On demand: Concierge services

Why not consider a concierge service to organise street-dancing classes for kids to photography lessons under the stars, any time, any place, anywhere

By Kate Simon
Published 25 Apr 2013, 16:30 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 13:35 BST

Which way to go? A meander along the A30 or pedal to the metal on the M4 and M5? It's the question I always ask myself when I'm bound for Cornwall by car. Yet, whichever route I choose, there's no getting round the fact it's a long old schlep from London to the foot of southwest England.

So, go by train? Well, I usually do, but when we're talking about taking our family of three camping, six arms aren't quite enough to carry the luggage required for a week beneath the stars. But this time at least we haven't had to pack the kitchen sink, and we won't be ending the long drive with two hours on our knees hammering pegs into the ground. For as we roll into what feels like the very last field before we might tip over Land's End, there's our tent, pitched and ready for our arrival.

And what a beauty. This is no ordinary canvas abode, it's a bonny cream-coloured Bell Tent, with an awning, under which bright blue director's chairs have been arranged around a table, set with a pot of wild flowers and two glasses just begging to be filled with gin and tonic. Through the tent flap, I spy a double bed dressed with two plump pillows and a cloud of duvet, plus a faux-fur throw for extra snuggling. Either side of the bed stand two night tables, a lamp upon each, and fairy lights have been twisted around the tent's central pole. A small wooden kitchen trolley sits at one side of the tent, with tea, coffee and cake ready to cut, and a cool box filled with bacon, eggs and more. We just have to unpack the car, and we're all set for our camping break.

Despite all this luxury, we haven't arrived at a glamping site. We're holidaying with a big gang of friends in a regular farmer's field near Helston. My tent has been arranged by a new concierge-style operation, The Adventure Butler Service, a one-stop shop of activities and experiences in Cornwall run by former business consultant Rob Pendleton.

Once the preserve of five-star hotels, the concierge model has long been copied by companies such as Red Letter Days, GoSeeDo, and Quintessentially Lifestyle. But this destination-focused offering signals an interesting new turn and one that could make for a memorable holiday.

Rob purposely chose his native Cornwall as the launchpad for his bright idea, returning to the county in early 2012 to set up his innovative new service, which taps into our growing desire to get more out of a break than just lazing around on a beach. He links holidaymakers to local suppliers, from accommodation providers to activity companies and cultural attractions, championing the county along the way.

Use the Adventure Butler Service and you benefit from Rob and his team's local knowledge and contacts, yet you'll pay the same as you would if you went to the supplier direct. Rob takes his cut from the companies he works with — for them it saves on the marketing budget. And you can choose from a sizable menu of 90 eclectic activities and experiences, costing from £20 to £2,000, which can be booked directly through his website and are also offered at more than 1,000 luxury cottages across Cornwall. But Rob prides himself on being able to respond to suggestions made by customers, too. "We love it when someone wants us to arrange a new and unusual activity because we can add it to the menu for others to enjoy," he says.

All in the planning

A few weeks before our trip, I put him to work on a plan that all our multi-generational camping crew could choose to enjoy, young and old, including a street-dance session for the kids and yoga for the adults, plus a photography masterclass to enable the happy snappers to take a new view of the beautiful Cornish scenery. And then I requested that the activities all take place at the campsite.

Unphased, Rob started work on my wish list and began building the experience. First he contacted Wild Canvas, a small company based near Truro run by Nick Meacham, who pitched and furnished my luxury bell tent. Next he lined up Chris Hewitt of the Picture & Coffee House in Wadebridge to host the photography masterclass, and Stacy Weeks of Red Yew in St Austell to lead the yoga session. Finally, he contacted Jason Thomas Performing Arts in Truro, who recommended Lucy Chadwick to put the kids through their street-dance paces.

With some effort, I might have pulled together a similar itinerary but it was good to have Rob in the background, especially when the weather began to play havoc with our plans. By day three, camp was being tormented by gale-force winds and sheeting rain. The need to reorganise our schedule meant we had to lose the cliff-top yoga session, but a barn was cleared so the kids could work on their street-dance moves. And after hoping we could keep the photography masterclass al fresco, by day five, we admitted defeat, waved goodbye to our friends and bailed as a family to the comfort of the new Wadebridge B&B, quickly arranged for us by Rob, so we could do the photography session at tutor Chris Hewitt's cafe in the town. Rob had turned from fixer to guardian angel.

