    No.

NLJ:    And why not?

MA:    Part of what they’re paying for is discretion and privacy.  We’re handling calls, their credit cards, their passports, all sensitive material, and we tend to pay for everything up front for our clients so when they get to their hotel, they’re escorted to their suite.  Our goal is when you arrive at the airport to have your driver hand you your room key and take it over from there. We have one client for whom we chartered a plane from San Francisco to take her children to Disneyland.   The weekend trip is going to cost her about $80,000.  But she can spend whatever she wants.  We did two little things for her.  First, we decorated the plane with all Disney balloons and Disney placemats and Mickey Mouse cookies, and then when they landed at the airport, all they saw from from the plane windows were Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse waving at the plane on the tarmac.  Sothe stairs come down and there are Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse! The mom was blown away.

Another client has a son who is a big basketball guy. There’s only one hotel in the entire country that has a regulation-size basketball court in the suite and it’s at the Palms in Vegas.

JB:      So they had a father/son weekend.  We rented a Lamborghini for them…

MA:    From Los Angeles. They check into the suite and we found out, because it’s our job, that the son favors a particular sport drink, so we had the minibar stocked with it, and then we had a basketball jersey with his name on it laying on his bed.  The suite’s $25,000 a night and we got it for $18 grand and we got a bargain for him, but the key to our business is doing things that money can’t buy.

CJ:      Even though you have enough money that you can buy an entire country, is the discount or getting something like that still meaningful?

JB:      They appreciate it.

CJ:      You’re not just frivolously spending their money.

MA:    Our goal is to make a meaningful difference in their lives.

JB:      We had a client who got a $30,000 a night hotel room and she said, “I will take you if they give me a free breakfast.”

MA:    And we said, “We’ll come this morning… and make breakfast for you.”  You get into a world of defining values and each person values different things.  You may have similarities but values differ with every person, and getting into that psychology and finding out what motivates people.  It is rewarding when you can throw a free breakfast in on a $30,000 suite and it makes them happy.  You’ll make the hotel do anything to make it happen – even if we have to go there and do it ourselves.

NLJ:    Do you have competitors?

JB:      Yes, different levels of competition. The one that everyone knows about is the Centurion card.  The Black American Express.  They charge $5,000 a year.  They will do maybe 60 to 80% of what we do but not on a personal level.  You’re a card number to them.

MA:    You get a call center in Tulsa.  You have to repeat your credit card every time you call.

JB:     Then there’s a company called Quintessential that charges $10,000 a year.  They have offices around the world.

MA:    But they franchise.    So… Quality control.

JB:      And a handful of our clients were the $10,000 Quintessential members that liked their ideas but weren’t getting the personal service.  And for a person that’s spending $10,000, $36,000 isn’t that big of a difference.

JB:      That will be one small vacation.  That will be a charter to New York, and they want that personal service.

NLJ:    How do people find you?

MA:    Through other clients.  We have some clients that are just so in love with what they do, they wanna tell all their friends.  There are not enough of those, unfortunately, because most of our clients keep us as a secret weapon.

JB:      So we get client referrals.

MA:    The hoteliers, interestingly enough, are a great referral source because if they’ve got somebody spending $20 grand a night, $10 grand a night on a suite for a month, that’s our client.  So when they get to know this guest and they perceive me as outside of that hotel, outside of that city, they say, “Listen, call these guys up.  They’ll take care of anything for you.”

NLJ:    When you get a client, is it a family or individuals?

MA:    It’s usually a family.  We have one family, for example with a daughter, 26, who emails me for stuff almost weekly, and I don’t say, “No, I’m sorry, I wanna deal with your parents.”  You acquire a family.

MA:    But the kids are not going to think that some service provided it, they’re going to think their mom’s a hero. And that’s the point.

MA:    We don’t need the credit.

JB:      We don’t care for the credit.

NJ:      Do you have certain requests that are just impossible to do? What’s your success ratio?

MA:    We have a client who wants to have dinner with a major rock star. That’s a tough one we’re working on. We’re not perfect, so I’d say 99% of the time we succeed. We’re really tenacious and we’re very creative and sometimes you’re talking about getting into the French Laundry or into Per Se, which is the hot spot in New York.  Just simple dinner reservations, but you can’t believe the number of emails and calls and resources that one reservation will require.

MA:    Sometimes the client needs a jet.  It’s “Just get me a jet.  I’m going through San Francisco to London,” and it’s a half a million dollars in charter and it’s one phone call. You’re only as good as your last request.  So the guy who called me and said, “You guys are gods.  You got the hotel suite,” that high will run until the next request.

NLJ:    Do you get a commission when you refer a third party?

MA:    We do.  Our business model is very simple.  It’s a membership fee which  keeps the lights on, pays the salaries, and then we get standard commissions from hotels, ground transportation,  and those types of vendors. When there’s a really unique request that’s going to require something outside of our expertise, we’ll tell the client it will cost a premium to get this required item.

NLJ:    And do you charge extra if either one of you has to travel with a client?

MA:    We do. We had an Italian designer who came with a friend and did five cities in two weeks.  Edgar traveled with him everywhere.  We hired an Italian special ops security body guard to drive him. So in Italian in the back of the car all the way to a restaurant in Big Sur, the driver overhears the client say, “Mary J Blige is going on tour.  I would love to see her.”  He reports this back to Element headquarters, and all along we have been creating this document in Italian with these beautiful pictures, proposals.  “Here, you’re going to the Getty Museum.  Here’s what you’re going to see,” etc. — all translated into Italian.   When we got word that he mentioned Mary J Blige, we got her tour schedule for the next year in every city.  We translated it into Italian.  We put these big glossy pictures of her, we sent it to the restaurant.  The restaurant had it in his place-setting.  So when he got to the restaurant, he sits down and he sees her tour schedule, and exclaimed, “How in the hell did this happen?”

