Global Ambassador Concierge
Vincent A. Wolfington is Founder and Managing Member of Global Ambassador Concierge, a white-glove organization based in Beijing and Shanghai that delivers exceptional concierge service to business, leisure and diplomatic visitors to China. As the immediate Past Chairman of the World Travel & Tourism Council, former Chairman of the Board and CEO of Carey International, Inc. (the leading worldwide chauffeured vehicle services company), and through his involvement with Air Chef (a leading private jet catering and cuisine service), he certainly knows how to deliver elite services to VIPs worldwide. We caught up with him recently to discuss high-end travel to China in the post-Olympics era.
ET: How does your background in executive transport and international tourism inform what you do at Ambassador Concierge?
Vincent Wolfington: As you know, Carey Limousine is the world’s premier chauffeur-drive company, which is regarded as the one to call when high-achievers want consistently reliable and professional service. As CEO of Carey for over 30 years, I worked with our president, Don Dailey, to develop a culture of service that focused not only on the “needs” but the “wants” of the professionals who are our customers. The people at Carey developed a keen understanding related to the importance of putting forth the extra effort and establishing a brand that delivers on the promise. We are bringing the luxury of that experience and know-how as well as that vision to Ambassador Concierge services in China.
Furthermore, when I was Chairman of the World Travel & Tourism Council, I had the benefit of seeing how the private sector can work effectively with governments. To that end, we understand the potential related to the development of career paths through education and training programs that enhance skills. China is a developing country that is growing; consequently, Global Ambassador Concierge is taking advantage of a unique opportunity to work with the public sector education system through Tsinghua University in Beijing to bring education training programs to the people in China. Our program will facilitate China’s development of their understanding and know-how with respect to the provision of world-class service.
The growth of the use of private aircraft in the U.S. captured the attention of my son Mark Wolfington with the result that we invested in Air Chef, a company which provides catering services to private aircraft. Today, Air Chef has distinguished itself as the largest caterer of lifestyle products to the private aircraft owners in the U.S. and Europe. They provide a cross-section of cuisine with multiple kitchens and service centers around the country. The growth in demand for this luxurious lifestyle continues to trend upward. Some analysts suggest that China’s growth path will in many ways mimic the growth path of the U.S. consumer markets including the private jet industry.
ET: When did you decide to develop Ambassador Concierge in China? Did you have any specific liaison experiences that led to your decision?
Vincent Wolfington: While Chairman of the World Travel & Tourism Council, I worked with many representatives from both the government and business sectors in China. That work required visits to China where I observed that although China was making a significant investment in the “hardware of infrastructure” in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, they were still in the embryonic stages of developing the “software of service” in accordance with international standards. It occurred to me that there would be a need for a service level capability that caters to high-end travelers similar to the services that Carey provides in the chauffeured vehicle service business throughout the world. The name, Ambassador Concierge, really represents what we do. The name Ambassador refers to an Ambassador of Goodwill who acts as the face of China with local knowledge as well as cultural knowledge of the customs and traditions. The name Concierge really refers to the idea of a “personal assistant” that can perform all the functions of a concierge including scheduling, shopping, providing VIP access to restaurants, fine arts and art galleries.
ET: Have you always been interested in delivering VIP services? How did you start?
Vincent Wolfington: When I was a young man, as a member of a family of nine children, in order to keep us busy during the summer, my father invested in a hotel/restaurant business at a resort on the South Jersey Shore. He was a believer in service with style, and he taught us to anticipate customer needs; to embrace a frame of mind that is prerequisite to being able understand the high-end luxury lifestyle, and have fun in doing what we do. So I learned at an early age to think about the customer and what the customer expects. Later, after college, I worked at the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York. At that time, the banks were very focused on being of service to the community and to their customers. Chase was one of the lead banks that emphasized being at the top of the service game. When I arrived at Carey, the company had a tradition and a brand name that was synonymous with luxury and high-end service going back to the 1920s. Our idea was to expand the number of Carey cities and to focus on providing consistently reliable and dependable service throughout the world.
ET: The businesses you’ve been involved in, like Carey and Air Chef, tend to elevate and raise the bar for already existing industries….what’s the secret to “making a better mousetrap?”
Vincent Wolfington: Of course, one of the challenges in any business is for all the members of the business organization to have a clear understanding of just what their business is. You have to define what you do, how you’re going to do it, and why you’re doing it the way you’re doing it. That understanding is fundamental to building a brand. In the service business, the better mousetrap is marked by five attributes that will meet customer expectations:
-Confidence and trust in your service capability.
-Customer peace of mind…to the extent that they feel comfortable that they will be served by certified professionals who adhere to the highest service standards.
-Recognition: the customer wants the service provider to be familiar with their personal profile and preferences so that they can be understood and met.
-Time sensitivity in terms of recognizing that high achievers manage their activities efficiently and they need you to help maximize their use of time.
