San Diego Business Journal

BY LIZBETH SCORDO

When Los Angeles business executive Adam Carroll wanted to see the band Cream in London earlier this year, he made one phone call , and within 48 hours he had it all.

Seventh-row center seats, first-class airline tickets, a Rolls-Royce pickup at Heathrow, an upgraded suite at the stately Lanesborough Hotel, and dinner reservations at two acclaimed restaurants.

A British Airways purser even handed Carroll a compact disc player and an array of Cream CDs for the flight over.

Carroll isn't famous, nor does he have a staff of full-time servants. But he is one of 125 members who pay $15,000 a year to belong to Mint Lifestyle, a Los Angeles luxury travel and concierge service.

"We could have set it up ourselves," said Carroll about the London trip, which ultimately cost him and his wife about $18,000. "But it would have cost more and been more challenging. They came up with things we didn't even know about."

Brothers Steven and Gordon MacGeachy, along with their staff of 13, help their clients with just about everything , as long as it's legal.

Member requests have been a colorful mixed bag since Mint Lifestyle opened two years ago.

Secure a reservation to an obscure restaurant in Spain that's only open four months a year? Set up a vacation on a private yacht? Find the best dermatologist in South Florida? Arrange for a snowmobile to be towed out of a ravine? Done.

"Where's the best suite and what table to sit at in the restaurant, even where should you be sitting on the beach," said Gordon MacGeachy. "These are things our members want to know."

Typically, requests can be fulfilled with little outside help, but occasionally the MacGeachys use what they call an "escalation process." That's when the request goes out to everyone in the company. If they still hit a brick wall, it's taken outside to those who have contacts at hotels, restaurants and other hot spots.

And what are some of the hardest "gets?" Right now, front-row seats to "The Odd Couple" in New York, as well as dinner reservations at Per Se in New York and the French Laundry in Napa. Some Mint clients request more unusual experiences, such as a private meeting with Nelson Mandela and singing lessons with an opera diva.

The brothers, who were both born and raised in Scotland, came to the United States (Gordon in 1985, Steven in 1991) to open North American operations of their family's hydrogen fuel business in Chicago.

After the company was sold off in 1997, Gordon left to sell real estate on Los Angeles' Westside, later managing eight properties for a wealthy European family. Steven, who had spent the better part of 10 years traveling for the business, got to know high-end hotel general managers and began networking with the well-connected.

After years of doling out recommendations and helping family and friends snag reservations, the MacGeachys decided to make it a living. They sent solicitations to 5,500 households in Southern California with homes valued at $2.5 million or more and wound up with four clients who paid an initial annual fee of $12,000. "They trusted and believed in us, but we had to prove ourselves. It was a leap of faith," recalled Gordon MacGeachy.

The original plan was to sign up 1,000 members, but eventually they dropped that target to 250. They now have 125, about half of whom live in Los Angeles. Steven MacGeachy said keeping membership small came out of his frustration with American Express' premium Centurion card program.

"When they set up the Centurion card, looking after 1,000 special people, it probably worked for them," he said. "But today, Centurion members are in the tens of thousands. You cannot be special for tens of thousands of people."

American Express would not disclose the number of Centurion members it has, but denies MacGeachy's claim that it's in the tens of thousands.

"That statement couldn't be more false," said company spokeswoman Monica Beaupre, who added that the Black card is by invitation only (it costs $2,500 per year and requires annual expenditures of at least $250,000). "We have been in the business of offering extraordinary benefits and services to our customers for over 20 years. Imitation is the best form of flattery."

The brothers have promised their clients that the annual fee will remain at $15,000 through the end of 2006, but the price will likely go up after that once the company reaches its 250-member mark and closes its doors to new clients. (There is no limit on the number of requests, but even the most active users seldom use the service more than a few times a week.)

In a business where contacts mean almost everything, Mint's account executives, several of them former personal assistants to A-list celebrities or chief executive officers, come with their own substantial Rolodexes.

Besides three travel agents, the company has also hired a full-time researcher, a food and wine expert, and a customer service representative who follows up with clients after a request is filled.

Ingenuity is sometimes key. When a member requested a table at New York's Rosa Mexicano restaurant on Cinco de Mayo, an outside connection was used to find someone who knew the restaurant's owner.

"We explained the situation, who we were, and what we were looking for. He was so impressed with us and our effort that he granted the reservation," said Steven MacGeachy.

Lizbeth Scordo writes for the Los Angeles Business Journal.