JB:      This client came to us from Donald Trump. We didn’t even know anything about him.  His plane landed at LAX and we escorted him to his limousine.  Edgar and I had our own car.  We were behind them and the first message we got from the driver was that they had read our itinerary closely.  Every other morning the client would sit with us at breakfast and he would plan out the next few days.  He would say, “Okay, I want this, this, this and we’re done.”  But he was very easy going and he wanted to be a tourist.  That was a lot of fun for us to be with him. Another simple thing, was that they had brought candy with them from Italy and they had it in their own car the whole time and we realized the candy was about gone.  So we hunted down this candy without telling him. There was one bag of this in L.A. We sent our driver, “Quickly get the bag.”  We bought the bag and didn’t say anything to them, we just placed the new bag where they would store the old bag and they appreciated it.  They just smiled and said, “Thank you.”

MA:    It’s all in the details, you know.

NLJ:    But you also worked 24 hours.

JB:      A true 24 hours.

MA:    He went to Vegas for five nights and he wanted to see two shows a night.  So we had a picture of the show with a description translated into Italian, ranked them according to what we thought his preferences were, and would send these documents every day.  At his breakfast table he would pick and choose and then we’d get the tickets.

JB:      To see two shows a night was actually very difficult for us.

NLJ:    Tell us some of your greatest hits.

MA:    We were trying to get one of our clients from the old company to come over to Element and I was pretty tenacious and he would ignore me, and then one day out of the blue I get an email from him, and in caps in the subject it says, “HOW TO GET ANOTHER MEETING WITH YOU.”  It was an either or situation.  Number one:  There’s this old Otis Redding record or, “There is a sandwich that I ate at the 02 Arena in London.”  He went when Led Zeppelin reunited in concert.  One of the concessionaires at the 02 Arena had this sandwich called salted beef and gruyere and it’s just beef, cheese, onions and on a pretzel bread, but there’s only one place in the world you can get that sandwich from that arena!  I got the Otis Redding record pretty quickly but it took us about eight months to figure out how to get the sandwich.  We were deciding if one of us was going to fly to London.  We were maybe going to fly privately, smuggle it back, but was the sandwich going to be any good by the time we get to Vegas? The chef who created the sandwich was the executive chef at Staples Center and he had been recruited to go and open 02 Arena. We got in touch with him, and got him to go to Vegas. I emailed the client, “Would you like the sandwich delivered to your office or would you like the man who created it to come to your office and make it?  And the client wrote right back, “Are you serious?”  And I told him yes. “Have him come here,”  said the client.  Next thing you know I’m at LAX and meeting a guy I’ve never met.  We jump on a Southwest flight.  We fly to Vegas.  We rent a car to drive out to a suburb of Vegas.  We get a hotel, get up at the crack of dawn to get to Whole Foods at 7 a.m. to buy the ingredients.  We had the cardboard boat and the cellophane wrapper, so he’ll have the same experience.  We get to the office.  My client, our client is so nervous, so excited. He tells me – “when you guys are done, just please leave because if the sandwich isn’t good I don’t want to have to lie and deal with…”  We get there and it’s somewhat of a makeshift office and  very hard for a chef to work, who is asking, “Where are the knives?”  as there are no knives and he’s got this brisket to cut.  I’m then running all over trying to find butcher knives, and find some, thank God.  We get back, the assistant serves sandwiches, we clean up…

JB:      And it’s 10 o’clock in the morning.

MA:    Yes, because our client is a trader, so he’s up early.  Their lunchtime is 10:30 in the morning.  We clean up and leave and get back to the airport.  He probably ate a $4,000 sandwich, and six weeks later – we let a lot of time go by – we didn’t hear a word from the guy – not a thank you, not a “sandwich is great,”  so I emailed him and  said, “So how about that meeting?”  He replies, “Can you fly to Vegas this weekend?”  So I went with my wife and he brought his wife and we had dinner at a steak house.             Our client doesn’t drink and dresses only in brightly colored Adidas track suits.

All the waiters are fawning all over him and he’s got a big ice bucket filled with Coca Cola bottles.  We get to the table and then he says, “You want some wine?”  I’m telling my wife, “Look, I’m paying for this, order a salad.  It’s the first date.  Don’t order wine.  I don’t want us to tick my partners off.” I say, “No, no, we’ll get a glass.  He calls the waiter over, “Oh, I know just the thing,” and he comes back with this 1977 Riojas.  I’m thinking, “Yeah, it looks great!”  He opens the bottle, pours it, I’m casually looking down the wine list… $1,200.  Good wine.  But I never let him see me sweat.  I decided “Well I’m going to enjoy this wine.”  I’m thinking, “This is going to be, you know, a $2,500 meal.  We don’t talk about anything, and after dessert, he says, “Are we going to talk business or what?”  And I said, well, we just wanted to try to get to know you and…”

He replies, “Well tell me about your company.  What are you guys doing?”  I said, “Okay, I do have one piece of business for you, and reached in my pocket, I put a passport down, and he opens it up and sees a picture of himself.  He says, “You have my passport.  How the hell do you have my passport?”  I said, “Well, you’re going to the World’s Cup this summer, right?” He goes, “Yeah, and he needed a special visa for Africa, and then I pulled out a document for his wife, and I said, “You’re going to Norway next month.  Here’s your itinerary.”  And they ask, “How did this happen?”  I advised that their assistants didn’t know what to do so they called us.  Behind the scenes we were doing stuff for them anyway.  So he says, “Sign me up,” and that was it.  That’s all he needed.