-Lastly, local knowledge and expertise, which facilitates easy access to high-end products and services.
ET: What are the most important things a first-time elite visitor to mainland China needs to keep in mind?
Vincent Wolfington: Visiting China can be an extremely educational and rewarding experience. However, there are quite a few challenges that may arise due to language barriers, cultural differences and other factors that are unique to this vast and diverse country. I believe that it is important for Westerners to approach China with the attitude that they would rather “understand” the Chinese and their way of life than be understood by them. That is always a good starting point. Global Ambassador Concierge meets these challenges when it caters to business and leisure travelers by providing the following service ingredients:
-Personal Assistant: Scheduling and Shopping
-Translation: English and Chinese
-Concierge Service : Chauffeured Cars, Restaurants and Clubs
-Cultural Aficionado: Cuisine and Etiquette
-Local Expert: History, Fine Arts and Jewelry
ET: Aside from starting new businesses, do you have any hobbies?
Vincent Wolfington: Of course, keeping busy and attempting to be productive has a tendency to concentrate the mind. For my part, I have found that executives who work in for-profit companies can derive a different and rewarding experience from working with non-profit entities. The non-profits orientation to business and practices are different. Consequently, exposure to the non-profits can result in insights that can be useful in one’s own business, which makes it fun. In my free time, I enjoy playing golf and tennis as well as hanging-out with my friends and children.
ET: When you travel for pleasure, what are your favorite destinations and hotels and resorts?
Vincent Wolfington: That is quite a question! Today, throughout the world, there are so many wonderful destinations with impeccable high-end facilities, including the United States, Central and Latin America, Europe, the Gulf States, as well as in the Far East. My wife and I are especially fond of New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles in the U.S.; we really enjoy London and Paris, as well as the Riviera in Europe, and we love Dubai and Qatar as Gulf States. Also, we really enjoy Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Macau.
ET: Do you travel by private jet? Can you summarize your experience for us?
Vincent Wolfington: I travel both by commercial and by private jet. First, once you get accustomed to private jets, it is difficult to use commercial transportation. In many respects, the use of a private jet and the benefit related to it are quite like the use of a chauffeured vehicle. Once you use it, you don’t want to give it up. My experience has always been very favorable in the use of the private jets. The benefits cannot be overrated in terms of privacy, time management, and productivity.
ET: Moving forward, what are your plans for Ambassador Concierge? Will there be more cities served by your organization?
Vincent Wolfington: We started out targeting both Beijing and Shanghai for the purpose of establishing a service capability with a first-mover advantage. Consequently, we recognize the importance of establishing a recognized brand-name in the minds of the Chinese, as well as in the minds of visitors from outside of China. Today, we are there. Our next step is to expand Ambassador Concierge into additional cities in China and to offer the same type of service in select cities in the United States for visiting Chinese. The challenge of language and culture for Westerners when they visit China also is a challenge for Chinese when they visit the U.S.
ET: What is the single biggest challenge you face when you hire local staff? What training do you provide?
Vincent Wolfington: There are many challenges for someone from the West when doing business in China, especially with respect to hiring local staff. The Chinese, by custom, are hard workers and diligent learners. If you can motivate them through development of a close-working relationship they will respond positively to the opportunity to advance their skills and know-how. Of course, being able to speak and understand English is a challenge to the Chinese. Although it is a subject matter in most schools, the assessment of the various grades that are assigned as evidence of qualification to speak English relies more on the use of words rather than fluency. So the major challenge is being sure that you employ people who can speak and communicate fluently in English. Our training involves both a formal training program with work in the classroom and also outside the classroom. In the classroom we provide instruction and exercises related to cross cultural communication and management as well as professional presentation. In addition we spend time outside the classroom so the participants can actually see a service provider in terms of what they do, how they do it, and why they do it the way that they do it. For instance, we arranged to bring our initial staff from Beijing and Shanghai to the United States so they could live the life of a high-end customer. In China, they do not know first-class service because they have not seen it. We rationalized that it was important to provide our Chinese staff with an living experience which tracked the service to which high achievers are accustomed. That program turned out to have been of very helpful.
In terms of training with respect to service in accordance with international standards, we place significant emphasis on 5 Touch Points which reflect the capability of our Ambassador Concierges.
-Adequate knowledge to facilitate the efficient and productive use of time, especially as it relates to scheduling and travel time between destinations within the city.
-A expert resource with in depth knowledge of restaurants, cuisine offerings access with VIP treatment.
-A capability to sensitize our customers about local business customs and traditions.
-An informed guide who knows the local territory and is familiar with where to shop without being taken advantage of for both retail goods and other items.
-An educated companion who can provide information about cultural sites which may be of personal interest to our customer.
ET: If you weren’t involved with international tourism, what kind of alternative career would you have had?
Vincent Wolfington: I think it would be fun to be a writer covering both fiction and travel. There are so many interesting developments that are being driven by globalization, one could spend a lifetime just trying to keep up with all of it.