The Adventure Butler Service is not alone in responding to the increased demand for bundling up experiences while on holiday. Over in South Wales, a similar concierge-style service is offered by Activity Wales, which specialised in short breaks when it launched in 1992. The company has since expanded to offer active experiences across Wales. Now, says chief executive Matthew Evans, it's reinventing itself again, shifting the focus to concierge work, which in turn is allowing the addition of more cultural and luxurious pursuits, from painting and spa days to restaurant recommendations, as well as the sporty activities it has built its reputation on.

"We live and work in Pembrokeshire ourselves and know the area well. We know what's on offer and who the good operators are. I think concierge is the way forward for us," says Matthew.

Activity Wales also sells its concierge services to local businesses who tailor them to their own clients' tastes and desires. But three years ago it launched Coastal Concierge in resorts and towns including Haverfordwest, Tenby and Pembroke. You can simply walk in off the street and have a holiday's worth of experiences packaged up using their expertise.

While Matthew sees the company repositioning itself by ceasing to serve the whole of Wales and concentrating on the Pembrokeshire area, Rob is determined to push out. "Business is going well and expanding fast," he says. "Devon is now online and we will look at other areas of the UK."

Watch this space — a concierge service could be coming to your favourite British holiday hotspot soon.

Case studies

Dean Ryan, 46, Kate's husband

Rob's concierge service really smoothed the way for our holiday. It was brilliant to arrive and find our tent ready — and for it to be a massive luxury tent with a double bed, too. It was really pretty but it was also practical — I was particularly pleased with the array of torches and wind-up lanterns they supplied.

The activities were well delivered. The kids' street dance session was an inspired idea and Lucy, the tutor, was very bubbly — she really empathised with the children. A couple of the kids are good at street dance-style moves anyway, but Lucy didn't seem phased by the fact they wanted to do their own thing, while making sure it was enjoyable for the others.

And then there was my highlight of the week — a photography class. I'd have liked to have had a longer session, and it was a shame we couldn't do the photography at the campsite because of the bad weather. But Chris' coffee shop-cum-gallery was still a good place to pick up handy hints about my new camera. He's so familiar with how cameras work, he was able to show me quickly how to access the features.

After spending a few nights in a gale, it was fantastic Rob was able to quickly sort us a room at Wadebridge B&B. The house was lovely and we had a big airy room with a beautifully warm shower. Even though we'd been in a luxury tent, it was good to get back within four walls.

Quincy Ryan, 12, Kate's son

Unlike Mum and Dad, I had to put up a tent because I wasn't sharing with them — my tent was tiny compared with their bell tent and it didn't have the same great stuff inside.

But the camp was excellent, I was with my mates and I made new friends, too.

The kids had fun at the street-dance class. Lucy, the teacher, was good. She wasn't like, "Oh no, do this," she was like, "OK, I see where you're going."

An hour was about the right amount of time, it kept us all engaged without it becoming boring. My favourite move she taught us was the gunshot sequence. That was cool. The photography lesson was really for Dad, but Chris reminded me about some stuff with the camera, too, like how to frame a shot, and he showed me how to change the light, and do some effects. It would have been better if we'd been able to do it outside, but the weather was too bad.

It was good to have some activities to do. It wasn't like, "Here's a patch of grass, have fun." It was like, "You can do that, you can do this, you can do that…"

I'm really looking forward to camping next year and I'm already thinking about what to do. So far, I've told Mum to line up paintballing, go-karting, and laser tagging.

International concierge services

Boutique Souk: A Moroccan travel concierge formed by Rosena and Fred Charmoy. Working primarily out of Marrakech, Boutique Souk also covers other locations from the Atlas Mountains to Essaouira, using a vast list of contacts to provide a variety of experiences from cookery classes in the desert to private belly-dancing lessons. The team can even lay on a snake charmer for the kids.

IC Bellagio: A specialist company founded by Andrea Grisdale, a former tour guide who has assembled a multi-lingual team dedicated to perfecting holidays in Italy. And anything seems possible, from arranging a private viewing of the Vasari Corridor, the Medicis' hidden city walkway in Florence, to hosting a trip along the Amalfi coast in a yacht, and even securing a dinner invitation with a countess at her historic palazzo in Venice.

Adventure Temples: The international arm of Rob Pendleton's concierge-style services. After travelling the globe, he put together suggestions for luxury holidays in 36 countries across 12 regions. But his idea isn't just to suggest locations — he's compiled an exhaustive list of activities to inspire the perfect trip, handily grouped under the themes Body, Mind and Spirit.

Published in the March 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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