NLJ:    You also put on a rock concert, didn’t you? Tell us about that.

MA:    Our client built a 12 bedroom cabin, 9000 feet above sea level, in the middle of nowhere in a central state, that could sustain 50 people for five years.  He designed it to have all of  his closest friends there.  He loves Paul Rogers and Bad Company, and it was his dream to see them in concert, but he didn’t want to see him on tour and go to a concert, so we hired Paul Rogers and produced a full on rock and roll festival in his back yard, 9000 feet up, and flew in 400 people from all over the country.  We bought out two hotels and we got the tour manager on the t-shirts to add his concert to the tour schedule on the back.

MA:    It was a 1.1 million dollar event for five hours on a Saturday afternoon and it was awesome.

NLJ:    What is the secret of being an effective concierge?

MA:    To live it and just breathe it.  Just do it yourself, to not have to rely on any hearsay, to go to that restaurant to meet the owner, take time getting to know him, taking him to lunch, finding out that his passion is actually making cheesecake.  There’s one place in New York in Tribeca that just hands down has the best cheesecake I’ve ever had.  So when clients would go in the hotel there, they would always send out cheesecake for me on the house.  And they’d come back, “Even if you hate cheesecake, you will love it.” It’s all in the details.  It’s going to see the Broadway shows and being able to intelligently talk about it, “So let me tell you what you do need to see.”  It’s being able to quickly offer an alternative.  It’s being able to just have a walking encyclopedia of knowledge .  At the hotel, if you were interested in working for my department, I gave a 100 question quiz before you even got an interview, and if you didn’t score 50 or better I wouldn’t interview you.  “Tell me where the Metropolitan Museum is.  What are the cross streets? What are the hours at the MOMA?”  You had to have an inherent love when you walk down the street in New York and just absorb it all and get to know it all. There’s so much to know, evolving constantly. If you don’t have that sort of personality, the “I’m a sponge.  I’m going to take it all in,” you’re not a good fit for concierge.  It’s relationships, like any other business.

NLJ:    And all of you have an innate curiosity about life, life’s experience and people and places, things…

MA:    100%.

NLJ:    …and then on top of that you have to have the ability to get along not only with your clients, who may be demanding or anxious… but also with people who are vendors that you need them to cooperate with. So there’s a lot of people, interaction and people skills required, isn’t there?

MA:    A client from a very prominent family in New York called us one day and said, “Look, I want to take my family for our Christmas vacation.”  He called in November, and there were very few things that we could do for a family of 25 because everything was booked in the Caribbean.  We managed to get accommodations. Three people were flying from New York to Puerto Rico and somewhere else, so logistically it was quite challenging.  The mom and dad get there and they’re very old school New Yorkers and I said to them, “Okay, you’re going to meet so and so in the lobby in 15 minutes after you arrive and they’re going to take you on a tour and they’re going to take you directly to your suite.  Again, you’re not going to check in.

Ten minutes after they arrived they got impatient and they went to the front desk and said, “I’m supposed to have this so and so suite.  Can we go ahead and check in?”  The front desk agent didn’t know who they were and knew that these suites were blocked for this family but didn’t make the connection.  He said, “I’m sorry, sir.  These suites are sold.”  The father went crazy.  He construed that as, “My family vacation is ruined.”  He ripped into his son, our client, his son, who called and ripped into me and said, “This is not the time to mess up,” “This is not the people to do it with,” and I said, “Wait.  What are you talking about?  Everything’s set.  I told you 15 minutes they’re going to be there.”  The agent at the front desk was somewhat clueless and he set the tone for the entire vacation.  There was nothing wrong.  They just perceived that it was something wrong. “I assure you everything’s fine, go back, make your mom and dad wait in the lobby as I instructed.  You’ll be taken care of.”  Sure enough, he called me a half hour later to say, “Sorry.”  So there are many moving pieces and people to manage.  It’s really difficult because one person can have a lousy experience when you check in with somebody and it’s a reflection on us. But how do you control that?  The way that we do it is we put the fear of God in our vendors.

NLJ:    One of the things you do is prepare events or something that will be delightful to your client.  They don’t quite know how to do it themselves.  You had one involving a well-known chef.

MA:    That was an almost impossible event to pull off.  A client in Vegas has a  wife whose favorite chef is in New York, and she wanted the chef to come there.  He doesn’t do that.  The chef was too rich, too famous, too prominent.  He doesn’t need to do that.  So it’s again about relationships, connecting the situation and explaining that what we do is not just a service, but it’s actually making a difference in the lives of our clients. The chef came out and he almost started crying when he saw that these people appreciated food and wine the way they did, he made such an emotional connection as in, “I’m not just being paid a fee.  I’m actually making a memory for the family.” So it’s not just, “I hire you to do something,” it’s “you’re coming on board and these are the type of clients that we have.  They want something that’s so special, that’s going to make a memory.”  We’re doing an event for a client’s daughter’s 16th birthday with a band that travels with 30 people and their entourage and backup performers and dancers.  It’s going to be another event like the rock fest last year, and it’ll probably be a million dollars when it’s all said and done.

NLJ:    Does that happen sometimes where the spouse will want to surprise the other spouse?

