I’m not a Francophile… but here I am in my 60s running a startup in Paris – from my home in New York.
I took off to Europe for six months when I was turning 60 to check the top box on my bucket list – and visit old friends. Then bought a round-trip ticket to Paris armed with un petit peu (a memory, really) of high school French, sublet my apartment in Manhattan and figured out how to fit fall, winter and spring into one 50-pound suitcase and one carry-on bag.
I created a startup in Paris because I started in Paris – on my first trip to Europe, at age 14 with my grandmother. Since then, I studied abroad, married (a couple of times), raised children, and had a successful career. Then started my own startup in Paris, working from home before it was fashionable. I “matured”, but I still harbored a fantasy of ‘living in Paris’–if only for a couple of months.
While planning that six-month trip, an old friend introduced me via email to a French couple, who wanted to come to NYC. I offered them my two-bedroom apartment for one week in August. Which then surprisingly gave me permission to use their place for six weeks at the end of November. Thus began a real estate relationship that allows me to go back and forth to Paris 3 times a year – in exchange for the same one week they feel comfortable with, in NYC every other year. I got lucky.
In those first eight weeks, I became friends with some ex-pats with flexible work schedules. They teach English by the hour, which seems to be the best they can get regardless of their impressive degrees from good American universities. And were always happy to see me again every time I went back. They would greet me at the airport, take me via train into Paris, help me up the three flights of steps with my suitcases and take me everywhere I wanted to go. I never had to worry about losing my way – and nothing got lost in translation.
And so, over the years, I’ve gotten familiar with ‘my hood’ in the 19th arrondissment between the Quai and les Buttes-Chaumont. I know the wait-staff in the café on the corner; I enjoy the entrepreneurial lady who owns and runs the laundry and I’ve become friends with the girls who work at the coiffeur. I’ve watched the area gentrify when they completed the new Philharmonie, a short walk away in the Parc de la Villette, and noted the hip restaurants that are moving in and attracting a younger crowd, especially on summer weekends with our section of the Quai the other place where Parisians go for “Paris Plages.”
One day, after biking around Paris on shopping errands with one of my ex-pat friends, I came up with the idea of turning all of this invaluable help I was getting from him and his friends into a business. Why not?
I’m sure there are more independent women who like to travel but who would feel more comfortable knowing someone there. Someone who could show them around, help them translate menus, purchase train tickets, and negotiate prices. One of my first ex-pat friends, Rich, jumped at the chance to actually do something that would get him out and about Paris with visiting Americans. His buddy Madison said he was game to give ‘concierge’ a shot; my boyfriend’s daughter who was with us at the time, volunteered to do the website and set up a Facebook page… and my son, who accompanied me on one of my next trips over, offered to help us with marketing/business development… All I had to do (with my boyfriend) was commit to the initial funding.
Et voila! AmericanConcierge.com was born.
We started with airport pickups and three-hour private tours sold through our website. We still do airport pickups (greeting with croissants) but we now sell multi-day custom itineraries. Then we served 20 people our first summer and over 150 guests this past summer. And acquired a French attorney, a French COO, 6 American concierges (including some licensed guides). We also have an office in the back of a landmark church in the 19th arrondisment (where an international award-winning organist –aka, our COO– plays the organ every Sunday morning). A staff of 5 in the USA marketing and selling our services to traveling Americans. Our guests include independent women travelers, honeymooners, and businessmen on layovers. We also cater to older couples celebrating their anniversaries, multi-generational families, and girl groups.
In working with our clients we’ve learned that most Americans are comfortable booking their own airfare and hotel. However, they don’t know what to do when they get there. They know what they’re supposed to see and they want to see those things but they’d prefer to see them in unusual ways. That’s what we’ve become good at – not just seeing Paris, but experiencing Paris. Private and customized, so you can do exactly what you want to do when you want to do it.
Using ex-pats who are fluent in the language and the culture, we’ve managed to meld the French work ethic with American sensibilities. We built some of our tours around the subjects they have a passion for which allows them to share what they love best about living in Paris. And using American vendors in Paris, we’re helping them build their businesses there too.
It seems to be working. Which means we’re switching from ATM withdrawals on payday to opening up a bank account in Paris – and paying French taxes (in addition to the US taxes we already pay). We’ve worked through logistical challenges, initiated internal procedures, and are hiring more Concierges. We’re branching out into new target markets. And counting our growing number of website clicks from various sources is great brain food.
We don’t have a crystal ball to know where we’ll be a year from now, but our clients are asking us where else we are in the world. With over 6,000 hits a week on our website, we know we’ve hit a soft spot and tapped in to an interested audience.
Next stop: Berlin? You tell us …!
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The Château de Fontainebleau, just 35 miles southeast of central Paris, can proudly claim to have been a sovereign residence for eight centuries. Capétiens, Valois, Bourbons, Bonaparte and Orléans, all members of French ruling dynasties, have lived within these walls. The chateau dates back to 1137—and centuries of royals have expanded this former royal hunting lodge to a more than 1,500-room estate. Most of what you’ll see dates back to the 16th century, a combination of Italian Renaissance art and French design, these rooms are some of the most intricate and breathtaking in France. If times allows, you can enjoy lunch in this charming area.
Tour Length: 5 – 6 hours