MA:    Yes, one thing we did early on was assist a client of ours in Rancho Santa Fe who said, “Look, our 25th anniversary is coming up.  She has all the bags, all the jewelry.  I don’t want to buy anything for her.”  I’m asked him what she liked.”  He replied, “She really loves tennis.” So we get to thinking, and a buddy of mine, a PR guy knows Pete Sampras.  So I called him up and I said, “Do you think Pete would even consider doing like a private tennis clinic?  Here is someone who doesn’t need to do it.  My friend’s wife, the PR guy, is married to Sampras’s sister who runs the tennis program at UCLA. So we proposed to our client, “Why don’t you make a sizeable donation to UCLA tennis program and see what we can do with that.  So I think he said, “How’s $50,000 sound?”   Sampras’ sister was thrilled with it and she convinced Pete.  So he took a day.  He went to the Bel Air Country Club and she flew up from San Diego with her girlfriend, and this was a total surprise.  She was told, “The limo will take you somewhere.  Bring your tennis gear” … and they show up at the country club and Pete Sampras is on the court, and they think, “Oh, my God, Pete Sampras is here.”  But he was there for them. So he plays tennis with them for a couple hours, has lunch with them and then signs autographs.  All in all it’s a four or five hour event.  That was her birthday present.  With wealth you can get that.

CJ:      What would you ask for and what would be your memory\

MA:    That’s a great qu

NLJ    Neville Johnson

CJ       Cindy Johnson

JB       Joubin Bral

MA     Michael Albanese

            ELEMENT LIFESTYLE: THE ULIMATE CONCIERGE

            Element Lifestyle, based in West Hollywood, California, is the ultimate concierge service. I had the good fortune to get to know the owners and was fascinated by their unusual business model. They smooth everything out for their clients. With my wife, Cindy Johnson and I sat with two of the owners, Joubin Bral and Michael Albanese in November 2012 for this interview.

NLJ:    What is Element Lifestyle?

JB:      We are lifestyle architects, a private lifestyle and travel concierge firm.  We charge an annual membership fee to high net worth families and we do everything, anywhere, anytime for them.  We are 24/7 and we design experiences. 80% of what we do is high-end, customized leisure travel, and there’s 20% of just off-the-wall, crazy. As long as it’s legal, the word “no” doesn’t exist in our vocabulary.

NLJ:    What’s your background that qualifies you for this?

MA:    I have a long background in the hospitality and service industry in New York City.  I opened three hotels, all of which at the time they were opened were the premier hotel in their locations in Tribeca and SoHo.  The very first hotel I worked for was Paramount with Ian Schraeger, known from the Studio 54 days and Steven Rubel had this idea of getting a hotel.  They bought this dilapidated building on 46th Street and they turned it into a 600-room hotel that was a rock and roll hotel in its heyday. It taught me an enormous amount with 300 demanding people, checking in and out every day.

The next hotelier I worked for was  Andre Belage who owns the Chateau Marmont.  Hewas opening a hotel called The Mercer in SoHo with 75 rooms.  I opened it  and became the concierge.  It was at that point where I basically had the keys to New York City.  I had access to anything and anyone I wanted on behalf of our clientele.

Paramount was a culture saying “no”.  It lacked of services, and was more about attitude.  It was more about image.  The Mercer was sit down and have a coffee with your guests while their room is getting ready, plan out their itinerary, get them into a restaurant that they can’t get in themselves.  When they’re there, arrange not only the best table, but complimentary champagne from me, and it was a culture of “yes.”  It was a culture of making the impossible happen, seamlessly.  I came into work one day and said, “This is really cool.”  The evolution of that is what we’re doing now but instead of the revolving door,  instead of clients who are mostly transient, we now have families that we work with every single day. We are very involved in their lives. For example, a client just came to us with their 16 year old daughter’s young adult fantasy novel they want to get published and because my other life as writer, they were picking my brain and asking a bunch of questions about the publishing world and agents, and the real world of getting art into those worlds.

My team and I are intellectually curious about many topics whether art or service or whatever so we can handle any request that comes.  I lived through 9/11.  My hotel was 10 blocks from Ground Zero so it transformed from a hotel to a refugee camp, handling the demands of people displaced who lost their homes.  I feel uniquely qualified to handle not only volume but demand.

NLJ:    Joubin, your background?

JB:      I have more of a business background, and am more of an entrepreneur, and I helped build the company in that regard.  I used to work for American Airlines, and I have much experience in ticketing for entertainment and sports events. Edgar Estrada is our  third partner.

MA:    Edgar and I met at Mint, where we were co-workers. Mint was a similar business to what we have, a private lifestyle and travel company.  At their height, they had about a 110 clients in all sectors of the business and creative industries with a huge, widespread demographic clientele.  they hired me to come in and be the people person to manage the company.  Edgar and I were the most senior people there – me by title and him by longevity.  Wehad a great working relationship because when it closed it was a very natural transition to continue servicing our clients.  Then we brought Joubin in and within a week we had a legal company.

NLJ:    How do you work, by retainer?

MA:    We charge $36,000 a year and we don’t lock clients into a contract.  It has to be the right fit so we ask for three months, initial $3,000 retainer fee, then four quarterly payments.    We have three clients who prefer to pay us yearly.

NLJ:    Did the Mint close because they ran into financial difficulties?

MA:    Financial difficulties and then a guy came in from New York and bought it and did things that didn’t make sense and.

NLJ:    And you took some of their clients?

MA:    We went to the first nine clients that invested in the old company – who had their guarantee of a lifetime membership and told them they had lost their money, which to them was a nominal amount because of the net worth, but the principle mattered. They said, “What are you going to do?”  I said, “Well, we’re starting a new company and we want you to be our client,” and everyone came with us. We just celebrated our third anniversary. We now have 30 clients, some of whom don’t pay annual fees because they were grandfathered from the old company.

NLJ:    How often are your clients in touch with you?  Do you go for long stretches, or is it a daily, weekly?

JB:      Sometimes you hear three or four times a year, and sometimes daily, and everything in between.

MA:    There is a client who will call in four times a year, but when he does it’s significant.  It’s – “I’m landing a plane.  I can’t find a landing strip in Africa.” In that case, Edgar was able to figure out where to land.  Another case in point is the hurricane that hit New York where we had a well-heeled client whoe can get anything done himself.  But every decent hotel in New York was sold out.  You couldn’t get anything, yet we booked him a suite at the Carlyle. He was thrilled, called me up and said, “You guys are gods.”  When you get a call like that, it justifies and affirms why they pay us.  Hemay not call us again for two months.  So when they call us and need something, it’s not they’re calling just to chit chat, they’re calling because they need something, and they either can’t accomplish it themselves,  they don’t want to, or they don’t know how to.  Sowe bring a level of creativity and tenacity to what we do.

NLJ:    Give me an idea of the kinds of clients you have that are, I take it they’re all multi-millionaires or billionaires?

MA:    In the beginning the average net worth was $200 million.  We had a couple of billionaires and we found that the billionaires were probably the least demanding and they proved the 80/20 rule.  We have a couple of clients who are in the $30-40 million dollar range – they spend more than the billionaires do.

NLJ:    What is the age demographics for your clients generally?

MA:    35 to 70.

NLJ:    Are they all Americans in North America?

JB:      They’re mostly in California, a great collection here in Southern California, San Diego, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago.  Our clients are generally located in cities with affluence.

NLJ:    Do you meet with your clients in person?

MA:    Yes.  Face-to-face is really important to us.  What they’re getting from us they’re not getting from automatons, they want to meet and deal with us.  So, in addition to meeting with them, we developed a 16-page questionnaire that we give to them.  In one case, we sat in the board room with all of their staff and spent three hours going page by page and question by question.  Theirlearned stuff about their bosses they didn’t even know.  It was very beneficial.

NLJ:    That brings up an interesting point, that most of these people have personal assistants.

JB:      Ninety five percent  of them have personal assistants and multiple personal assistants. We are another tool for the personal assistant, and a lot of times they come to us when they’ve reached a point that they couldn’t get something done.

MA:    We realize all of the assistants or all our clients are where they are because they have multiple resources.  They’re resourceful themselves but we don’t want to replace the assistant.  Rather, we want to augment what they have, and we want to position ourselves to be their most favorite resource.  We want to be an escape valve.  We want to say, “Look, when something needs to get done ….”

NLJ:    Let’s talk about the broad strokes of the categories and type of work you do.  I take it one type is planning vacations and travel.  What do you for your clients in terms of setting up travel?

MA:    Whether they’re going on a holiday weekend in New York to see some shows, eat some great food, or if they’re going on a 6-week safari in Africa, our goal is that the minute they leave their home to the minute they get back, everything is taken care of,  from the moment they get in the car and their favorite beverage is waiting and their driver hands them their boarding pass, to somebody meeting them at an international airport to expedite the security.  It runs the gamu

NLJ:    How do you know where to send your client?

MA:    First, it’s because we’ve all been there ourselves and we tend not to recommend places that one of us hasn’t been to and experienced.  Secondly, we attend international travel conventions where we meet with the hotel owners, the director of sales, and the general manager.  For example, we meet with people who have a specialty that only handles a safari in India. Our network is very vast.

NLJ:    Are your clients disappointed often?  Does that happen?

JB:      We’re human beings.  We make mistakes, but there’s been no attrition in three year

NLJ:    Are any of your clients celebrities?

JB:      We have one client who is a global name.  We tend not to work with celebrities. Some want everything for free.

NLJ:    You don’t advertise your client roster, do you?

MA:    No.

NLJ:    And why not?

MA:    Part of what they’re paying for is discretion and privacy.  We’re handling calls, their credit cards, their passports, all sensitive material, and we tend to pay for everything up front for our clients so when they get to their hotel, they’re escorted to their suite.  Our goal is when you arrive at the airport to have your driver hand you your room key and take it over from there. We have one client for whom we chartered a plane from San Francisco to take her children to Disneyland.   The weekend trip is going to cost her about $80,000.  But she can spend whatever she wants.  We did two little things for her.  First, we decorated the plane with all Disney balloons and Disney placemats and Mickey Mouse cookies, and then when they landed at the airport, all they saw from from the plane windows were Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse waving at the plane on the tarmac.  Sothe stairs come down and there are Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse! The mom was blown away.

Another client has a son who is a big basketball guy. There’s only one hotel in the entire country that has a regulation-size basketball court in the suite and it’s at the Palms in Vegas.

JB:      So they had a father/son weekend.  We rented a Lamborghini for them…

MA:    From Los Angeles. They check into the suite and we found out, because it’s our job, that the son favors a particular sport drink, so we had the minibar stocked with it, and then we had a basketball jersey with his name on it laying on his bed.  The suite’s $25,000 a night and we got it for $18 grand and we got a bargain for him, but the key to our business is doing things that money can’t buy.

CJ:      Even though you have enough money that you can buy an entire country, is the discount or getting something like that still meaningful?

JB:      They appreciate it.

CJ:      You’re not just frivolously spending their money.

MA:    Our goal is to make a meaningful difference in their lives.

JB:      We had a client who got a $30,000 a night hotel room and she said, “I will take you if they give me a free breakfast.”

MA:    And we said, “We’ll come this morning… and make breakfast for you.”  You get into a world of defining values and each person values different things.  You may have similarities but values differ with every person, and getting into that psychology and finding out what motivates people.  It is rewarding when you can throw a free breakfast in on a $30,000 suite and it makes them happy.  You’ll make the hotel do anything to make it happen – even if we have to go there and do it ourselves.

NLJ:    Do you have competitors?

JB:      Yes, different levels of competition. The one that everyone knows about is the Centurion card.  The Black American Express.  They charge $5,000 a year.  They will do maybe 60 to 80% of what we do but not on a personal level.  You’re a card number to them.

MA:    You get a call center in Tulsa.  You have to repeat your credit card every time you call.

JB:     Then there’s a company called Quintessential that charges $10,000 a year.  They have offices around the world.

MA:    But they franchise.    So… Quality control.

JB:      And a handful of our clients were the $10,000 Quintessential members that liked their ideas but weren’t getting the personal service.  And for a person that’s spending $10,000, $36,000 isn’t that big of a difference.

JB:      That will be one small vacation.  That will be a charter to New York, and they want that personal service.

NLJ:    How do people find you?

MA:    Through other clients.  We have some clients that are just so in love with what they do, they wanna tell all their friends.  There are not enough of those, unfortunately, because most of our clients keep us as a secret weapon.

JB:      So we get client referrals.

MA:    The hoteliers, interestingly enough, are a great referral source because if they’ve got somebody spending $20 grand a night, $10 grand a night on a suite for a month, that’s our client.  So when they get to know this guest and they perceive me as outside of that hotel, outside of that city, they say, “Listen, call these guys up.  They’ll take care of anything for you.”

NLJ:    When you get a client, is it a family or individuals?

MA:    It’s usually a family.  We have one family, for example with a daughter, 26, who emails me for stuff almost weekly, and I don’t say, “No, I’m sorry, I wanna deal with your parents.”  You acquire a family.

MA:    But the kids are not going to think that some service provided it, they’re going to think their mom’s a hero. And that’s the point.

MA:    We don’t need the credit.

JB:      We don’t care for the credit.

NJ:      Do you have certain requests that are just impossible to do? What’s your success ratio?

MA:    We have a client who wants to have dinner with a major rock star. That’s a tough one we’re working on. We’re not perfect, so I’d say 99% of the time we succeed. We’re really tenacious and we’re very creative and sometimes you’re talking about getting into the French Laundry or into Per Se, which is the hot spot in New York.  Just simple dinner reservations, but you can’t believe the number of emails and calls and resources that one reservation will require.

MA:    Sometimes the client needs a jet.  It’s “Just get me a jet.  I’m going through San Francisco to London,” and it’s a half a million dollars in charter and it’s one phone call. You’re only as good as your last request.  So the guy who called me and said, “You guys are gods.  You got the hotel suite,” that high will run until the next request.

NLJ:    Do you get a commission when you refer a third party?

MA:    We do.  Our business model is very simple.  It’s a membership fee which  keeps the lights on, pays the salaries, and then we get standard commissions from hotels, ground transportation,  and those types of vendors. When there’s a really unique request that’s going to require something outside of our expertise, we’ll tell the client it will cost a premium to get this required item.

NLJ:    And do you charge extra if either one of you has to travel with a client?

MA:    We do. We had an Italian designer who came with a friend and did five cities in two weeks.  Edgar traveled with him everywhere.  We hired an Italian special ops security body guard to drive him. So in Italian in the back of the car all the way to a restaurant in Big Sur, the driver overhears the client say, “Mary J Blige is going on tour.  I would love to see her.”  He reports this back to Element headquarters, and all along we have been creating this document in Italian with these beautiful pictures, proposals.  “Here, you’re going to the Getty Museum.  Here’s what you’re going to see,” etc. — all translated into Italian.   When we got word that he mentioned Mary J Blige, we got her tour schedule for the next year in every city.  We translated it into Italian.  We put these big glossy pictures of her, we sent it to the restaurant.  The restaurant had it in his place-setting.  So when he got to the restaurant, he sits down and he sees her tour schedule, and exclaimed, “How in the hell did this happen?”

JB:      This client came to us from Donald Trump. We didn’t even know anything about him.  His plane landed at LAX and we escorted him to his limousine.  Edgar and I had our own car.  We were behind them and the first message we got from the driver was that they had read our itinerary closely.  Every other morning the client would sit with us at breakfast and he would plan out the next few days.  He would say, “Okay, I want this, this, this and we’re done.”  But he was very easy going and he wanted to be a tourist.  That was a lot of fun for us to be with him. Another simple thing, was that they had brought candy with them from Italy and they had it in their own car the whole time and we realized the candy was about gone.  So we hunted down this candy without telling him. There was one bag of this in L.A. We sent our driver, “Quickly get the bag.”  We bought the bag and didn’t say anything to them, we just placed the new bag where they would store the old bag and they appreciated it.  They just smiled and said, “Thank you.”

MA:    It’s all in the details, you know.

NLJ:    But you also worked 24 hours.

JB:      A true 24 hours.

MA:    He went to Vegas for five nights and he wanted to see two shows a night.  So we had a picture of the show with a description translated into Italian, ranked them according to what we thought his preferences were, and would send these documents every day.  At his breakfast table he would pick and choose and then we’d get the tickets.

JB:      To see two shows a night was actually very difficult for us.

NLJ:    Tell us some of your greatest hits.

MA:    We were trying to get one of our clients from the old company to come over to Element and I was pretty tenacious and he would ignore me, and then one day out of the blue I get an email from him, and in caps in the subject it says, “HOW TO GET ANOTHER MEETING WITH YOU.”  It was an either or situation.  Number one:  There’s this old Otis Redding record or, “There is a sandwich that I ate at the 02 Arena in London.”  He went when Led Zeppelin reunited in concert.  One of the concessionaires at the 02 Arena had this sandwich called salted beef and gruyere and it’s just beef, cheese, onions and on a pretzel bread, but there’s only one place in the world you can get that sandwich from that arena!  I got the Otis Redding record pretty quickly but it took us about eight months to figure out how to get the sandwich.  We were deciding if one of us was going to fly to London.  We were maybe going to fly privately, smuggle it back, but was the sandwich going to be any good by the time we get to Vegas? The chef who created the sandwich was the executive chef at Staples Center and he had been recruited to go and open 02 Arena. We got in touch with him, and got him to go to Vegas. I emailed the client, “Would you like the sandwich delivered to your office or would you like the man who created it to come to your office and make it?  And the client wrote right back, “Are you serious?”  And I told him yes. “Have him come here,”  said the client.  Next thing you know I’m at LAX and meeting a guy I’ve never met.  We jump on a Southwest flight.  We fly to Vegas.  We rent a car to drive out to a suburb of Vegas.  We get a hotel, get up at the crack of dawn to get to Whole Foods at 7 a.m. to buy the ingredients.  We had the cardboard boat and the cellophane wrapper, so he’ll have the same experience.  We get to the office.  My client, our client is so nervous, so excited. He tells me – “when you guys are done, just please leave because if the sandwich isn’t good I don’t want to have to lie and deal with…”  We get there and it’s somewhat of a makeshift office and  very hard for a chef to work, who is asking, “Where are the knives?”  as there are no knives and he’s got this brisket to cut.  I’m then running all over trying to find butcher knives, and find some, thank God.  We get back, the assistant serves sandwiches, we clean up…

JB:      And it’s 10 o’clock in the morning.

MA:    Yes, because our client is a trader, so he’s up early.  Their lunchtime is 10:30 in the morning.  We clean up and leave and get back to the airport.  He probably ate a $4,000 sandwich, and six weeks later – we let a lot of time go by – we didn’t hear a word from the guy – not a thank you, not a “sandwich is great,”  so I emailed him and  said, “So how about that meeting?”  He replies, “Can you fly to Vegas this weekend?”  So I went with my wife and he brought his wife and we had dinner at a steak house.             Our client doesn’t drink and dresses only in brightly colored Adidas track suits.

All the waiters are fawning all over him and he’s got a big ice bucket filled with Coca Cola bottles.  We get to the table and then he says, “You want some wine?”  I’m telling my wife, “Look, I’m paying for this, order a salad.  It’s the first date.  Don’t order wine.  I don’t want us to tick my partners off.” I say, “No, no, we’ll get a glass.  He calls the waiter over, “Oh, I know just the thing,” and he comes back with this 1977 Riojas.  I’m thinking, “Yeah, it looks great!”  He opens the bottle, pours it, I’m casually looking down the wine list… $1,200.  Good wine.  But I never let him see me sweat.  I decided “Well I’m going to enjoy this wine.”  I’m thinking, “This is going to be, you know, a $2,500 meal.  We don’t talk about anything, and after dessert, he says, “Are we going to talk business or what?”  And I said, well, we just wanted to try to get to know you and…”

He replies, “Well tell me about your company.  What are you guys doing?”  I said, “Okay, I do have one piece of business for you, and reached in my pocket, I put a passport down, and he opens it up and sees a picture of himself.  He says, “You have my passport.  How the hell do you have my passport?”  I said, “Well, you’re going to the World’s Cup this summer, right?” He goes, “Yeah, and he needed a special visa for Africa, and then I pulled out a document for his wife, and I said, “You’re going to Norway next month.  Here’s your itinerary.”  And they ask, “How did this happen?”  I advised that their assistants didn’t know what to do so they called us.  Behind the scenes we were doing stuff for them anyway.  So he says, “Sign me up,” and that was it.  That’s all he needed.

NLJ:    You also put on a rock concert, didn’t you? Tell us about that.

MA:    Our client built a 12 bedroom cabin, 9000 feet above sea level, in the middle of nowhere in a central state, that could sustain 50 people for five years.  He designed it to have all of  his closest friends there.  He loves Paul Rogers and Bad Company, and it was his dream to see them in concert, but he didn’t want to see him on tour and go to a concert, so we hired Paul Rogers and produced a full on rock and roll festival in his back yard, 9000 feet up, and flew in 400 people from all over the country.  We bought out two hotels and we got the tour manager on the t-shirts to add his concert to the tour schedule on the back.

MA:    It was a 1.1 million dollar event for five hours on a Saturday afternoon and it was awesome.

NLJ:    What is the secret of being an effective concierge?

MA:    To live it and just breathe it.  Just do it yourself, to not have to rely on any hearsay, to go to that restaurant to meet the owner, take time getting to know him, taking him to lunch, finding out that his passion is actually making cheesecake.  There’s one place in New York in Tribeca that just hands down has the best cheesecake I’ve ever had.  So when clients would go in the hotel there, they would always send out cheesecake for me on the house.  And they’d come back, “Even if you hate cheesecake, you will love it.” It’s all in the details.  It’s going to see the Broadway shows and being able to intelligently talk about it, “So let me tell you what you do need to see.”  It’s being able to quickly offer an alternative.  It’s being able to just have a walking encyclopedia of knowledge .  At the hotel, if you were interested in working for my department, I gave a 100 question quiz before you even got an interview, and if you didn’t score 50 or better I wouldn’t interview you.  “Tell me where the Metropolitan Museum is.  What are the cross streets? What are the hours at the MOMA?”  You had to have an inherent love when you walk down the street in New York and just absorb it all and get to know it all. There’s so much to know, evolving constantly. If you don’t have that sort of personality, the “I’m a sponge.  I’m going to take it all in,” you’re not a good fit for concierge.  It’s relationships, like any other business.

NLJ:    And all of you have an innate curiosity about life, life’s experience and people and places, things…

MA:    100%.

NLJ:    …and then on top of that you have to have the ability to get along not only with your clients, who may be demanding or anxious… but also with people who are vendors that you need them to cooperate with. So there’s a lot of people, interaction and people skills required, isn’t there?

MA:    A client from a very prominent family in New York called us one day and said, “Look, I want to take my family for our Christmas vacation.”  He called in November, and there were very few things that we could do for a family of 25 because everything was booked in the Caribbean.  We managed to get accommodations. Three people were flying from New York to Puerto Rico and somewhere else, so logistically it was quite challenging.  The mom and dad get there and they’re very old school New Yorkers and I said to them, “Okay, you’re going to meet so and so in the lobby in 15 minutes after you arrive and they’re going to take you on a tour and they’re going to take you directly to your suite.  Again, you’re not going to check in.

Ten minutes after they arrived they got impatient and they went to the front desk and said, “I’m supposed to have this so and so suite.  Can we go ahead and check in?”  The front desk agent didn’t know who they were and knew that these suites were blocked for this family but didn’t make the connection.  He said, “I’m sorry, sir.  These suites are sold.”  The father went crazy.  He construed that as, “My family vacation is ruined.”  He ripped into his son, our client, his son, who called and ripped into me and said, “This is not the time to mess up,” “This is not the people to do it with,” and I said, “Wait.  What are you talking about?  Everything’s set.  I told you 15 minutes they’re going to be there.”  The agent at the front desk was somewhat clueless and he set the tone for the entire vacation.  There was nothing wrong.  They just perceived that it was something wrong. “I assure you everything’s fine, go back, make your mom and dad wait in the lobby as I instructed.  You’ll be taken care of.”  Sure enough, he called me a half hour later to say, “Sorry.”  So there are many moving pieces and people to manage.  It’s really difficult because one person can have a lousy experience when you check in with somebody and it’s a reflection on us. But how do you control that?  The way that we do it is we put the fear of God in our vendors.

NLJ:    One of the things you do is prepare events or something that will be delightful to your client.  They don’t quite know how to do it themselves.  You had one involving a well-known chef.

MA:    That was an almost impossible event to pull off.  A client in Vegas has a  wife whose favorite chef is in New York, and she wanted the chef to come there.  He doesn’t do that.  The chef was too rich, too famous, too prominent.  He doesn’t need to do that.  So it’s again about relationships, connecting the situation and explaining that what we do is not just a service, but it’s actually making a difference in the lives of our clients. The chef came out and he almost started crying when he saw that these people appreciated food and wine the way they did, he made such an emotional connection as in, “I’m not just being paid a fee.  I’m actually making a memory for the family.” So it’s not just, “I hire you to do something,” it’s “you’re coming on board and these are the type of clients that we have.  They want something that’s so special, that’s going to make a memory.”  We’re doing an event for a client’s daughter’s 16th birthday with a band that travels with 30 people and their entourage and backup performers and dancers.  It’s going to be another event like the rock fest last year, and it’ll probably be a million dollars when it’s all said and done.

NLJ:    Does that happen sometimes where the spouse will want to surprise the other spouse?

MA:    Yes, one thing we did early on was assist a client of ours in Rancho Santa Fe who said, “Look, our 25th anniversary is coming up.  She has all the bags, all the jewelry.  I don’t want to buy anything for her.”  I’m asked him what she liked.”  He replied, “She really loves tennis.” So we get to thinking, and a buddy of mine, a PR guy knows Pete Sampras.  So I called him up and I said, “Do you think Pete would even consider doing like a private tennis clinic?  Here is someone who doesn’t need to do it.  My friend’s wife, the PR guy, is married to Sampras’s sister who runs the tennis program at UCLA. So we proposed to our client, “Why don’t you make a sizeable donation to UCLA tennis program and see what we can do with that.  So I think he said, “How’s $50,000 sound?”   Sampras’ sister was thrilled with it and she convinced Pete.  So he took a day.  He went to the Bel Air Country Club and she flew up from San Diego with her girlfriend, and this was a total surprise.  She was told, “The limo will take you somewhere.  Bring your tennis gear” … and they show up at the country club and Pete Sampras is on the court, and they think, “Oh, my God, Pete Sampras is here.”  But he was there for them. So he plays tennis with them for a couple hours, has lunch with them and then signs autographs.  All in all it’s a four or five hour event.  That was her birthday present.  With wealth you can get that.

CJ:      What would you ask for and what would be your memory?

MA:    That’s a great question.  I don’t want to be surprised.  Fully have a plan, hand me an itinerary and say, “This is what will happen.”If somebody could orchestrate a lunch or coffee with all the people that I want to meet who are dead that would be great.   If I could sit down and have lunch with William Faulkner, for example, but it’s not going to happen.  Even we can’t pull that off.  But somebody like that;  if I could have some literary giant to sit with, have a beer, a coffee, that would be something.

estion.  I don’t want to be surprised.  Fully have a plan, hand me an itinerary and say, “This is what will happen.”If somebody could orchestrate a lunch or coffee with all the people that I want to meet who are dead that would be great.   If I could sit down and have lunch with William Faulkner, for example, but it’s not going to happen.  Even we can’t pull that off.  But somebody like that;  if I could have some literary giant to sit with, have a beer, a coffee, that would be something.